Fionnbharr Rodgers on the legacy of John Redmond. Photo Source: The Irish Times.
Fionnbharr Rodgers, Contributor.
In the decade of centenaries, it stands to reason that some will be commemorated with greater efforts and zeal, and others may pass by with a simple ‘huh’ exchanged over the Sunday paper. The centenary of the death of John Redmond, on 6th March 1918, seems to have fallen closer to the latter sentiment.
So it was that the morning of Sunday 15th April might have passed by next to unnoticed by anyone who does not read their newspaper with an eagle eye that would require medical attention in the first place.
Among those speaking in Wexford Town Library, in Redmond’s home county, was Uachtarán Michael D. Higgins, who described Redmond as a ‘patriot and a courageous politician,’ who in his time had come to be seen as ‘representing the Irish nation itself’ as did Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell, and as does Higgins himself, today.
This view of Redmond stands opposed to the tide of contemporary nationalist political thought which was established by the general election campaign of 1918, when Sinn Féin accused the Irish Parliamentary Party of being shoneens, seduced by the wicked ways of Westminster, who had sold out on Mother Ireland. The result of that election, and the few years before and after it, is that Redmond and his party were later dropped from Irish political consciousness, and militant Republicanism became the dominant force of Irish nationalism.
There is a certain poignancy, however, in the otherwise random falling of the date of the Wexford event, as it aligned quite snugly with the twentieth anniversary of the Agreement which has largely vindicated the principles upon which his career was based.
After a century of bigotry and bloodshed, from neighbour against neighbour, it has been something of a trauma for political blocs in Northern Ireland to adjust to peace. ‘Legacy’ issues continue to divide as conversations devolve into pipes and slogans of whatabouttery; and, consequently, cultural issues are spoken of along the grounds of a ‘not an inch; no surrender’ exchange of dialogue.
A long process of transformation was established from Sinn Féin signing the Good Friday Agreement, accepting that only the democratic will of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland can establish Irish unity. Arguably this transformation began when Provisional Sinn Féin abandoned abstentionism in Dáil Éireann in 1970; and then in Stormont in 1998.
Under these circumstances Redmond, as well as the century prior to his leadership, should be revisited and re-evaluated, and there is more to his views that may appeal to northern nationalists than he is generally given credit for, as he was one of the few southern leaders with a coherent plan of action regarding the north; the other was Michael Collins, and that’s where that comparison ends.
Through Edward Carson’s leadership, it had become evident that unionists could not be shoe-horned in to a Home Rule deal, and the notion of partition- by some measure, as a temporary solution- was becoming more of a reality. The irony is that the north ended up with Home Rule; although it certainly wasn’t Rome Rule.
Under such a reality, and by Redmond’s guidance had he had lived in more senses than mere electoral arithmetic, Irish Party MPs would maintain their presence in Westminster, though at a reduced rate, and perhaps even take their seats in the British cabinet. This would be in order to scrutinise the treatment of northern Catholics by a sectarian unionist majority and a naturally disinterested British government. Cabinet positions had been offered to Irish Party members before, as the long-established king-makers, a role which has ironically been bequeathed to the Democratic Unionist Party, but the Irish Party had always refused such offers so long as the British government continued to refuse Home Rule.
As it was, Redmond died early in March 1918, his party died later on in December, and his country would fall into a conflict which would come to define the next century. But now peace has been achieved and constitutional nationalism has been restored to the forefront of Irish political thought; to illustrate this point, Denis Bradley at the commemoration of the Good Friday Agreement at Queen’s last month described dissident paramilitaries as ‘like Teddy boys at a rave.’
The time is ripe for Redmond to be revisited, as he, along with O’Connell, Parnell, and also John Hume, demonstrate how political ambitions can be achieved through working within the reality in which you currently live; working to adapt it rather than standing still and demanding that it adapts itself. This is not just a lesson which would do well to be learnt in Ireland, but the world over, as too often in political life it seems that the complacency of being on ‘the right side of history’ has replaced the will to persuade the rest of the world to join you on that track.