The open secret of Ireland



The inevitableness of Home Rule resides in the fact that it is, as one might say, a biped among ideas. It marches to triumph on two feet, an Irish and an Imperial foot. If there were in Ireland no demand whatever for self-government it would, nevertheless, be necessary in the interests of the Empire to force it on her. The human, or as some people may prefer to call it, the sociological case for Home Rule, and the historical case for it have already been outlined. We now turn to consideration, of another order, derived from Political Mechanics, or rather bearing on the mere mechanism of politics. Let us approach the problem first from the Imperial side.

On the whole, the most remarkable thing about the British Empire is that there is no British Empire. We are in presence of the familiar distinction between the raw material and the finished article. There are, indeed, on the surface of the globe a number of self-governing colonies, founded and peopled by men of Irish and English blood. In each of these the United Kingdom is represented by a Governor whose whole duty consists in being seen on formal occasions, but never heard in counsel or rebuke. The only other connecting links are those of law and finance. The Privy Council acts as a Court of Appeal in certain causes, and Colonial Governments borrow money in the London market. These communities widely seperated in geography and in temperament, have no common fiscal policy, no common foreign policy, no common scheme of defence, no common Council to discuss and decide Imperial affairs. Now this may be a very wise arrangement, but you must not call it an Empire. From the point of view of unity, if from no other, it presents an unfavourable contrast to French Imperialism, under which all the oversea colonies are represented in the Chamber of Deputies in Paris. In the English plan the oversea colonies are unrelated atoms. You may say that they afford all the materials for a grandiose federation; but if you have flour in one bag, and raisins in another, and candied peel in another, and suet in another you must not call them a Christmas pudding until they have been mixed together and cooked. Those areas of the globe, coloured red on the maps, may have all the resources requisite for a great, self-sufficing, economic unit of a new order. Their peoples may desire that new order. But until it is achieved you must remember that the British Empire belongs to the region of dream and not to that of fact.

For many years now, apostles of reconstruction have been hammering out the details of a scheme that shall unify the Empire on some sort of Federal basis. For the new organism which they desire to create they need a brain. Is this to be found in the Westminster Assembly, sometimes loosely styled the “Imperial Parliament”? As things stand at present such a suggestion is a mere counter-sense. That body has come to such a pass as would seem to indicate the final bankruptcy of the governing genius of England. All the penalties of political gluttony have accumulated on it. Parliament, to put the truth a little brutally, has broken down under a long debauch of over-feeding. Every day of every session it bites off far more in the way of bills and estimates than it even pretends to have time to chew. Results follow which it would be indiscreet to express in terms of physiology. Tens of millions are shovelled out of the Treasury by an offhand, undiscussed, perfunctory resolution. The attempt to compress infinite issues in a space too little has altered and, as some critics think, degraded the whole tenor of public life. Parliament is no longer the Grand Inquest of the Nation, at least not in the ancient and proper meaning of the words. The declaration of Edmund Burke to the effect that a member has no right to sacrifice his “unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience” to any set of men living may be echoed by the judges in our day, but to anyone who knows the House of Commons it is a piece of pure irony. Party discipline cracks every session a more compelling whip; and our shepherded, regimented, and automatised representatives themselves realise that, whatever more desirable status they may have attained, they have certainly lost that of individual freedom. Out of their own ranks a movement has arisen to put an end altogether to Party government. This proposal I myself believe to be futile, but its very futility testifies to the existence of an intolerable situation. All this turns on the inadequacy of the time of the House of Commons to its business. But the distribution of such time as there is, is a revel of ineptitudes. It resembles the drawing of a schoolboy who has not yet learned perspective. A stranger dropping into the Chamber will find it spending two hours in helping to determine whether Russia is to have a Czar, and the next four hours helping to determine whether Rathmines is to have, let us say, a new sewer. The affairs of India, involving the political welfare of three hundred millions of human beings, get one day; Egypt, that test case in international ethics, has to be content with a few scattered hours. And, despite all this, local questions are not considered at sufficient length or with sufficient knowledge. The parish pump is close enough to spoil St Stephen’s as an Imperial Council, and yet so far away as to destroy its effectiveness as an organ of local government.

Such an assembly is clearly unfitted to function as the cerebrum of Empire. It must be relieved of burdens which in the complexity of modern politics it is no longer able to bear. How is this to be done? In one way and in one way only, by leaving local business to local bodies. But that is Home Rule, or, as the learned, envisaging the idea from another point of view, sometimes prefer to call it, Devolution. Through the principle of autonomy, incompletely applied, the British Possessions have so far evolved. Through the principle of autonomy, completely applied, and in no other wise, can they evolve into an ordered system worthy of the Imperial name. This is at first blush a singular development. Here lie Ireland and England separated by a mountain of misunderstanding. We Irish Nationalists have for a century been trying to bore a tunnel through from one side. And suddenly we become aware of the tapping of picks not our own, and encounter midway the tunnel which the Party of Imperial Reconstruction have driven through from the other side. Here are all the materials for a tableau. Justice falls on the neck of expediency. Imperialism recognises in nationality no rebel but a son of the house. Toryism rubs its eyes, and finds that it is Home Rule.

But, sounded to its depths, this new current of thought appears not only not eccentric but inevitable. Ample explanation is to be found in the history of the Irish fight for self-government. On this subject there has been in Ireland a marked evolution of ideas. O’Connell began by demanding simple Repeal of the Union and the Restoration of Grattan’s Parliament. But by 1844 he had advanced towards a Federal programme.

“Beside the local Parliament in Ireland having full and perfect local authority,” he writes in that year, “there should be, for questions of Imperial concern, colonial, military, and naval, and of foreign alliance and policy, a Congressional or Federal Parliament, in which Ireland should have a fair share and proportion of representation and power.”

The proposed change of programme came in a questionable shape to a suspicious time. It was not received with universal favour, and, to avert dissension, it was represented as a mere ballon d’essai and was abandoned. O’Connell died, and Repeal and Federation alike were swallowed up in the Great Famine. But time was to renew its urgency. The essential facts, and the logic of the facts, remained unaltered. When Isaac Butt came to formulate his scheme at the Home Rule Conference in 1873 he renewed the Federal proposal in terms almost verbally the same. The Conference resolved:

“That, in claiming these rights and privileges for our country, we adopt the principle of a Federal arrangement, which would secure to the Irish Parliament the right of legislating for and regulating all matters relating to the internal affairs of Ireland, while leaving to the Imperial Parliament the power of dealing with all questions affecting the Imperial and Government, legislation regarding the colonies and other dependencies of the Crown, the relations of the Empire with Foreign States, and all matters appertaining to the defence and stability of the Empire at large; as well as the power of granting and providing the supplies necessary for Imperial purposes.”

Parnell, who was a supreme master of the art of doing one thing at a time, naturally laid the emphasis on Ireland. But when he was asked by Mr Cecil Rhodes to agree to the retention of Irish representatives at Westminster in the interests of Imperial Federation, he declared himself in very definite terms:

“It does not come so much within my province to express a full opinion upon the larger question of Imperial federation, but I agree with you that the continued Irish representation at Westminster immensely facilitates such a step, while the contrary provision in the Bill of 1886 would have been a bar. Undoubtedly this is a matter which should be dealt with largely in accordance with the opinion of the Colonies themselves, and if they should desire to share in the cost of Imperial matters, as undoubtedly they now do in the responsibility, and should express a wish for representation at Westminster, I certainly think it should be accorded to them, and that public opinion in these islands would unanimously concur in the necessary constitutional modifications.”

That is, if you will, thinking Imperially. Mr Redmond stands where Parnell stood. He claims for the Irish people “the legislative and executive control of all purely Irish affairs.” But he is altogether friendly to a later and larger application of the principle of autonomy.

But where, asks the triumphant critic not quite ingenuously, is the line to be drawn between local and Imperial affairs? Problems far more perplexed than this have been solved by the wit of man. The line was drawn by O’Connell and Butt, by Parnell and Gladstone. It can be drawn to meet the circumstances of to-day by men of goodwill, after discussion and mutual adjustment. But why not postpone the case of Ireland until a scheme of Home Rule all round either for the United Kingdom or for the whole Empire has been worked out? We answer that Ireland comes first on grounds both of ethics and of expediency. Through all the blackness of dismal years we have laboured to preserve the twin ideas of nationality and autonomy, and the labourer is worthy of his hire. But a Home Rule assembly, functioning in Dublin, may well furnish the germ of a reorganisation of the Empire. If so, let it be remembered that it was not Mr Chamberlain but Daniel O’Connell who first in these countries gave to Imperialism a definite and articulate form. In any event Home Rule is the only remedy for the present congestion of St Stephen’s. It is the only tonic that can restore to English public life its old vigour of independence.

Such are the necessities and such is the future of the Empire merely as a problem in what has been called Political Mechanics. We have now, from the same point of view, to examine very cursorily the present government of Ireland. The phrasing, let me interpose, is inaccurate. Ireland, in our day, is not governed; it is only administered. A modern government, if it wishes to be real, must above all else explain itself. For such luxuries, so far as Ireland is concerned, there is no time in the House of Commons. A modern government must exercise active control over every department of public business. For such an effort there is, so far as Ireland is concerned, no energy in the House of Commons. Once in a blue moon it does of course become necessary to pass an Irish Bill, a University or a Land Bill. The Party shepherds round up their flocks, and, for a reluctant day or two, they have to feed sparely in unaccustomed pastures. Or again, as in 1886, 1893, or 1912, Ireland dominates British politics, and the English members descend on her with a heavy flop of hatred or sympathy as it may happen. But at all other times the Union Parliament abdicates, or at least it “governs” Ireland as men are said sometimes to drive motor-cars, in a drowse. Three days – or is it two? – are given to Irish Estimates, and on each of these occasions the Chamber is as desolate as a grazing ranch in Meath. Honourable members snatch at the opportunity of cultivating their souls in the theatres, clubs, restaurants, and other centres of culture in which London abounds. The Irish Party is compelled by the elemental necessities of the situation to speak with one voice on matters regarding which there would properly be at least two voices in an Irish Parliament, precisely identical in personnel. Ulster Unionism presents a similar solidarity.

Whenever a point of any novelty is made, the Chief Secretary’s secretary slips over to one of the Irish Officials who on these occasions lie ambushed at the back of the Speaker’s chair, and returns with all the elation of a honey-laden bee. His little burden of wisdom is gratefully noted on the margin of the typewritten brief which has been already prepared in Dublin by the Board under discussion, and, entrenched behind this, the Right Honourable gentleman winds up the debate. Sometimes his solemnity wrings laughter from men, sometimes his flippancy wrings tears from the gods, but it does not in the least matter what he says. The division bells ring; the absentees come trooping in, learn at the door of the lobby, each from his respective Whip, whether his spontaneous, independent judgment has made him a Yes! or a No! and vote accordingly in the light of an unsullied conscience. The Irish officials, with a sigh of relief or a shrug of contempt, collect their hats and umbrellas, and retire to their hotels to erase from their minds by slumber the babblings of a mis-spent evening. And the course of administration in Ireland is as much affected by the whole proceedings as the course of an 80 h.p. Mercédès is affected by a cabman’s oath.

So much for exclusively Irish affairs. When Ireland comes into some “general” scheme of legislation the parody of government becomes if possible more fantastic in character. Let me take just three instances – Old Age Pensions, Insurance, and the Budget. In regard to the first it was perhaps a matter of course that no attempt should be made to allow for the difference in economic levels between Great Britain and Ireland. This is the very principle of Unionism: to apply like methods to things which are unlike. But in the calculation of details an ignorance was exhibited which passed the bounds of decency. Mistakes of five or six per cent are, in these complex affairs, not only to be expected but almost to be desired; they help to depress ministerial cocksureness. But in this case there was an error of 200 per cent, a circumstance which incidentally established in the English mind a pleasing legend of Irish dishonesty. The Insurance Bill was ushered in with greater prudence. The “government,” recognising its own inability to lead opinion, had the grace to refrain from misleading it. No special Irish memorandum was issued, and no attempt was made to adjust the scheme to Irish social and economic conditions. But Budgets afford on the whole the capital instance of what we may call legislation by accident. The Act of Union solemnly prescribes the principles on which these measures are to be framed, and points to the Chancellor of the Exchequer as the trustee of Irish interests. But nobody of this generation ever knew a Chancellor of the Exchequer who had even read the Act of Union; Mr Lloyd George, on his own admission, had certainly not read it in 1909. What has happened is very simple. The fulfilment of treaty obligations required differential taxation, but administrative convenience was best served by a uniform system of taxation. In the struggle between the two, conscience was as usual defeated. The Chancellor, according to the practice which has overridden the Act of Union budgets for Great Britain, drags the schedule of taxes so fixed through Ireland like a net, and counts the take. That, in the process, the pledge of England should be broken, and her honour betrayed, is not regarded by the best authorities as an objection or even as a relevant fact. In the more sacred name of uniformity Ireland is swamped in the Westminster Parliament like a fishing-smack in the wash of a great merchantman.

But let one illusion be buried. If Ireland does not govern herself it is quite certain that the British Parliament does not govern her. Changing the venue of inquiry from London to Dublin we find ourselves still in regions of the fantastic. From the sober and unemotional pages of “Whitaker’s Almanack” one learns, to begin with, that “the government of Ireland is semi-independent.” The separatism of geography has in this case triumphed. The de facto rulers of Ireland in ordinary slack times, and in the daily round of business, are the heads of the great Departments. Some of these are not even nominally responsible to Parliament. The Intermediate Board, for instance, has for thirty years controlled secondary education, but it has never explained itself to Parliament and, because of the source from which its funds are derived, it is not open to criticism in Parliament. But none of the heads are really responsible to any authority except their own iron-clad consciences and the officials of the Treasury, with whom, for the sake of appearances, they wage an unreal war. In theory, the Chief Secretary answers to Parliament for the misdeeds of them all. In practice, this fines itself down to reading typewritten sophistications in reply to original questions, and improvising jokes, of a well-recognised pattern, to turn the point of supplementary questions for forty minutes on one day in the week during session. In its own internal economy the government of Ireland is a form of Pantheism, with the Chief Secretary as underlying principle. He is the source of everything, good and evil, light and darkness, benignity and malignity, with the unfortunate result that he is in perpetual contradiction with himself. As we know, the equilibrium of modern governments is maintained by mutual strain between the various ministers. Sometimes, as in the case of Lord Randolph Churchill, a strong personality, moved by a new idea, tears the structure to pieces. But the Chief Secretary knows no such limitations from without. Theoretically, he may be produced to infinity in any direction; he is all in every part. But, as a matter of fact, through the mere necessity of filling so much space his control becomes rarefied to an invisible vapour; he ends by becoming nothing in any part. With its ultimate principle reduced to the status of a Dieu fainéant political Pantheism is transformed into political Atheism. Responsible government is perceived not to exist in Ireland. Mr Barry O’Brien in his admirable book, “Dublin Castle and the Irish People,” confesses himself unable to find a better characterisation of the whole system than is contained in a well-known passage from “The Mikado.” I make no apology for conveying it from him.

“One cannot help recalling the memory of Pooh-Bah, ‘Lord High-Everything-Else’ of the Mikado of Japan. Who forgets the memorable scene between him and Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, on an occasion of supreme importance?

Ko-Ko. Pooh-Bah, it seems that the festivities in connection with my approaching marriage must last a week. I should like to do it handsomely, and I want to consult you as to the amount I ought to spend upon them.

Pooh-Bah. Certainly. In which of my capacities? As First Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chamberlain, Attorney-General, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Privy Purse, or Private Secretary?

Ko-Ko. Suppose we say as Private Secretary.

Pooh-Bah. Speaking as your Private Secretary, I should say that as the city will have to pay for it, don’t stint yourself; do it well.

Ko-Ko. Exactly – as the city will have to pay for it. That is your advice?

Pooh-Bah. As Private Secretary. Of course you will understand that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, I am bound to see that due economy is observed.

Ko-Ko. Oh, but you said just now, ‘Don’t stint yourself; do it well.’

Pooh-Bah. As Private Secretary.

Ko-Ko. And now you say that due economy must be observed.

Pooh-Bah. As Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Ko-Ko. I see. Come over here where the Chancellor can’t hear us. (They cross stage.) Now, as my Solicitor, how do you advise me to deal with this difficulty?

Pooh-Bah. Oh, as your Solicitor, I should have no hesitation in saying chance it.

Ko-Ko. Thank you (shaking his head); I will.

Pooh-Bah. If it were not that, as Lord Chief Justice, I am bound to see that the law isn’t violated.

Ko-Ko. I see. Come over here where the Chief Justice can’t hear us. (They cross the stage.) Now, then, as First Lord of the Treasury?

Pooh-Bah. Of course, as First Lord of the Treasury, I could propose a special vote that would cover all expenses if it were not that, as leader of the Opposition, it would be my duty to resist it, tooth and nail. Or, as Paymaster-General, I could so cook the accounts that, as Lord High Auditor, I should never discover the fraud. But then, as Archbishop of Jitipu, it would be my duty to denounce my dishonesty, and give myself into my own custody as Commissioner of Police.”

Under such arrangements as these the inevitable happens. The Chief Secretary accepts his rôle. He is, no doubt, consoled to discover that in one sphere, namely in that of patronage, his supremacy is effective. He discovers further that he can hamstring certain obnoxious Acts, as Mr Walter Long hamstrung the Land Act, by the issue of Regulations. The rest of his official career depends on his politics. If a Tory, he learns that the Irish Civil Service is a whispering gallery along which his lightest word is carried to approving ears, and loyally acted upon. Further “Ulster” expects law and order to be vindicated by the occasional proclamation of Nationalist meetings, and batoning of Nationalist skulls. And he absolutely must say from time to time in public that the Irish Question in essence is not political but economic. This is the whole duty of a Tory Chief Secretary. A Liberal Chief Secretary functions on somewhat different lines. Administration presents itself to him as a colossal heap of recalcitrant, wet sand out of which he has to fashion a statue of fair-play. Having, with great labour, left his personal impress on two or three handfuls, the weary Titan abandons his impossible task. He falls back in good order on the House of Commons, where his party majority enables him to pass an Irish Bill from time to time. His spare time he divides between commending Dublin Castle to the seven devils that made it, and praying for the advent of Home Rule.

In either case the sovereignty of Ireland relapses into the hands of the permanent officials, that camarilla of Olympians. To the official lives of these gentlemen, regarded as works of art, I raise my hat in respectful envy. They have realised the vision of Lucretius. From the secure remoteness of their ivory towers they look down unmoved on the stormy and drifting tides below, and they enjoy the privilege, so rare in Ireland, of knowing the causes of things. To the ordinary man their political origins are shrouded in twilight. They seem to him to have come like water, but unhappily it cannot be said that they go like wind. While they are with us they are absolute, seen by nobody, felt by all the world, the Manchu mandarins of the West. They have been attacked on many foolish counts; let us in justice to them and ourselves be quite clear as to what is wrong with them. Some people say that there are too many Boards, but it is to be remembered that for every new function with which we endow the State it must have a new organ. Others say that they are over-staffed; but all government departments in the world are over-staffed. Still others say that they are stupid and corrupt. As for corruption, it certainly does exist under many discreet veils, but its old glory is fading. Incompetent the great officials never were. A poet tells us that there are only two people in the world who ever understand a man – the woman who loves him, and the enemy who hates him best. In one of these ways, if not in the other, Dublin Castle understands Ireland. Did it not know what the people of Ireland want, it could not so infallibly have maintained its tradition of giving them the opposite. Other critics again find the deadly disease of the Boards to reside in the fact that they are a bureaucracy. This diagnosis comes closer to the truth, but it is not yet the truth. Bureaucracies of trained experts are becoming more and not less necessary. What is really wrong with the Castle is that it is a bureaucracy which has usurped the throne of the nation. “In England,” declared Mr Gladstone, “when the nation attends, it can prevail.” In Ireland, though it should attend seven days in the week, it could never under present arrangements stamp the image of its will on public policy. The real sin of the Castle regime is that it is a sham, a rococo, a despotism painted to look like representative government. To quote a radiant commonplace, the rich significance of which few of us adequately grasp, it does not rest on the consent of the governed.

“From whatever point of view we envisage the English Government in Ireland,” writes Mr Paul-Dubois, “we are confronted with the same appearance of constitutional forms masking a state of things which is a compound of autocracy, oppression, and corruption.”

Such a system does not possess within itself the seed of continuance. Disraeli announced, somewhat prematurely, the advent of an age in which institutions that could not bear discussion would have to go. Matthew Arnold yearned for a time in which the manifestly absurd would be abandoned. In the flame of either dictum the present “government” of Ireland shrivels to ashes, and affairs are ripe for the application of both. Here, as in the Colonies, the people must enter into its heritage. The days are for ever dead in which a nation could be ruled in daily disregard of its history, its ideals, its definite programme.

On the minutiae of administration I do not mean to touch. When the whole spirit, atmosphere, and ethos are anti-moral it is idle to chronicle any chance rectitude of detail. If a man is a murderer it is not much to his credit to observe that he has triumphed over the primitive temptation to eat peas with his knife. If a government is based on contempt for public opinion, as its fundamental principle, no useful purpose is served by a record of the occasions on which a policeman has been known to pass a citizen in the street without beating him. But there is one further confirmation of the view, here advanced, to omit which would be to ignore the most significant fact of our time. Certain departments such as the Congested Districts Board and the Department of Agriculture, recent creations, have been freshened by the introduction of a representative, non-official element. Others such as the Estates Commission have been under the control of officials of a new type, able men who do not conceal the fact that they believe in Ireland. All of these new Boards have struck root in the national life to a depth never reached by any of their predecessors. The lesson of this change is the lesson of freedom. In the precise degree in which government trusts the people will the people trust government. It remains to complete the process by a scheme of autonomy that shall make every administrator a trustee and executant of the will of the nation.

There are other organs of “government” in Ireland of which the reader may reasonably expect to hear something. He will permit me to discharge my obligations by copying out certain paragraphs from an old note-book:

Judges. – It is a mistake to suppose that none of the Irish Judges know any law. Our judiciary includes many masterly lawyers, and many adroit men of the world. But all of them are political appointments. Hence in ordinary cases a man will get clean justice.
But the moment politics flutter on the breeze, the masked battery on the Bench is uncurtained to bellow forth anti-Nationalist shrapnel. Irish Judges, in fact, are very like the horse in the schoolboy’s essay: ‘The horse is a noble and useful quadruped, but,
when irritated, he ceases to do so.”

Police. – The Royal Irish Constabulary was formerly an Army of occupation. Now, owing to the all but complete disappearance of crime, it is an Army of no occupation.”

Dublin Castle in general. – Must be seen to be disbelieved.”

Since there does not exist a British Empire, it is necessary to invent one. Since there does not exist an Irish government, in any modern and intelligible sense of the word, it is necessary to invent one. The common creative mould out of which both must be struck is the principle of Home Rule.

Dantonien Journal