“Unnecessary” Wars and Lessons from History

A former Taoiseach stirs up a lively debate about the way in which Ireland broke the link with Britain.

Caricature of German aggression, circa 1913

John Bruton, who served as Taoiseach from 1994 to 1997 with an impressive lack of popularity, has never shied away from expressing controversial views. In a submission to the Irish government, he has argued that the passing of the Government of Ireland Act in the British parliament in September 1914, popularly known as the Irish Home Rule Bill, was such a big deal that it should be included in the decade of commemorations currently marking the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War (great as in large, not as in good). He has said that the 1916 Rising and subsequent War of Independence were unnecessary, and a more peaceful separation from Britain could have been achieved through the mechanisms of the Home Rule Bill. He contends that while partition might not have been avoided, 26 or 28 of the 32 counties could have achieved dominion status if individual counties were given an opt-out. Ireland’s pathway to independence would therefore have looked more like Canada’s and Australia’s departure from the British Empire.

Éamon Ó Cuív of Fianna Fail and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein have both dismissed the idea. They argue that home rule as promised in 1914 would have given Ireland a devolved government with such limited powers that it would have been no different from the current Welsh assembly and have less power than the current Scottish devolved Parliament. They also say that the remarks are disrespectful to those who lost their lives in the rebellion and the subsequent war of independence.

The act came at a time when the Conservatives and Liberals were equally matched in the House of Commons, and John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party held the balance of power. Redmond promised to prop up the Liberals in government in exchange for a home rule bill, which H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister, introduced in 1912. This would restore an Irish Parliament in Dublin (the last one was abolished in 1800) and give it control over most national affairs, a reduced number of Irish MPs would continue to sit in Westminster, and Dublin Castle would be abolished. The bill was passed twice in the House of Commons but rejected each time in the House of Lords. On the third reading in the Commons, the Lords were overridden using a Parliament Act that Asquith had pushed through three years prior, and it was given the Royal Assent.

However two obstacles came in the way of its implementation. One was the violent opposition of northern protestant Unionists who formed the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force to forcibly resist the authority of any restored Dublin parliament, the other was the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 which led Asquith to amend the bill to delay its implementation until after the war. John Redmond agreed to this in exchange for encouraging Irishmen to enlist to fight for Britain in Europe. The subsequent 1916 Rising and War of Independence led to a completely different outcome.

Bruton argues that while there were difficulties in implementing the act, they could have been overcome, and that the events of 1916 damaged Ireland ever since by sending it down the path of violence. Is this a fair criticism?

Alternative history is a fascinating topic, but one has to look at the world of the early twentieth century in the context of the times. There was no United Nations, no World Trade Organization, no World Bank, no International Monetary Fund, and no European Union. Universal suffrage was still a long way off, women in the relatively advanced UK could not vote, and millions of people on the continent still lived under the absolute rule of an inbred extended family of unelected kings and emperors, some of whom had questionable qualifications for their roles, personality quirks that compromised their ability to govern, and no means of ousting them from power when they messed up. Colonies in exotic locations were seen as status symbols that no strong, self-respecting, modern European nation should be without.

Peace was not maintained by the treaties and bureaucracy of international trade that we take for granted today, and nation states did not view each other as business partners. They viewed each other as rivals, potential threats, and peace was maintained by a rickety balance of military power and mutual threats of annihilation. When an assassination in the Balkans by a group of freelance revolutionaries gave a belligerent Austria-Hungary their long-awaited excuse to declare war on Serbia, a network of alliances kicked into play in which Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary, Germany declared war on Russia, France declared war on Germany, and Britain declared war on the Germans after they swept through neutral Belgium to attack France.

There were numerous opportunities to stop the whole Jenga tower from collapsing. The Austrians did not have to blame the Serbian government for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, Russia’s Tsar Nicholas could have let the Balkan business slide, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm could have left Russia alone, and so on. Indeed the Kaiser was believed to have been in the best position of all to prevent a continent-wide conflagration, hence Germany subsequently getting the blame for starting it. However this was not how politicians operated in those days. Honor was deemed more important than international peace and stability, brinkmanship was commonplace, and the tendency was to use force more readily to solve problems than in today’s world where war is (or in theory should) be used as a last resort after exhausting the numerous other diplomatic channels that are now available.

Therefore if the 1916 Rising was “unnecessary”, it was no more “unnecessary” than the Great War or any other conflict of the time.

Furthermore, many Irish people did not trust that the British would deliver on their promise to implement Home Rule, an understandable mistrust given Lloyd George’s machinations to sell partition to Redmond as temporary, and to northern Unionists as permanent. In addition, revolution was an idea that was gaining currency, particularly as the death toll on the continent started to go to unprecedented heights. The technology of war had changed, but the tactics had not, resulting in a catastrophic loss of life. The carnage on the Eastern Front combined with widespread poverty in Russia to plunge the country into unrest. This would eventually culminate in a socialist revolution that toppled their autocratic Tsar. The lesson of the storm brewing in Russia was not lost on more revolutionary-minded nationalists in Ireland who were becoming increasingly skeptical about Redmond’s exhortations to fight for Britain in what was coming to be seen as someone else’s futile imperial power struggle for which the working man was paying the ultimate price.

Bruton’s critics argue that southern Ireland’s forcible extraction from British domination saved many Irish lives from conscription in the Great War and the subsequent fight against the Nazis. This may have some merit. Bruton’s claim that Ireland could have gone the same way as Canada and Australia overlooks Ireland’s key difference from those dominions: its location at England’s back door. A neutral Ireland would not have been in Britain’s interest, particularly given the ruthlessness of the Nazis and their willingness to follow their imperial predecessors in sweeping through neutral Belgium in order to encircle their main target. Indeed the Nazis did draw up a detailed plan to invade Ireland, Operation Green, and use the country as an aircraft carrier to attack England on a second front, although it never came to pass and today is thought of as a feint.

Does Bruton’s contribution show disrespect for those who died in the conflict? He argues that he does respect the fallen, but it does not necessarily show disrespect to the war dead if we say that the war they fought in was unnecessary. He has a point, since there are numerous conflicts throughout history that are widely believed to be unnecessary, conflicts fought in Iraq, Vietnam, and of course the Great War itself that is almost universally thought of as a pointless waste of lives. Few would consider it disrespectful to describe those conflicts as unnecessary.

However there are those who would argue that the UK, which included all of Ireland, was right to partake in the First World War. Sir Max Hastings, a British broadcaster and historian, argues that had Germany succeeded in its plan to encircle the French, they could have taken most of the continent. Indeed with revolution undermining support for the war in Russia, it is possible that the Eastern Front and the Western Front could both have been German victories, and Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg would have become vassal states of Germany, now under the rule of a victorious, popular, and merciless Kaiser. However it is difficult to see what would have happened beyond that. Would the Kaiser have gotten greedy and followed Napoleon on his ill-fated attempt to take Russia only to perish on the freezing steppes? Would the Nazis never have risen from a German humiliation that never would have come about as a result of the non-existent Treaty of Versailles, and would Adolf Hitler have died of old age in loneliness and obscurity in Vienna? We shall never know.

Either way, the discussion of the “what if” scenarios involved in Ireland achieving independence via the 1914 Home Rule Act are worth discussing. However it should be treated as the same kind of academic thought experiment as asking what would have happened if one of the imperial European powers had the courage to step back from the brink in 1914. The fact that an alternative to the 1916 Rising was theoretically available does not alter the fact of what did happen, and what is done is done.

Nor should Irish people feel ashamed of how their country came to take on its present form. The shenanigans that led to Scotland’s union with England are long forgotten (see article). America’s history is littered with questionable issues such as the treatment of native Americans, and the violent land-grab from Mexico that forcibly annexed vast western territories including California. While there is a growing awareness of these imperfections, it does not dampen America’s famously intense patriotism. Australians are as patriotic as ever while still coming to terms with the treatment of their aboriginal peoples. Germany’s soccer fans were not shy about celebrating their newly reunited country’s achievement at the World Cup in 1990, nor today in 2014, as Bismarck’s magnificent creation has overcome its turbulent past, peacefully come of age, and reached its potential.

What matters is that we get as full an understanding of history as possible so that we learn the lessons from it and do not repeat our mistakes. If war is ever to have a positive outcome, surely that is it.