An Irishman's Diary
Homo sapiens is a violent species, and the recent row about Patrick Pearse shows how violence is still revered even in a country which it has debauched. Pearse's numb-skulled observation about killing the wrong people to begin with rings today through the weasel-worded, self-serving apologia recently offered by the murderous Patrick Magee for his own evil deeds in Brighton.
But such a reverence of violence is not a monopoly held solely by Irish Republicanism Inc. The person whom Magee tried to reduce to molecular form, Margaret Thatcher, was in her own way a woman of violence. To be sure, I am not comparing like with like, and there is and can be no comparison between those who employ violence constitutionally, by the due process of law, and those who illegally usurp the state's monopoly over violence. Yet that aside, who but a person with a terrifyingly clear-eyed willingness to take life could have ordered the second torpedo to be fired into the already stricken Belgrano?
Redmond and Pearse
We have known since Troy that organised violence captivates the human imagination. So John Redmond, who by measured tread and careful word negotiated Ireland to the brink of a peaceful freedom, remains largely forgotten outside this column and a few baronies in Waterford, while in the Taoiseach's office, a picture of Pearse gazes daily upon Bertie Ahern's furrowed brow. Yet my other great hero of the last century, Neville Chamberlain, is perhaps even more traduced by British nationalist historians than Redmond is by their Irish equivalents (for after all, Fianna Fail are at bottom Irish Tories).
Do not judge Chamberlain by his irritatingly precious accent or his curious mannerisms, but by his deeds. When Irish patriots were revealing their municipal pride by laying waste their capital city in 1916, he revealed his pride in his birthplace of Birmingham by founding there the world's first municipal bank for working people.
Chamberlain loathed war, and he knew enough about the temper of the British people and the fighting skills of the British army in the 1930s to realise that a pre-emptive strike against the rising menace of fascism simply was not politically or militarily possible. Virtuous military adventures with an instrument as slothful and doctrinally backward as the British army of those days would have achieved nothing but the consolidation of the fascist despots in the countries they ruled. That was the lesson from the doomed allied intervention in the new Soviet Union in 1919. It is a lesson since learned by the US at the Bay of Pigs and by Iraq in its war with Iran. Outsiders who attack a revolution merely strengthen it.
Britain could no more stop the rising power of the Third Reich than could the Irish Free State, not least because there was no political appetite for such intervention. Nor was there in France. Cis-Carpathia, only one people retained the stomach for another world war: the Germans. So why is Chamberlain so derided for his Munich settlement? If the Czechs were not prepared to fight to maintain the integrity of their state - and they weren't - why should teenage conscripts from his native Birmingham be expected to die in defence of Sudetenland's border marshes?
Chamberlain's mood was Britain's mood. Was he so wrong to go so such lengths to avoid a war which in due course would turn out to be the darkest affair in human history? Was not almost anything better than what happened - Europe's Jewry almost exterminated, 27 million USSR citizens dead, the major cities of a score of countries turned into charnel houses, and totalitarian communism unleashed from its Soviet cage onto half the globe? Should the man who tried to avoid that catastrophe, albeit vainly, not then be hailed as a hero, down all the decades to come?
But of course he isn't. Realists seldom are. Mere realism, unstained by the glamour of bloodshed and free of the primate's adrenalin howl, is the most reviled of all the virtues. Yet his realism was vindicated in a war in which German armies routinely routed British armies unless outnumbered by four or five to one. Britain (or France or any great democracy) could not put a mass army in the field to meet and match the soldiers of a despotism. Civility had become the abiding power within western European democracies; and civility, with its regard for human life, especially one's own, is a true enemy of the warrior caste.
Sixty years ago this week, Neville Chamberlain, after loyally serving the ferociously warlike Winston Churchill - who had earlier done so much to undermine Chamberlain's own premiership - was about to resign from the British cabinet. Like Redmond a generation before, his attempts to pilot his country intact and unscathed through storm-lashed waters had failed. Like Redmond, his last days in political life were spent preparing himself for actual death.
But just as Redmond's day is slowly coming, so in due course will Chamberlain's. To be sure, he made errors - a declaration of war over Poland, which had earlier joined in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and to which he was similarly unable to give any military assistance, still makes absolutely no sense. He could not have known that Hitler, a blunderer of almost divinely inspired genius, would in time rescue the British by declaring war not merely on the USSR but the US as well. Poor Neville. He deserves to be remembered for what he was: one of the most decent and honourable men ever to hold high office anywhere. At least in a corner of Co Kildare, he has one admirer.