As an Irishwoman married to an Englishman, I try to be ecumenical in matters of Anglo-Irish history – it makes for peace, and it brings richer rewards of knowledge too. Ronan Fanning, a professor at the Royal Irish Academy, clearly feels the same, as he dedicates his latest book to ‘my English mother … and my Irish father’. He is, in any case, an irreproachably fair historian who builds his case on meticulous research.
But from the evidence of these books, it would be difficult for any reasonable person to escape the conclusion that, when it came to ruling Ireland in the early years of the 20th century, the British were blockheads. The Westminster government was lazy – seldom bothering to do any proper research about the rising power of Sinn Féin – and, in Cabinet, avoided any discussion about Ireland whenever possible (on one occasion Asquith’s ministers preferred to discourse lengthily on whether vicars should assist investigations into venereal disease, rather than contemplate the prospect of the Ulster Unionists and the southern Nationalists coming to blows).
Asquith, a ditherer who ‘hated unpleasantness’, wished Ireland would just go away, shrinking from doing what a leader has a duty to do – take responsibility. After 1910, when the Liberals depended on the Irish Parliamentary Party for a majority, the focus was all on the Westminster arithmetic. The whole