Tony Benn and the Treacherous British Liberal Tradition on Ireland

Submitted by cathy n on 18 February, 2007 - 9:28 Author: Sean Matgamna

Some readers have questioned our scathing comments on the British Liberal/radical tradition on Ireland. Didn’t the Liberal Party try sincerely to give Ireland justice we are asked? Yes, but just as the British Liberals and Tories solved Ireland’s land problem in a bourgeois way — substituting small peasant landlords for the big landlords — they did everything else in a bourgeois and even a bourgeois imperialist way too.

Thus they recreated the “Irish Question” in its present form even while they ‘solved’ it in an older form.
Nor is it unjust to link Tony Benn to the British Liberal tradition. He is proud to claim that tradition as his own and to recall that his grandfather was elected as a Home Rule Liberal in 1892 and that his father later followed suit.

You cannot talk to Benn on Ireland without the feeling that you are also dealing with that whole tradition. Behind Benn, the foremost left-wing advocate of immediate and unconditional British disengagement from Northern Ireland, stand, politically as well as genetically, generations of British liberal politicians, whose traditions on "the Irish question" he rightly sees himself as continuing.

Let us acquaint ourselves with that tradition. We need only to look at certain of its high points to appreciate what it is. In my view it is – despite all the good intentions its various supporters have had – a treacherous tradition, and one which has corrupted British and Irish radical politics.

It is not democratic, not consistently democratic. It disregards the Irish Protestant minority and instead looks for a deal between the British State and the Irish Catholic middle class. This approach corrupts the Irish nationalists, encouraging them to rely on British power to deal with the Irish minority, and betrays them, because in fact the British State will not coerce that Irish minority.

The origins of partition

First, let us go back to the year nineteen hundred and twelve. The Liberal Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, has become dependent for its majority on the votes of the 80odd Irish Nationalist MPs who sit in the House of Commons. It has reluctantly brought in a Bill to give Home Rule to Ireland — to all Ireland, which, as one entity, will be ruled from Dublin by a government whose powers will not be a great deal larger than those possessed by, for example, the then London County Council.

That the Bill will pass is certain, for in a bitter struggle Asquith's Liberal government has recently destroyed the veto, which the unelected House of Lords used to have over the decisions of the House of Commons. Now the hereditary peers can only delay the implementation of legislation by two years.
In fact the 1912 Home Rule Bill would never become law. In the two years up to the outbreak of the World War in 1914, there will be a large-scale semi-rebellion against "Home Rule" led by the Conservative and Unionist Party. There will be plausible talk of imminent civil war in Britain on the "Irish Question".

Backed by Tories all over Britain, tens of thousands of Protestant men in Ulster will arm and drill and pledge themselves on oath to refuse to be ruled by a Dublin government based on the Irish Catholic majority. In 1914, faced also by a mutiny of British officers serving in Ireland, who declare that will refuse to be used to coerce Protestant Ulster, and if ordered to do so, will resign their commissions, Asquith's Liberal government will buckle.

Until 1914 neither the Liberal government nor the middle-class Home Rule Irish nationalists had been prepared to consider any special provision, such as local autonomy, for the Protestant Irish minority. They had proceeded on the assumption that the Irish minority would submit to a decision by the London government, or face coercion by Britain to make them submit. This reliance on British power was central to the calculations of the Irish middle-class Home Rule politicians, who felt safe in their alliance with the "Great Liberal Party". They had reduced themselves to its tail for more than 20 years in the expectation of decisive future benefit. They had also exerted pressure on the British labour movement — the early Labour Party itself being also very much a tail of the Liberal Party — by way of the big Irish electorate in Britain, insisting that it give uncritical support to Home Rule/Liberal policies.

Now, faced with a revolt led by a big part of the British upper classes, and therefore supported by many army and navy officers, the Liberals declared themselves in favour of the partition of Ireland. Shortly afterwards, the Home Rule Party, whose leader was John Redmond, agreed to accept Partition — "temporarily". When war broke out, the issue was put on ice for the war's duration.

Roger Casement's Old Bailey trial

Move on now to the Old Bailey, in June 1916. Britain is at war. The Liberals are still in the government, but now it is a coalition Government which includes the Tory-Unionist leaders — Bonar Law, Edward Carson, FE Smith — who, up to the eve of war, had organised rebellion and created private bodies of armed men to suborn the sovereign British parliament. The "Easter Rising" of the Irish nationalists in Dublin, which broke out in late April, has been suppressed.

Even Patrick Pearse, the titular head of the Republican government proclaimed by the Dublin insurgents, had, at the beginning of the Home Rule crisis, been content to accept the limited Home Rule the Liberals were offering. He had been propelled to a belief in physical force by the example and the success of the Orange-Tory rebellion. So had most of the other insurgents. Pearse, and fourteen others, Irish labour leader James Connolly among them, had been shot out of hand by the British Army after they surrendered.

Now thousands of nationalist Irish men and women have been interned. At the Old Bailey, the last of the leaders of the Rising, Roger Casement, is on trial for high treason.
Having gone to Germany to seek aid for the Rising (the Orange-Unionists had been importing guns from Germany up to the outbreak of war), Casement had landed in Ireland from a German submarine two days before Pearse and Connolly turned out in Dublin, intent on stopping the Rising. He believed it to be foredoomed without serious German help. Captured almost immediately, he had been shipped to London, thus escaping the summary fate of Pearse and his comrades.

On trial for his life this admirable Irish nationalist — probably the most bourgeois of the leaders of the 1916 Rising — faced as his chief prosecutor FE Smith.

Who was Smith? Smith, whose recklessness in fomenting resistance to the Liberal Government up to the very eve of war had made him especially notorious, was now Attorney General and a member of the British Government!

Across the courtroom, Casement, once a prominent British civil servant, who had, like all the Home Rulers, backed and relied on the Liberals, faced Smith, who had helped organise the successful rebellion against the Liberal Government on behalf of the Tories and their Irish allies. The Irish nationalist was in the dock — and would shortly be hanged — and the Tory Unionist was his accuser, with the concurrence and backing of his Liberal colleagues in government, who had so blithely betrayed their Irish allies and clients.

The confrontation between those two men in that courtroom symbolises and sums up an entire epoch in modern Irish history.

Bullying Dail Eireann

Move on now to our last stopping point in this brief survey. It is the summer of 1921. The world has changed greatly. The British Government is negotiating with the representatives of the outlawed Irish parliament, Dail Eireann. In 1919, on the basis of a decisive victory — 73 out of 105 Irish seats — in the December 1918 UK general election, the nationalist MPs had seceded from the Westminster parliament and declared Ireland to be a sovereign and independent republic.

For two years the British Army and special British killer squads, such as the "Black and Tans", have continued to occupy all of Ireland against the will of most of Ireland's people. They have waged a war of terror and repression against the supporters of Dail Eireann and against the Irish guerrilla army which defends the Republic.
Despite an unbridled campaign of indiscriminate burnings, and many killing, Britain has been unable to quell nationalist Ireland. There is a powerful international outcry against the "Black and Tan terror". The US Congress has voted in favour of Dail Eireann and against Britain.
Britain is still ruled by a coalition government, but now, though Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, is leader of one of the segments of a Liberal Party that has shattered, the Tory-Unionists are dominant in the Government.

Britain's choice is either to escalate repression to the level of rounding up large parts of the nationalist Irish population in internment camps — they have contingency plans for this — or to make a settlement. Under threat of a renewal and escalation of the war, Britain blackmails a majority of the Irish representatives into agreeing to abandon the Republic. They concede that the King of England is still King of Ireland, and accept the status of a "Dominion" in the British Empire (with powers much greater than those on offer from "Home Rule" before World War 1). Britain forces them to accept Partition — "temporarily". By now there is already a functioning Home Rule Unionist parliament in Belfast.

In coalition with the Lloyd George Liberals, the pre-war Tory Unionist rebels win for their Orange allies a partition settlement which creates a Catholic minority in Northern Ireland of about 35 per cent, bigger than the Protestant Unionists would have been in an all-Ireland state.

The Catholics were a majority in Fermanagh and Tyrone and in Derry, Northern Ireland's second city. It was a brutal imperialist settlement rammed through by the rebels of 1912 in alliance with one wing of the Liberal Party against which they had then rebelled!
From their own point of view it was to prove very stupid. Today its consequences — the Catholics are now 45 per cent of the population of the Six Counties, and in twenty years could be a majority — make the Northern Ireland unit unworkable. But that is small comfort to its victims, Protestant and Catholic.

The lessons of history

What have we learned from our hop, skip and jump across early 20th-century Irish history? That Irish history is entwined, enmeshed, and interlaced with British history.

That Ireland as it is today has been shaped by conflict between Irish "factions" allied to Britain whose fate to a large extent was determined by the constancy or lack of it of their British allies: the Tories keeping faith with their Irish allies and clients, the Liberals betraying theirs.

In their dealings with Ireland, the Liberals corrupted the bourgeois Irish nationalists – before they betrayed them – with the promise that they could, once the Liberals prevailed in London, rely on the British State to coerce any Irish minority that resisted Home Rule. They thereby removed any incentive for the Irish nationalists to seek a democratic modus vivendi with the Irish minority. Instead of applying consistently democratic principles to the internal division in Ireland, the Liberals tried — until faced with revolt — to ignore the legitimate concerns of the Irish Protestant minority. They encouraged the Irish Catholic bourgeoisie — who, like all bourgeois, were eager to seize any advantage they could get — to do the same.

Though Gladstone, who committed the Liberal Party to Home Rule in 1885-6, talked privately of some federal arrangement to accommodate the Protestants, nothing came of it. After Gladstone's Second Home Rule Bill passed the Commons and was thrown out by the Lords, the Liberals became wary of Home Rule. In 1906 they had a big House of Commons majority but there was no Home Rule Bill — not until they lost their majority in 1910 and could govern only with the votes of the Irish MPs.
Then, faced with revolt, they buckled and began the first moves to impose a British imperialist partition which rode roughshod over the rights of the Irish nationalists, and particularly those condemned to be second-class citizens in the "Protestant state". They allowed the Tory rebels of 1912-14 to get the best deal for their own.

The Liberal approach blew up in their faces in 1912, and their brutal though tentative imperialist approach to the Irish minority gave way to a determined, traditionally British, imperialist dealing with the Irish majority in 1914 and after. And – to reiterate – so thoroughly had the Liberals transmitted and transplanted that approach into the morals and politics of the Irish Catholic bourgeois nationalists, corrupting a segment of Irish nationalist opinion, that they created a current which still flows through Fianna Fail down to the Provisionals today. While denouncing Britain fiercely and defining British occupation as the central problem, nevertheless they still look to Britain to coerce the Protestants.

The political corruption was not confined to Irish bourgeois politicians. During the quarter-century of Liberal/Home-Rule alliance it was made an article of faith in radical circles and in the Liberal-allied early Labour Party that the left did not have the right to do other than back the dominant Irish Nationalists: anything else was British chauvinism. The revolutionary left then rejected such an approach. James Connolly castigated the Home Rule Nationalists in the British Labour paper, "Forward". For example, take Connolly’s response when it seemed that the middle-class Home Rulers would have no payment for MPs in their Dublin parliament, in order to hinder the development of an Irish Labour Party. Connolly urged the British Labour Party to insist that the British Liberal Government write payment of MPs into the new Irish Home Rule constitution, that they force it on the Irish bourgeois nationalists. Yet today it has become an article of faith on the revolutionary left that we must echo the Irish nationalists. This corruption too comes from the "Liberal tradition" on Ireland.

There were, of course, Liberals who took different stands at all these turning points. The story could be continued into more recent times and into the experience of the Labour Party. But we have seen enough to understand Tony Benn's background on Ireland. Among other things, it helps explain Tony Benn’s own strange history on the modern Irish ‘troubles’.

(From Socialist Organiser, 17 September 1994)