History might yet prove Redmond right

Posted By: March 12, 2018

Tom Kelly. Irish News.Belfast. Monday, March 12, 2018

AS I sat in Committee Room 10 in Westminster last week I was conscious that just down the corridor was the infamous Committee Room 15 where 44 of the 73 members of the Irish Parliamentary Party voted to remove the legendary Charles Stewart Parnell as leader following the divorce crisis.

I always had a personal interest in this story because in an obituary of my great grandmother Margaret Kelly in the late 1950s she was described as “a woman with a vigorous nationalist outlook from an old and respected Newry family known for their Parnellite sympathies”.

In her well-worn missal were several brown dried ivy leaves – a symbol adopted by Parnell supporters after his death.

Sitting in Committee Room 10 I imagined what this room would have been like in its heyday, filled with Irish MPs who on and off held the balance of power from the 1880s until the Great War.

Hard to believe that now, as we face the greatest threat to our economic and political stability over Brexit, that the place is bereft of Irish voices – other than those of the DUP.

It’s a calamity of seismic proportions especially given that the current government teeters on life support thanks to an unhealthy reliance on the DUP.

The purpose of my visit was to listen to a symposium sponsored by two MPs with hugely different outlooks – Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Labour’s Conor McGinn.

Their event was to mark the 100th anniversary of the death of the much maligned but underrated John Redmond.

Sir Jeffrey’s unionist forebears in 1910-14 were hardly cheerleaders for Redmond, and for McGinn growing up in South Armagh, the term Redmondite was a form of insult. Ironically, South Armagh was only one of the six parliamentary seats retained by the Irish Parliamentary Party in the two elections of 1918.

The speakers at the event were long-term Redmond advocate, former Taoiseach John Bruton and Dermot Meleady, author of John Redmond: The National Leader.

Clearly the event wasn’t a critical assessment of John Redmond but more a chance to give the man a fair hearing.

Redmond achieved much in his long parliamentary career which spanned from 1881-1918.

He was loyal to Parnell, even after the split. He achieved that which eluded the much-feted Irish heroes of Daniel O’Connell and Parnell, in that he secured the Irish Home Rule Act on the British statute book and united his fractious party.

Redmond was undone by what the late Harold MacMillan described lamentably as “events, dear boy, events.”

The Great War and his enthusiastic championing of it were fatal for Redmond. He gambled and lost on the war is short.

He also failed as a politician to recognize the dynamic of Unionism on the island of Ireland and the awakening of cultural Irishness through the revival of the Irish language, sports, and arts.

He dismissed the younger radicals, too. Mind you, as he was securing a Home Rule Act, Sinn Féin was advocating a dual-monarchy solution.

Unsurprisingly, Bruton has a rose-tinted view of his political hero John Redmond, and not without some reason.

Redmond was a champion of conciliation – not confrontation. He saw violence as futile. It certainly was never going to be a persuasive force for encouraging Unionists to board the Dublin train.

Ultimately, Redmond is a tragic figure. He didn’t cause partition, and it is well proven since that violence hasn’t advanced unity.

Redmond certainly doesn’t deserve derision. Like others, before and after him, he found himself on that isolated space between a rock and a hard place of obstructive Unionist intransigence and unrealistic Republican aspiration.

It’s the absence of conciliation from our current body politic that has left Northern Ireland in political limbo.

It is also a lack of conciliation from Conservative and DUP Brexiters that is straining relations within the island of Ireland, between Ireland and Britain and between the UK and the EU.

The Irish Parliamentary Party of Parnell and Redmond was truly a mixture of Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter, something that no mainstream Irish political party, north or south, has achieved since.

If there is a déjà vu to the current impasses between nationalism and unionism, it’s because the former has miserably failed to convince unionists of the case for Irish unity and because the latter remains implacably opposed to change, even when it’s inevitable.

Redmond, the conciliator, was marginalized because he found himself on the wrong side of history – but history, too, may yet prove him right.