Diarmaid Ferriter: Ireland is haunted by the phrase ‘by any means necessary’
It contributed to partition, ongoing strife and a sense of unfinished business
The British prime minister, Boris Johnson. Photograph: Simon Dawson/EPA
Addressing the House of Commons 100 years ago on the thorny subject of Anglo-Irish relations, British prime minister David Lloyd George asserted, “There is a path of fatality which pursues the relations between the two countries and makes them eternally at cross-purposes.”
How those words still resonate today. Lloyd George was speaking in the context of the impending partition of Ireland; two years later, with the Border a reality and the Anglo-Irish Treaty signed to create the new southern Irish Free State, he erroneously boasted “we’ve got rid of” the Irish question, adding that in relation to Ulster “we have emancipated her”.
He had done neither, of course; if he had, we might be looking at Brexit somewhat less portentously. If we needed more reminders of the ghosts of a century ago, we got them aplenty during the week. The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, we read, has set up a “war cabinet” to deliver Brexit “by any means necessary”, in a calculated effort to ratchet up tensions and expectations.
Versions of that phrase, by any means necessary, belonged to Ireland a century ago. Ulster unionists choreographed a remarkable show of defiance in opposing home rule for Ireland in September 1912; all over Ulster, men and women, numbering in total 471,414, signed a solemn league and covenant, promising to “stand by one another in defending for ourselves and our children our cherished position of equal citizenship in the United Kingdom and in using all means which may be found necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a home rule parliament in Ireland”.
Six years later, Sinn Féin unveiled its general election manifesto, promising to use “any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise”. The propaganda effort inevitably thrived on absolutes: Sinn Féin, for example, stressed the gulf between Britain and Ireland as one between “inner purity and external corruption”, while unionists in Ulster declared “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”.
The entrenchments ensured none could deliver their promises or vindicate their supposed purity. Unionists abandoned their southern brethren and ironically accepted a version of home rule, while southern republicans tore themselves apart over the treaty that kept southern Ireland a dominion of the British empire. In the midst of the zero-sum propaganda game, politicians and activists often became exhilarated and delusional until certain realities dawned.
What followed was the humiliation of Churchill with the failed Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns in 1915
It is tempting to conclude the same will happen with regard to Brexit, but that is by no means certain. Sometimes, the exhilaration endures to define the course of action, particularly on the part of those with a political temperament driven by danger. As the first World War loomed, Winston Churchill wrote to his wife, Clementine: “Everything trends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?” What followed was the humiliation of Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, with the failed Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaigns in 1915. Those who idolise Churchill, including Johnson, prefer to view him through the prism of much later, but they should remind themselves of his own “path of fatality”.
What we do know is that the “any means necessary” mentalities in Ireland a century ago, along with British self-interest, led to partition, ongoing strife and a sense of unfinished business. We also know that absolutes were diluted and some form of special arrangement for Northern Ireland was necessary to prevent even greater strife. The enduring relevance of those realities is obvious.
Southern Ireland sought, over time, to build alliances in order to lessen the focus on the Anglo-Irish connection, most obviously through embracing Europe. That made sense. Indeed some, including former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald, argued that an Ireland integrated with Europe did not signify a dilution of sovereignty, but a vindication of it because it would diminish dependence on the UK, which was important psychologically and politically, and a shared interest in a European alliance would minimise internal differences in Ireland between North and South.
But that too, is only part of the story; as was recognised by historian Desmond Williams the same decade we joined the EEC, for a small state, foreign policy “cannot be a single grand design”. The recent EU solidarity has been gratifying, and the Irish Government is correct in rejecting the juvenile bile emanating from London, but neither should we get trapped by a zero-sum game that might make a reality of the very things we want to avoid. The focus needs to be shifted back to a solution based on a withdrawal agreement that means Northern Ireland can be treated differently than the rest of the UK; an Ulster emancipation that reflects the expressed desire of its electorate, the spirit of the Belfast Agreement and a rejection of absolutes.