James McConnel, The Irish Parliamentary Party and the Third Home Rule Crisis.
The Irish Parliamentary Party has never lost its capacity to provoke political and scholarly debate. It is often lamented (in terms deriving from its own self-presentation to potential British supporters and some members' later apologias) as a moderate and rational political alternative destroyed by Unionist and separatist violence; it is also seen through the eyes of contemporary critics (socialists, separatists, cultural nationalists and literary intellectuals) as a corrupt and conformist body of social-climbing West British snobs.
The sheer vastness of the source material (significant archives for leaders such as Redmond, O'Brien, and Dillon; a burgeoning Irish provincial press, much of it run by MPs or their families and associates; extensive contemporary British commentary on the IPP's role in the politics of the era) overwhelms the researcher, and the recent turn towards social history among Irish historians reinforces the impression that there is little more to say about the IPP. This is a mistake, for putting new questions to the archives and employing new data-mining techniques can still provide new insights into the IPP and the society in which it operated.
James McConnel is the latest explorer to have plunged into this source material, and his book, the product of fifteen years' research, displays a remarkable depth and range of knowledge with fluency and wit. It also shows an enviable command of the secondary literature, including many locally published items and some remarkably recent publications (though references to J. F. X. O'Brien's autobiography cite the original in the National Library rather than the 2010 UCD Press edition, For the Liberty of Ireland at Home and Abroad).
The book is not so much a narrative as a series of thematic studies (some reworked from earlier appearances in academic journals) which interlock effectively to shed light on wider themes. After a brief summary of IPP historiography (noting such issues as the division between parliament-centred accounts which focus on the major leaders and analyses of the party's local machine which pay more attention to the rank and file and their constituency machines) McConnel discusses the contrast between the articulate front-bench spokesmen of the party and its provincial rank and file, whose chief parliamentary interventions were questions on constituency affairs. We are shown the leaders' attempts (with limited success) to strengthen their parliamentary bench by imposing spokesmen on constituency selection conventions which preferred local men, and alleged IPP corruption is related to the need to secure constituency support by brokerage between the state bureaucracy and constituents in a manner reminiscent of later Irish representatives.
Perhaps McConnel underestimates the importance of constituency matters for British MPs because he confines his discussion to interaction with state bureaucracy; contemporary election petitions illustrate the frequent difficulties faced by MPs in distinguishing between legitimate subscriptions to local causes and illegitimate election expenditure. Perhaps in this, as in the role of single-issue pressure groups, Edwardian British politics resembled its successors at the beginning of the twenty-first century more than either did the clear-cut division between mass-membership class-based parties of the mid-twentieth. The next section explores the party's relationship to pre-1914 challengers. After a discussion of IPP members' residual links to nineteenth-century Fenianism, McConnel traces the party's response to the first Sinn Fein challenge (arguing that party dissidents who in 1907-8 wanted the party to take up the Sinn Fein policy mostly sought to reinvigorate the party rather than create a new one), MPs' ambivalent relationship with the Gaelic League and the wider 'Irish Ireland' movement, and the ways in which the IPP's generally (though not unanimously) hostile view of the 1913 lockout represented the wider conservatism of Irish nationalist society, with those MPs who sympathised with the strikers (usually intellectuals or British-based labourites) confining their expressions of discontent to private correspondence for the sake of unity. This section might have been better balanced by noting William Martin Murphy's complaints that the Irish Party, the Freeman's Journal and the Liberal government were excessively reluctant to oppose Larkin from a mixture of anxiety to appease British Labour and hostility to Murphy himself.
A third section discusses the strains and opportunities life in London offered to IPP MPs, and how far they were assimilated by the 'gentlemen's club' at Westminster; McConnel suggests that it was only after 1910, when the need to sustain a minority government committed to Home Rule dictated constant attendance at Westminster, that MPs grew fatally distanced from their local bases. McConnel perceptively notes that the party-run Freeman's Journal acted as an 'additional whip' publicising and shaming absentees.
The final section discusses issues raised by the seeming imminence of Home Rule after 1910: expectations of what Home Rule would mean in practice, its implications for acceptance of monarchy and empire, the party's gradual awareness that Ulster Unionism and the separatist-influenced Irish Volunteers were serious political threats, and reactions to the outbreak of war. McConnel shows, incidentally, that in 1914 few MPs openly called for recruits as distinct from praising those who joined up.
The wide-ranging ambition of this valuable synthesis necessarily involves a few blind spots. Closer attention to Parnellite politics of the 1890s would add an extra dimension to the IPP's relationship with separatism and empire; some Parnellite MPs openly supported France during the Fashoda crisis, and many Sinn Fein criticisms of the third Home Rule Bill directly copied criticisms of the 1893 Home Rule Bill by John Redmond and his followers. A few economic issues might have been more deftly handled: support for railway nationalisation, for example, was not necessarily socialist; as in Gilded Age America, it often reflected agrarian discontent with railways as private monopolies, and could be presented in terms of an Irish version of British municipal reformism, which often involved municipal corporations taking over utilities; one of the numerous bones of contention between the Irish Party and William Martin Murphy was its 1900 blocking of a proposal to entrust Dublin's electricity generation to his tramway company on the grounds that not to entrust Dublin Corporation with such a vital function would reinforce the argument that Irishmen were incapable of self-government. It is not clear whether talk of tariff reform under Home Rule (p. 229) refers to protective duties guarding Irish industries against British competition as advocated by Griffith, or a common tariff for the British Empire, favoured by the post-1906 British Conservative Party. This might have benefited Irish agriculture but not Irish industry, and entailed conflict with former Liberal allies. More attention might have been paid to newspapers as political entities rather than sources for citations. Michael Davitt died in 1906, not 1907 (p. 155).
A really comprehensive account of the IPP, avoiding both idealisation and demonisation, would reach further back into the nineteenth century to discuss how certain recurring issues derived from the very structure of the Union and died with it, while others carried over into the post-partition statelets. James McConnel's masterwork is a big step towards such a synthesis and its detailed analyses should inspire future scholars to re-examine the source material for light on other under-explored issues, such as the role of MPs' wives in constituency management and socio-political networking.
Dictionary of Irish Biography
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|Publication:||Irish Economic and Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2014|
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