Can we have our money back?

Garret FitzGerald

  • The Unresolved Question by Nicholas Mansergh
    Yale, 386 pp, £18.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 300 05069 0

The subtitle of this book is ‘The Anglo-Irish Settlement and its Undoing 1912-1973’. But the great bulk of the book is devoted to the settlement itself – the Treaty of 1921, its background and its immediate aftermath. By contrast, the section on the undoing of the settlement is relatively brief: indeed, the period from the declaration of a republic in 1949 to the fall of Stormont in 1972 is dealt with by way of an epilogue of ten short pages, and even the treatment of the earlier events of 1948-49 is relatively cursory. That is a criticism, however, of the description of the book rather than of the book itself. The account of the course of events between 1912 and 1925 which it contains lives up to the expectations aroused by the late Professor Mansergh’s eminence in this field of history, and though one might have wished for a fuller treatment of the subsequent half-century, what he has to say of this aftermath contains much that is thought-provoking and acute.

In the introduction Dr Mansergh himself describes the book as in some way a sequel to his earlier work on ‘the Irish Question 1840-1920’, and, more specifically, as ‘a series of essays in politico-historical analysis, concerned with unravelling the origins of the settlement; the interplay of concepts, interests and personalities which finally shaped it; the nature and purposes it was intended to serve; the measure of its success or failure in achieving them; and the circumstances of its undoing’.

Some historical works induce, whatever may have been the author’s intentions, a sense of inevitability – a feeling that events simply had to happen this way and that nothing could have diverted them from the course they actually took. Others constantly evoke questions of what might have been. This book belongs principally to the former category. Only in the early stages of the story is one encouraged to speculate as to whether, if one of the two favourites in the Balfour succession stakes – Austen Chamberlain or Walter Long – had emerged from the Conservative and Unionist Party leadership election of 13 November 1911, rather than a ‘compromise’ leader, the Canadian Ulsterman Andrew Bonar Law, events might perhaps have had a different outcome. Bonar Law was a compromise candidate who, in Professor Mansergh’s words, ‘lacked all disposition to compromise on Irish affairs’, and who on his election as leader ‘committed himself with no apparent hesitation to an extreme course in support of Ulster Unionism’.

Would Chamberlain or Long – albeit strong Unionists both – have been willing to go as far as Law took his party: telling the King’s Private Secretary, in January 1914, that if the Liberal Government failed to call an election on the Home Rule Bill, they must ‘prepare for the consequences of civil war’? It was this letter, Asquith told Redmond a week later, that had convinced the King that such a conflict was a real danger, leading Asquith himself to fear that a defeat in the Lords for the annual Army Bill might lead the King to feel it appropriate to dismiss his ministers, a course that had not been taken by the monarch since the reign of William IV, and one that few had up to then believed would ever again be pursued by the Crown.

Professor Mansergh’s own view is that the Home Rule settlement of 1914, which almost inevitably led to the division of Ireland, and all that flowed from that, was not determined by Ulster Unionist preparations to resist Home Rule by force, but rather by Bonar Law’s threat of civil war in Britain and by the fear that the democratic development of the Victorian era might be reversed by a monarch concerned above all to stave off such a tragedy.

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