Shadow of 1917 Irish Convention hangs over Brexit
Debates around free trade and customs barriers as key 100 years ago as now
Former taoiseach John Bruton: has commented on the irony that, 100 years on, it is the bulk of unionists who want to exit from the customs union and free trade area of the EU, regardless of the economic cost, while nationalist Ireland is almost unanimous in its desire to ensure free trade continues. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
Picture the scene. A gathering of civic society leaders from all parts of Ireland, and a few leading politicians, attempting to find a way to preserve an island without borders in a rapidly changing world.
The vexed question of customs duties and tariffs is one of the big issues. Dominating everything is the fundamental incompatibility of nationalist and unionist hardliners, frustrating the efforts of moderates on both sides to find an accommodation.
Just to make things more difficult, Sinn Féin decides to boycott the attempt to find a compromise while northern unionists do everything they can to sabotage the prospect of an all-encompassing agreement.
The issues and attitudes may sound familiar but all this happened a century ago in summer 1917, when the Irish Convention met in Trinity College Dublin. It was a last-ditch effort to find agreement for some form of Irish self-government on a 32-county basis that would avoid the threats of violence and partition.
A fascinating symposium to mark the centenary of the convention took place in Trinity College recently at which some eminent retired political figures and leading academics gave their assessment of the events of 100 years ago.
The convention which carried on its work for almost a year was, with hindsight, doomed from the start but the fact that some of its central concerns are still with us today exposes the underlying difficulties that confront politicians on all sides attempting to find solutions to difficult problems.
The Irish Convention was the last throw of the dice for Irish Party leader John Redmond who, just three years earlier, had achieved his dream of getting the British parliament to enact Home Rule for Ireland.
From triumph to disaster
By 1917, that triumph was already turning to disaster. The first World War was dragging on and on and, more importantly, the 1916 Rising prompted a radical shift in nationalist opinion that was reflected in Sinn Féin byelection victories over the Irish Party.
Redmond was the most prominent politician at the convention which included Catholic and Church of Ireland bishops, leading businessmen and members of the aristocracy, farmers, trade unionists and representatives from all of the county councils.
At the opening of the centenary symposium, former taoiseach John Bruton and former Fianna Fáil minister Martin Mansergh made the point that the issue of free trade versus customs barriers played a much bigger part in the arguments of 100 years ago than is generally recognised.
At that stage it was Irish nationalists of both the constitutional and republican traditions who wanted to exit from the customs union of the United Kingdom while such a move was vehemently opposed by unionists. The power to erect customs barriers was regarded as one of the essential marks of independence.
Bruton commented on the irony of the fact that, 100 years later, it is the bulk of unionists who want to exit from the customs union and free trade area of the European Union, regardless of the economic cost, while nationalist Ireland is almost unanimous in its desire to ensure that free trade continues.
Reversal of positions
This reversal of positions reflects the fact that the south of Ireland now has a vibrant economy based on free trade while Northern Ireland has suffered a serious economic decline and is totally reliant on subsidies from the British exchequer.
Mansergh also reflected on this reversal of positions over the course of the century. He suggested that the most plausible ground for unionist opposition to Irish independence of whatever variety was the nationalist demand for fiscal autonomy and in particular the control of customs.
He told his audience he had recently come across a 1939 letter from Church of Ireland bishop John MacNeice to his father which was highly critical of a lecture in Belfast by Frank Pakenham. MacNeice agreed that, in time, the Border should go but he pointed to the devastating impact on the North’s economy of adopting the protectionist regime then in force in the South.
If positions on free trade have been reversed over the century the basic divide between nationalists and unionists has persisted regardless of economic self-interest. For every step forward, there always seems to be a corresponding step backwards.
Just after the 1916 Rising, a tentative agreement was finally reached between John Redmond and the unionists’ leader, Edward Carson, on the immediate introduction of 26-county Home Rule and temporary exclusion for six counties. This was shot down by southern unionists and their allies in the British Conservative party.
At the convention a year later to see if there was any way of reconciling nationalist and unionist aspirations on an all-island basis, it was southern unionists who were prepared to compromise with constitutional nationalism but the northern unionists were not. The failure of the convention paved the way for the violent solutions that emerged from 1919 to 1923.
The current challenge facing politicians North and South, as well as the Irish and British governments, is to ensure that all of the progress and understanding achieved since the Belfast Agreement of 1998 is not frittered away in a messy Brexit that sees the re-emergence of a hard border and even harder mindsets.