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.

I am not sure that the Conservative Party of the Seventies and Eighties has appreciated – in either sense of the word! – the irony of having had to reap most of the bitter harvest of what its Unionist predecessor sowed in 1912-1914. (It is, incidentally, as the ‘Unionist Party’ that the party in opposition in those crucial three years consistently features in this book right up to 1925, the term ‘Conservative’ being employed only twice in relation to this period: once by way of juxtaposition with the word ‘Liberal’, and once in a quotation.)

There is no similar speculation here as to whether events might have turned out differently if the Rising of 1916 had not taken place: but then this is a book written very much from an English viewpoint. Indeed, 1916 itself is dealt with somewhat curiously only as an episode in Birrell’s life, and as seen through his correspondence. The manner in which, in the aftermath of General Maxwell’s executions, the British Government reacted to 1916 – an episode that does not feature in the Irish folk memory of the period – is, however, extensively treated.

The main criticism I would make of this book is one I would level against many other works on this period: the absence of any sense of the economic background to the Anglo-Irish relationship in this century. This is most obvious, perhaps, when the question of the size of the area in the north-east of Ireland to be excluded from a Home Rule Ireland, or, later, from an Irish Dominion, is addressed. The conventional wisdom at the time, on both sides of the North-South divide, was that a Northern Ireland significantly smaller than six counties would not be ‘viable’. It may well be that for some people at the time this concept of ‘viability’ was a notional administrative one, based on the belief that a smaller area would not ‘deserve’ an administration of its own. If so, it seems odd that any such concept could have taken such strong hold in a state like Britain which has seen no problem about separate administrations for such tiny areas as the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, and even Sark.

It seems clear, however, that for many people, including the leaders of the Treaty delegation, the concept in question was one of economic viability: they believed that a Boundary Commission award would, on the basis of the wishes of people in the areas in question, hand back a large proportion of Northern Ireland to the new Irish state – and both they and the Unionist leaders of Northern Ireland believed that what would then remain would be incapable of economic survival. It was this that made the Boundary Commission Report crucial for both sides. But the reality was – and remains – that the areas that would have been lost to Northern Ireland had the Boundary Commission performed as was generally expected are precisely the economically weaker areas of the new political unit. Had it been re-partitioned in the way most people thought would happen, Northern Ireland would have been relieved of the burden of financing the less prosperous western and southern parts of the area, and thus ended up economically stronger, not weaker. And yet Professor Mansergh, like many other political historians, seems to have accepted without question the conventional wisdom – if that is the word for it – on this point.

As it happens, the economic dimensions of Irish independence as well as of Partition have rarely been addressed. In retrospect, the economic case for Irish independence can be seen to have been stronger than even advocates of independence at the time believed. For although economists, overwhelmingly committed today to the ideology of free trade, are still reluctant to admit the fact, it can be convincingly argued that in the early part of this century, Ireland, outside the industrialised north-eastern corner, needed a period of industrial protection to develop a manufacturing base and to train its predominantly agricultural labour force in manufacturing skills. It is simply not credible to suggest that Ireland would today be a major exporter of electrical goods, computers and chemicals (which together account for 40 per cent of the value of its exports), if it had attempted to build a modern industrial capacity of this type on the exclusively agricultural and food-processing base which is all that would have existed if independence had not made possible an intermediate stage of industrial protection. Arthur Griffith, the apostle of Irish separatism in the first two decades of the century and the first leader of an independent Irish government, was surely right to have made a period of industrial protection a crucial plank of his nationalist platform.

The second economic argument for Irish independence is a matter of pure hindsight – presenting a case that no one in the first half of the century could conceivably have made. We know now that during this century the British economy has grown at a rate only three-fifths that of the rest of Western Europe. Political independence has made it possible for the Irish state to join the European Community in its own right, and so to link itself directly to the much more dynamic Continental market, thereby accelerating dramatically the expansion of its exports. Moreover, within six years of accession Ireland was able through participation in the EMS to link its currency with the Deutschmark rather than sterling, and thus in the late Eighties to reduce its interest rates far below the British level.

These two factors, together with the differences between Irish and British economic interests which have become strikingly evident within the European Community, have provided powerful retrospective validation of the highly subjective Irish decision to separate from Britain earlier in the century.

In this connection it is particularly important to note that it independence was the best solution for Ireland, then it was of vital importance for two unconnected reasons that it be achieved in the first third of this century. The first reason – again ex post facto – is that if independence had not been achieved by, say, 1930, there simply would not have been sufficient time before joining the European Community to establish a protected manufacturing sector, and then to phase out this protection and to re-orientate the newly-established manufacturing sector successfully towards export markets, as was in fact done in Ireland during the Sixties.

The second reason independence needed to be achieved in the first third of this century is more complex. To understand it one has to go back to the findings of the Royal Commission on Financial Relations in the mid-Nineties. That Commission found that during much of the period since the Union of 1801 the revenue drawn by Britain from Ireland had been three to four times greater than local expenditure by Britain in Ireland. This was true even after the inclusion as local expenditure of the cost of the RIC, which both Peel and Goschen had identified as being more appropriately an Imperial charge because of that force’s political role. Even in 1889, revenue drawn from Ireland still exceeded local spending by 50 per cent. It was this Report that provided the intellectually reputable basis for the Irish claim of century-long over-taxation and for the Irish demand, so eerily similar to that of Margaret Thatcher in relation to the European Community almost a century later, to ‘get its money back’.

Political historians recognise the significance of the impact upon nationalist opinion of the Report of this Commission. What seems to have been less generally grasped is the manner in which the turn-of-the-century policy of killing Home Rule by kindness raised local spending to a level that for the first time equalled Irish revenue, thus eliminating the century-long Irish subsidy to Britain. As a result, the subsequent introduction by the Liberal Government of old age pensions in 1908 reversed by a significant margin the traditional out-flows from Ireland to Britain.

Thereafter the traditional argument for separation from Britain – that a separate Irish polity would be cheaper to run in the absence of the overhead of Imperial defence, and that this would make possible a lower level of taxation – disappeared. From then on, the question was rather how soon the expansion of social expenditure, involving ever-increasing transfers from Britain to Ireland, would reach a level at which the short-run social cost of independence would be so high that there would be a reluctance to pay this price in order to secure the long-run, and more intangible, benefits of independence. If the issue of independence had been postponed beyond the first third of the century – and more especially if national sentiment had not been aroused by the Rising of 1916 – might not Ireland have remained in the United Kingdom with some limited form of Home Rule?

In the 17th and 18th centuries England exploited Ireland. In the 19th century she could be said to have neglected Ireland. But in the 20th century she would have subsidised Ireland – as she has done Northern Ireland. And could Ireland’s sense of nationhood, which by 1915 was so weakened as to require, in the view of the separatists of that period, a Rising to re-awaken it, have withstood for long this most insidious of colonial treatments?

To the economic considerations underlying the political relationship between Britain and Ireland may be added another relating to Northern Ireland. Given the relatively industrialised character of Northern Ireland by the early years of this century, its immediate economic interest at that time lay with Britain rather than participation in a separate Irish state operating a protectionist regime. For such a regime could have posed a potential retaliatory threat to the area’s linen exports, as well as raising a doubt as to its shipyard’s prospect of equality of treatment with yards in Britain. With both islands now operating under free-trade conditions within the EC, and with the decline of these two industries to a negligible role in the economy of the area, these considerations no longer apply, and Northern Ireland now finds itself precisely when the rest of the island might have done if it had remained in the United Kingdom. Leaving aside all political considerations, that is to say, the short-term impact of a loss of UK subsidies is a powerful disincentive to any attempt to follow the example of the Irish state in diversifying its trade and switching its monetary link from sterling to the D-mark. Northern Ireland also suffers increasingly from the lack of any significant voice in the EG decision-making process.

It can, I think, be argued that while the political history of the past eighty years shows remarkably little sign of having been consciously or directly influenced by the economic considerations I have discussed, the pattern of events effectively dictated by the apparently unstoppable political dynamic set up at the time of the Home Rule crisis in 1912-1914 has corresponded remarkably closely to what the economic interests of the two parts of Ireland would seem in each case to have required. The only apparent exception to this is the discrepancy between what Northern Ireland’s economic interests now seem to require in the decades immediately ahead and the prolonged immobility of the political situation in that area. Given the ultimate strength of underlying economic forces, one is tempted to speculate as to whether the political deadlock in Northern Ireland may not eventually be broken more readily as a result of factors involving its relationship with the European Community than by an evolution in the traditional relationship between the ancient forces of nationalism and unionism.

From Professor Mansergh’s book the sense emerges of a process of tragic inevitability starting with Bonar Law’s election as leader of the Unionist Party of Great Britain – to give it the name it carries throughout the greater part of this book – and reaching a kind of pre-ordained but at the same time unforeseen conclusion in a prolonged period of direct rule in Northern Ireland. The author does not attempt to look beyond that stage, nor could he be reasonably expected to have done so, though a greater sense of the economic forces operating under the surface might, perhaps, have tempted him to try such an exercise. In the meantime we can be grateful that he crowned his distinguished career with a work of enduring value, in which the factors that have contributed to the present political situation in Northern Ireland are traced with skill and insight.