The open secret of Ireland



The advocates of Home Rule are invited to many ordeals by way of verifying their good faith; perhaps the heaviest ordeal is that of prophecy. Very well, people say, what are you going to do with Home Rule when you get it? What will Irish politics be like in, say, 1920? If we show embarrassment or offer conflicting answers, the querist is persuaded that we are, as indeed he thought, vapouring sentimentalists, not at all accustomed to live in a world of clear ideas and unyielding facts. The demand, like many others made upon us, is unreal and unreasonable. What are the English going to do with Home Rule when they get it? What will German or Japanese or American politics be like in 1920? These are all what Matthew Arnold calls “undiscovered things.” The future resolutely declines to speak out of her turn. She has a trick of keeping her secrets well, better than she keeps her promises. Professor Dicey wrote a Unionist tract, very vehement and thunderous, in which he sought to injure Home Rule by styling it a leap in the dark. But the whole conduct of life, in its gravest and its lightest issues alike, is a perpetual leap in the dark. Every change of public policy is a raid across the frontiers of the unknown; or rather, as I prefer to put it, every fundamental reform is essentially an Act of Faith in to-morrow, and so it is with Home Rule.

But while none of us can prophesy all of us can conjecture, and in this case with a great deal of confidence. On the one hand, Ireland is a country of very definite habits of thought; on the other, her immediate problems are obvious. These two circumstances facilitate the process which the learned describe as an attempt to produce the present curve of evolution into the future. First, then, as to the temper of mind in which an autonomous Ireland will face the world. The one clear certainty is that it will not be rhetorical or Utopian. Of all the libels with which we are pelted the most injurious to our repute is a kindly libel, that which represents us as a nation of orators. To the primitive Tory the Nationalist “agitator” appears in the guise of a stormy and intractable fiend, with futility in his soul, and a College Green peroration on his lips. The sources of this superstition are easily traced. The English have created the noblest literature in the world, and are candidly ashamed of the fact. In their view anybody who succeeds in words must necessarily fail in business. The Irishman on the contrary luxuriates, like the artist that he is, in that splendor verborum celebrated by Dante. If a speech has to be made he thinks that it should be well made, and refuses altogether to accept hums and haws as a token of genius. He expects an orator not merely to expound facts, but to stimulate the vital forces of his audience. These contrary conceptions of the relation of art to life have, throughout the Home Rule campaign, clashed in the English mind much to our disadvantage. And there has been another agent of confusion, more widely human in character. Every idea strongly held and, on the other side, strongly challenged, kindles spontaneously into passion, and every great cause has its poetry as well as its dialetics. Men, forced to concentrate all their thought on one reform, come to see it edged with strange, mystical colours. Let justice only triumph in this one regard, and our keel will grate on the shore of the Fortunate Islands, the Earthly Paradise. All the harshness of life will be dulcified; we shall lie dreaming on golden sands, dipping full goblets out of a sea that has been transmuted into lemonade. This, the Utopian mood of humanity, is inextinguishable, and it has embroidered the Home Rule idea in common with all others. Before the complexity of modern economic organisation was as well understood as is now the case, there is no doubt that certain sections of opinion in Ireland did regard self-government as a sort of Aladdin’s Lamp, capable of any miracle. The necessity of pressing all the energy of the nation into one channel had the effect of imposing on political life a simplicity which does not belong to it. But all that is over and past. The Ireland of to-day does not pay herself with words. She is safe from that reaction and disillusionment which some prophets have discerned as the first harvest of Home Rule, because she is already disillusioned. Looking into the future we see no hope for rhetoricians; what we do see is a strong, shrewd, indomitable people, at once clear-sighted and idealistic, going about its business “in the light of day in the domain of reality.” No signs or wonders blaze out a trail for them. The past sags on their shoulders and in their veins, a grievous burden and a grievous malady. They make mistakes during their apprenticeship to freedom, for, as Flaubert says, men have got to learn everything from eating to dying. But a few years farther on we see the recuperative powers of the nation once more triumphant. The past is at last dead enough to be buried, the virus of oppression has been expelled. The creative impulse in industry, literature, social habit, working in an atmosphere of freedom, has added to the wealth of humanity not only an old nation renascent, but a new and kindlier civilisation. In other words, political autonomy is to us not the epilogue but the prologue to our national drama. It rings the curtain up on that task to which all politics are merely instrumental, namely the vindication of justice and the betterment of human life.

From the first, the economic note will predominate in a Home Rule assembly, not only in the sense in which so much can be said of every country in the world, but in a very special sense. For the past decade Ireland has been thinking in terms of woollens and linens, turnips and fat cattle, eggs and butter, banks and railways. The conviction that the country is under-developed, and in consequence under-populated, has been growing both in area and in depth. With it there has been growing the further conviction that poverty, in the midst of untapped resources, is a national crime. The propagation of these two beliefs by journals of the newer school such as The Leader, Sinn Fein, and The Irish Homestead has leavened the whole mass of Irish life in our time. The Industrial Development Associations, founded on them as basis, have long ago “bridged the Boyne.” At their annual Conferences Belfast sits side by side with Cork, Derry with Dublin. It is not merely that the manufacturers and traders have joined hands to advance a movement beneficial to themselves; the best thought of every class in the country has given enthusiastic support to the programme on grounds not of personal interest but of national duty. We may therefore take it that the watchword of the Second Empire, Enrichissez-vous, will be the watchword of a self-governing Ireland. What Parliament and the State can do to forward that aim will naturally be a subject of controversy. To Free Traders and Tariff Reformers, alike, the power that controls the Customs’ tariff of a country controls its economic destiny. Both would seem bound to apply the logic of their respective gospels to Ireland. But as it is not the aim of this book to anticipate the debates of next year, but rather to explain the foundations of the Home Rule idea, we may leave that burning question for the present untouched. Apart from it we can anticipate the trend of policy in Ireland. The first great task of a Home Rule Parliament would be above controversy; it would be neither more nor less than a scientific exploration of the country. No such Economic Survey has ever been made, and the results are lamentable. There has been no mapping out of the soil areas from the point of view of Agricultural Economics, and, for the lack of such impartial information, the fundamental conflict between tillage and grazing goes on in the dark. We know where coal is to be found in Ireland; we do not know with any assurance where it is and where it is not profitably workable. The same is true of granite, marble, and indeed all our mineral resources.

The woollen industry flourishes in one district and fails in another, to all appearance as favourably situated; it seems capable of great expansion and yet it does not expand greatly. What then are the conditions of success? Here is a typical case that calls for scientific analysis. One can pick at random a dozen such instances. Ireland, admirably adapted to the production of meat, does not produce meat, but only the raw material of it, store cattle. Is this state of things immutable? Or is a remedy for it to be found, say, in a redistribution of the incidence of local taxation so as to favour well-used land as against ill-used land? Is the decline in the area under flax to be applauded or deplored? Can Irish-grown wool be improved up to the fineness of the Australian article? And so on, and so on. It is to be noted that of the statistics which we do possess many of the most important are, to say the least, involved in doubt. The Export and Import figures are little better than volunteer estimates; there is no compulsion to accuracy. As to the yield of crops, all that can be said is that our present information is not as bad as it used to be. But above all we have no comprehensive notion of the condition of the people. Whenever there has been an inquiry into wages, cost of living, or any other fundamental fact, Ireland has come in as a mere tail-piece to a British volume. All this we must change. The first business of an Irish Parliament will be to take stock; and this will be effected by the establishment of a Commission of a new kind, representative of science, industry, agriculture, and finance, acceptable and authoritative in the eyes of the whole nation, and charged with the duty of ascertaining the actual state of things in Ireland and the wisest line of economic development. Such an undertaking will amount to a unification of Irish life altogether without precedent. It will draw the great personalities of industry for the first time into the central current of public affairs. It will furnish them with a platform upon which they will have to talk in terms of the plough, the loom, and the ledger, and not in terms of the wolf-dog and the orange-lily, and will render fruitful for the service of the country innumerable talents, now unknown or estranged by political superstitions. It will do all that State action can do to generate a boom in Irish enterprises, and to tempt Irish capital into them in a more abundant stream. And the proceedings and conclusions of such a body, circulated broadcast somewhat after the Washington plan, will provide for all classes in the community a liberal education in Economics. Will “Ulster” fight against such an attempt to increase its prosperity? Will the shipbuilders, the spinners, and the weavers close down their works in order to patronise Sir Edward Carson’s performance on a pop-gun? It is not probable.

Work is the best remedy against such vapours, and an Ireland, occupied in this fashion-with wealth-producing labour, will have no time for civil war or “religious” riots.

As for concrete projects, the Irish Parliament will not be able to begin on a very ambitious scale. But there are two or three matters which it must at once put in hand. There is, for instance, the drainage of the Barrow and the Bann. These two rivers are in a remarkable degree non-political and non-sectarian. Just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust, so do their rain-swollen floods spoil with serene impartiality Nationalist hay and Orange hay, Catholic oats and Presbyterian oats. Will “Ulster” fight against an effort to check the mischief? Then there is re-afforestation. As the result mainly of the waste of war, Ireland, which ought to be a richly wooded country, is very poor in that regard. In consequence of this, a climate, moister than need be, distributes colds and consumption among the population, without any religious test, and unchecked winds lodge the corn of all denominations. Re-afforestation, as offering a profit certain but a little remote, and promising a climatic advantage diffused over the whole area of the country, is eminently a matter for public enterprise. Are we to be denied the hope that fir, and spruce, and Austrian pine may conceivably be lifted out of the plane of Party politics? Further, to take instances at haphazard, the State, whatever else its economic functions may be, will be one of the largest purchasers of commodities in the country. It is thinkable that the Irish State may give its civil servants Irish-made paper to write on in their offices. It may even so arrange things that when Captain Craig comes to the House of Commons at College Green he shall sit on an Irish-made bench, dine off a cloth of Belfast linen, and be ruthlessly compelled to eat Meath beef, Dublin potatoes, and Tipperary butter. In such horrible manifestations of Home Rule I do not discern the material for a revolution. Again, it may be proposed that in order to develop manufactures, municipalities and county councils may be given power to remit local rates on newly established factories for an initial period of, say, ten years. It may occur to evil-minded people to increase the provision for technical instruction in certain centres for the same end. The Irish State may think it well to maintain agents in London, New York, and some of the continental capitals with a view to widening the external market for Irish products. I do not say that a Home Rule Parliament will do all these things, but they are the sort of thing that it will do. And the mere naked enumeration of them is sufficient to show that such an Assembly will have ample matter of economic development upon which to keep its teeth polished without devouring either priests or Protestants.

There are other urgent questions upon which unanimity exists even at present, for example Poor Law Reform. I have outlined in an earlier chapter the honourable record of Ireland in this regard. We were agreed in 1836 that the workhouse should never have come; we are now agreed that it must go. Whether in Antrim or in Clare, the same vicious system has produced the same vicious results. Uniform experience has issued in unanimous agreement as to the lines upon which reform ought to proceed. At the same time there are differences as to detail, and the task of fusing together various views and hammering out of them a workable Bill will be an ideal task for a representative assembly. But it is difficult to believe that the discussion will be, in all particulars, governed either by the Council of Trent, or by the Westminster Confession.

Then there is education. English public men have been brought up to assume that in Ireland education must be a battleground inevitably, and from the first. It would be a mere paradox to say that this question, which sunders parties the world over as with a sword, will leave opinion in Ireland inviolately unanimous. But our march to the field of controversy will be over a non-controversial road. Union policy has left us a rich inheritance of obvious evils. The position of the primary teachers is unsatisfactory, that of the secondary teachers is impossible. When we attempt improvement of both will “Ulster” fight? And there is something even more human and poignant. The National Schools of this country are in many cases no better than ramshackle barns. Unless the teacher and the manager, out of their own pockets, mend the broken glass, put plaster on the walls, and a fire in the grate, the children have got to shiver and cough for it. Winter in Ireland, like the King in constitutional theory, is above politics. When its frosts get at the noses, and fingers, and sometimes the bare toes, of the children it leaves them neither green nor orange but simply blue. Then again other schools, especially in Belfast, are shamefully over-crowded. Classes are held on the stairs, in the cloak-room, the hall, or the yard. For the more fortunate, class-rooms are provided with an air-space per individual only slightly less than that available in the Black Hole of Calcutta. All over the country, children go to school breakfastless and stupid with hunger, and the local authorities have no power to feed them as in England, and in most European countries. Then again, even where the physical conditions are reasonable, the programme lacks actuality. It is unpractical, out of touch with the facts of life and locality, a veritable castle hung absurdly in the air and not based on any solid foundation. The view still lingers in high places that the business of education is to break the spirit of a people, to put them down and not to lift them up. In token of this, the teachers are denied the civil rights of freemen. Now all these ineptitudes are contrary to the humane tradition of Ireland. Go they must, but, when an Irish Parliament starts to remove them, I cannot imagine Captain Craig, with a Union Jack wrapped around his bosom, straddling like Apollyon across the path. The Captain has far too much sense, and too much feeling in him.

It will be observed that we are getting on. A nation so busy with realities will have no time to waste on civil war. Inter leges arma silent. But this is a mere outline sketch of the preliminary task of the initial sessions of an Irish Parliament. Problems with a far heavier fist will thunder at its doors, the problems of labour. The democratic group in Ireland, that group which everywhere holds the commission of the future, has long since declared that, to it, Home Rule would be a barren counter-sense unless it meant the redemption of the back streets. The Titanic conflict between what is called capital and what is called labour, shaking the pillars of our modern Society, has not passed Ireland by like the unregarded wind. We can no longer think of ourselves as insulated from the world, immune from strikes, Socialists, and Syndicalism. The problems of labour have got to be faced. But will they be solved by a grapple between the Orange Lodges and the Ancient Order of Hibernians? It is obvious that under their pressure the old order must change, yielding place to a new. Every Trade Union has already bridged the Boyne. Every strike has already torn the Orange Flag and the Green Flag into two pieces, and stitched them together again after a new and portentous pattern.

What does it all come to? Simply this, that Ireland under Home Rule will be most painfully like every other modern country of western civilisation. Some Unionists think that, if they could only get rid of the Irish Party, all would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Why then are they not Home Rulers? For Home Rule will most assuredly get rid of the Irish Party. It will shatter the old political combinations like a waggon-load of dynamite. New groups will crystallise about new principles. The future in Ireland belongs to no old fidelity: it may belong to any new courage.

Assuredly we must not seem to suggest that, in an autonomous Ireland, public life will be all nougat, velvet, and soft music. There will be conflicts, and vehement conflicts, for that is the way of the twentieth century, and they will no doubt centre, for the most part, about taxation and education. But the political forces of the country will have moved into totally new formations. One foresees plainly a vertical section of parties into Agrarian and Urban, a cross section into Labour and Capitalistic. Each of these economic groupings is indefinitely criss-crossed by an indefinite number of antagonisms, spiritual and material. In a situation so complicated it is idle to speculate as to the conditions of the future. A box of bricks so large, and so multi-coloured, may be arranged and re-arranged in an infinity of architectures. The one thing quite certain is that all the arrangements will be new. In taxation, as I have suggested, a highly conservative policy will prevail. In education the secularist programme, if advanced at all, will be overwhelmed by a junction of Catholic and Protestant. For religion, to the anima naturaliter Christiana, of Ireland is not an argument but an intuition. It seems to us as reasonable to prepare children for their moral life by excluding religion as to prepare them for their physical life by removing the most important lobe of their brains.

The only other prognostication that appears to emerge is the probable predominance in a Home Rule Ireland of the present Ulster Unionist party. That group is likely, for many reasons, to retain its solidarity after ours has been dissipated. Should that prove to be the case, self-government will put the balance of power on almost all great conflicts of opinion into the hands of Sir Edward Carson and his successors. The “minority,” adroitly handled, will exploit the majority almost as effectively after Home Rule as before it. Captain Craig will dictate terms to us not from the last ditch, but from a far more agreeable and powerful position, the Treasury Bench. And we undertake not to grumble, for these are the chances of freedom.

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