Articles

The Riddle of The Republic

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 1 1949
Articles

The Riddle of The Republic

BEVERLEY BAXTER August 1 1949

The Riddle of The Republic

BEVERLEY BAXTER

CHUTER EDE, the British Home Secretary, was winding up the debate which recognized the status of Eire as a republic and permitted Irish people to live in Britain without, being classed as foreigners, but which also insisted that Ulster would remain as part of the United Kingdom unless a decision to the contrary was taken by the Ulster Parliament.

It was the end of a two-day debate in which British M.P.’s of Irish ancestry had recovered all the fiery eloquence of their ancestors and had proclaimed with passion and vocal cadenzas the wrongs perpetrated against dear little Ireland.

“The Irish problem has beset, this country for 700 years,” said Mr. Ede, “and has proved the graveyard of many a political reputation.” Then, with sincerity and simplicity, he asked Ireland to forget its sorrows and to look to the future rather than the past. The door through which Eire had departed from the Commonwealth would be kept open, and if some day the republic wanted to come back there would be no reproaches and no questions asked.

But that was in London. What would I find in Dublin’s fair city where, according to the old song, the girls are so pretty?

It is indeed a fair city. The wicked British planned it with wide streets and gracious parks and splendid squares. They wanted it to be the loveliest of the viceregal cities and they succeeded in their villainous design.

Now it is the capital of the Republic of Ireland, and while Nelson’s monument still stands on O’Connell Street I am able to report that Mr. Costello’s Government has removed the huge statue of Queen Victoria that squatted in the courtyard of the Dail. No British flag flies in Dublin except over the British Consulate. No British soldier or official contaminates the sacred stones. The long night of tyranny is over and Ireland is free.

I wondered as a Briton just how my wife and myself would ire received and how we would fit into the joyful scene. I have never fancied dancing in the streets, but obviously Dublin would be one vast carnival demanding at the very least from us a paper hat and a false nose.

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The Riddle of the Republic

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But there was no dancing on the streets and no hilarity in the crowded restaurants where the sort of meals are served that most of us in England have forgot ever existed except in our dreams. I found the Southern Irish courteous and gracious — from the newsboys to the maîtres d’hôtel. Taxicab drivers smiled their greetings and spared no trouble to please us.

Yet Dublin was strangely subdued and, rightly or wrongly, I felt that there was some curious disillusionment in the air. Further than that, I sensed a desire to convince the British visitor that he was welcome not merely for his money hut for himself.

Puzzled by it all I asked a writer friend to explain the riddle. There is nothing the Irish like better than explaining the inexplicable and he did not hesitate.

“The truth is,” he said, “that we are feeling loike the young lady in ‘September Morn,’ charming but chilly and very much alone. This being a republic is just moonlit madness. Sure, aren’t we in the Commonwealth no matter what we do, so phwat’s the use of saying we’re out of it? It’s just these politicians with each one thinking he must prove himself more Oirish than the other.

“It’s one thing to be a problem child in a prosperous family, kicking up a fuss, being spanked and fondled in turn, but always attracting a lot of attention . . . but it’s quite another thing to become a lone spinster in a back room and no one caring phwat you’re doing tonight.

“Under British tyranny the natural ambition of every Oirish writer was to go to London and insult the English at so much a word. Sure, didn’t Shaw do it, and Oscar Wilde and Sheridan and all the rest of them? Moind, we’ll never forgive the British for the evil way they kept us down and denied us our liberty, but what good is liberty to a small country tied by the chains of history, geography and opportunity to the moighty British Isles?”

Where’s That Rebel Spirit!

Now I asked a taxi driver what he thought about the republic. “It makes no difference at all,” he said. “I’ve still got to work, haven’t I?”

I went into an empty Catholic Church and wandered about its aisles when a visiting priest came up and asked if I was a visitor. When he discovered that I was a British M.P. he took me to one side and said: “This republic business is all wrong. What more could the British do for us? We were an independent member of the Commonwealth, and now what are we? I am afraid that this will put off union with the Protestant North further than ever.”

It is the absolute truth that in three days we did not hear one word of praise or enthusiasm for the republic. Yet this was the dream of men who went to violent death with the cry of “Up the Republic!” The ghosts of Robert Emmet, O’Connell, McDonagh, Pearse and Casement must be moaning over St. Stephen’s these nights.

In fairness let it be admitted that we were only in Dublin, and that Cork, Galway and Killarney might be of a different mood, althouji fit is unlikely. Yet what has happened since the Easter Rebellion of 1916 when men rose up in their hundreds to strike at Britain’s power and to count death or imprisonment as nothing if they advanced the day when the republic flag would fly over the Castle?

Obviously the thing to do was to go to the source. Mr. Costello, who had vanquished Eamon de Valera at the last election, was now Prime Minister and the Dail was sitting. His private secretary could not have been more obliging.

“The Prime Minister had to go down to the country yesterday to a funeral,” he said, “and we were forced to double up his engagements today, but if you will come to the Dail at 5 o’clock I am sure he will find time to see you.”

How fine a flowering of the human soul is courtesy! Some philosophers claim that graciousness is the sign of decadent civilization. There are businessmen whose vocabulary does not include the word philosophy who think that politeness has something to do with servility and contend that hluntness is the firm rock of character. It may be true. Here in Dublin where argument is the coinage of the mind I am prepared to believe anything.

When Madam and I went to the Dail the private secretary was waiting for us on the steps outside the entrance so that we would be spared inconvenience or delay—and all this for a backbencher British M.P. with no more status than any other tourist.

He explained that the Prime Minister had been delayed but if we would care to listen to the debate in the Dail he would come for us as soon as the Prime Minister was free. So we took our seats in the Dail, which is built rather like a bird cage with wire netting all around to prevent enthusiastic members of the public throwing flowers or other things of a less delicate character.

Pandit Nehru Was a Caller

The debate was on education, and as it did not reach a particularly high level of oratory it was a relief when, half an hour later, the private secretary took us to see the Prime Minister.

Mr. Costello is an Irish lawyer with twinkling eyes and a musical Irish voice that would charm a sparrow off a twig. It would be against the code to reveal the conversation that we had on this occasion but I see no harm in giving the nature of the discussion.

I asked him how Mr. de Valera took his defeat at the polls and he chuckled. “No one’s had the heart to tell him that he lost.”

Then we got down to business, which was the partition. His face remained as gentle as before. “Why won’t the Ulster leaders come and have a game of golf with us?” he said. “I sent word to them and suggested it, but they won’t do it. I promised not to say a word about politics, but even that is not a sufficient inducement.”

He sighed and smiled. If ever there was sweet reasonableness it was present in that room. I began to think hard things about my friends in the North and could see no reason why they should not meet this new leader of the South in friendly combat.

were with Mr. Costello for nearly an hour, during which I felt that I could clearly understand not only what was in his mind but the political circumstances which had forced him to demand a republic despite his electoral pledge that he would not alter in any way the External Relations Act. He is no master in his own house, but is the head of a coalition. His principal colleague is Mr. McBride, who leads a party, of about 20 members in the Dail. It was Mr. McBride who declared for a republic, and Mr. Costello could not afford to be less a patriot than his junior partner.

I am convinced (although he did not say so) that Premier Costello would lead the Irish Republic back into the Commonwealth if the partition was done away with—if he could have his own way.

I am convinced that he would agree to the continuation of the Ulster Parliament with an All-Ireland Parliament sitting in Dublin—if he could have his own way.

When I signed his visitors’ book I noticed with interest that the last visitor had been Premier Nehru of India, the man who invented the formula of an independent republic recognizing the King as the head of the Commonwealth. It is a safe assumption that Nehru had not traveled to Dublin merely to look at St. Stephen’s Creen.

When we had to go the Prime Minister not only escorted us through the lobbies but out into the courtyard and to the street. “Let me know when you are coming again,” he said, “and I will place my car and chauffeur at your disposal.”

I thanked him warmly, but said there was one last question I wanted to ask: “Will the shooting start again?”

“I sincerely hope not,” he said. “But it is possible.”

Two hours later we boarded the ship at Dunleary and were on our way home, convinced that here was a man of clean mind and good heart who would bring sanity to a problem which has haunted the ages.

* * *

Now comes the sequel.

Two days later Mr. Costello spoke to the crowded Dail. It was the speech of a tub-thumping firebrand, calculated to inflame the passions of the violent and rouse the hatred of the ignorant. Britain was denounced as the implacable enemy of Irish freedom, cynically and brutally guaranteeing Ulster’s integrity for no other purpose than to keep Ireland partitioned and helpless. The conscience of the world was invoked to curse the British and to declare the pure unselfishness of Ireland.

Somewhere Mr. McBride was shouting the same epithets.

In London Mr. de Valera was conducting meetings to demand that Britain take her assassin’s hands from Ireland’s fair throat.

When Parliament met at Westminster to discuss further stages of the Irish Bill there were armed secretservice men mingling with the crowds in the outer lobbies. Outside No. 10 Downing Street the police were armed as well.

What had happened to change the Costello (who had talked with my wife and myself) into a ranting agitator?

“Mad, Premature Plunge”

There is an explanation but it is creditable neither to Ireland nor democracy. Because de Valera had started his campaign against partition McBride had to shout louder for the same cause. And because of both of them Costello had to go one better and, although carefully declaring that he did not believe in violence, uttered words calculated to inspire it.

Like the three witches at the cauldron they go round and round invoking hell’s agents and shrieking their incantations. It is a thousand pities.

The repercussions were felt even in the British Parliament where many Socialists refused to support their own Government and forced Mr. Attlee to dismiss five parliamentary private secretaries for defying party discipline.

The partition of Ireland, as I stated in my letter a fortnight ago, is a bastard thing which disrupts the economic life of the whole island. Nor is the hatred of Protestant and Catholic any longer in keeping with Christianity or sane democracy.

But if partition remains until it is finally ended by the dictate of human tragedy the blame will lie neither at the door of Ulster nor the portals of Westminster. The mad, premature plunge into a republic was not the demand of the Irish people but was a move by Irish politicians in the old, old game of politics.

De Valera, McBride and Costello must share the blame for wantonly raising an impenetrable wall between North and South at a moment when British generosity could have been used as a medium to bring the severed portions together.

I am sorry if these words seem an ungracious return for Mr. Costello’s courtesy to me while I was in Dublin, but one can only write the truth and damn the consequences. ★