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Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., At the launch of ‘Judging Redmond and Carson’ Royal Irish Academy 6th March 2018


Professor Kennedy, Professor Jackson, Professor Daly, Distinguished guests, Ladies and gentlemen.


I am delighted to be with you this evening on the centenary of the death of John Redmond to launch this new book ‘Judging Redmond and Carson.’ 


I would also like to congratulate you on today’s Symposium on John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party which has brought together leading scholars from Ireland and the United Kingdom to discuss everything from the fight for women’s suffrage to the legacy of the Parliamentary Party. 


Reinforcing the theme of the Irish parliamentary tradition, I am very pleased that there were also contributions from the Ceann Comhairle and my forebear, John Bruton. 


This is an important book, and it is published at an important time in our history.  At a point when there is much uncertainty because of Brexit, and what it means for our relationship both north and south and east and west, It is so rewarding to be able to study a period when there was even greater uncertainty on these islands. 


And, It is also good to be reminded that there is not a single Irish identity or a single Irish political tradition. 


The richness of our heritage is precisely because of the complexity of our past, bringing together constitutional nationalist, unionist, and republican traditions, and people of all religions and none.


Joint biographies are something of a rarity in Irish history, but I suspect this volume will encourage more Irish scholars to attempt them.  By taking two careers together – which are usually seen in opposition to each other - Alvin Jackson succeeds in illuminating and changing how we understand each life - and how we understand one of the most important decades in the history of this island.


The study of Redmond provides a context for the rise of Carson; Reviewing the career of Carson explains how the political landscape for Redmond was changed forever. 


As Professor Jackson shows so well, Redmond and Carson were of the same generation, attended the same university, and lived a few hundred metres apart in Dublin.  They had a strong and genuine respect for each other, which became friendship. 


To a certain extent they were both compromise choices as leader, Redmond in 1900 and Carson in 1910.  However as Professor Jackson also shows there were also some significant differences.  Carson was the ultimate townsman, Redmond preferred the countryside.  Carson’s first love was the law, Redmond struggled to make much of an impact in that profession. 


They also took a different approach to bullies.  When Lord Kitchener berated Carson in 1914 for holding out for Tyrone and Fermanagh, Carson told him that he was ‘a damned clever fellow’ for telling him what he should be doing.  When Kitchener suggested that if had been involved he would have knocked Redmond and Carson’s heads together, Carson shut him up by telling him ‘I’d like to see you try’. 


As Jackson brilliantly describes it, Carson ‘sneered and growled and affected contempt’ and Kitchener soon backed down. 


However when Kitchener met with Redmond it was a different story.  Instead of standing up to Kitchener, Redmond sent a strongly worded letter to the British prime minister, complaining that he had been ‘rather disquieted by the conversation’. 


Flicking through the book, I found myself wondering, which of the two figures I would prefer to be working alongside today.  From the evidence, it seems clear that Redmond would have made the better cabinet minister, although perhaps Carson is the person I would like to have beside me in a fight. 


As Professor Jackson explains, Redmond was ‘patient, careful, consensual – but occasionally capable of the necessary anger’ and his ‘combination of personal and political qualities looked very much like an essential skill-set for ministerial office’. 

Carson, by contrast, ‘was impatient and unhappy when away from the law courts’, and the qualities that made him such a brilliant cross-examiner made him ‘a bad team-player’.   He ‘coped badly with the challenges of sustained administration’. 

Professor Jackson concludes the book with an intriguing counterfactual, wondering how things might have turned out if Carson had been the leader of Irish constitutional nationalism in this period, and Redmond had been the leader of Irish unionism.  We might very well be living in a completely different kind of state.


I have never written a biography, but I am getting an insight into the craft of the biographer because a few people are currently working on biographies of me.  One author, for example, is intrigued to see what position I took on political issues when I was a student in Trinity debating in the College Historical Society, the same society where Carson honed his skills as an orator. 




However, before anyone decides to read too much into things I might have said as a student, I might just say that Edward Carson always liked to joke in later years, that, as a student, he had spoken frequently and loudly against the Act of Union, so it isn’t always a good indication of future positions!


Of course, History is replete with ironies.  One of the ironies of this period is that although Carson’s statue stands proudly outside of Stormont, he was really fighting to keep the entire island of Ireland within the United Kingdom.  He was an all-island unionist from Dublin, who has become the symbol of Ulster separatism.  Partition was, for him, a backstop solution – a fall-back position if his main objective could not be achieved.  In the end, he was disillusioned with the way he felt he had been outmanoeuvred; famously lamenting that he had only been a puppet in a political game. 






As we all know Redmond and Carson are divisive figures in the Republic of Ireland. 


Today the popular image of Redmond is of someone urging Irish people to go off and fight in the first world war, and he is blamed by some for not predicting the horrors that were to come.  We forget the way he united a divided party, helped achieve land reform, and brought constitutional nationalism almost to the promised land.







Likewise in this state, the image of Carson is of someone who stretched the limits of what was legal to oppose home rule and whose intransigence led to the partition of this island.   The hero of ‘the Winslow Boy’, and other famous cases is ignored.  The exception, of course, is the trial of Oscar Wilde, where it is forgotten that he was defending Queensbury in a criminal libel trial, not prosecuting his former friend.  Carson’s role in articulating and defending a different vision of Irishness is similarly neglected. 


It is too easy to make harsh judgments when there is no attempt to understand the context of the time, instead relying on the benefit of hindsight, the condescension of posterity.   Complex historical figures are reduced to simple caricatures. 


Hindsight may be 20:20 vision, but it makes for poor history. 


As Professor Jackson shows, the first world war changed the destinies of both men.  It destroyed Redmond, and it damaged Carson’s mystique.   The deaths of so many Irish people, and the impact of the 1916 Rising, ensured that Irish nationalism took a different path, a path that was a rejection of Redmond’s vision for the future. 


In the same period, Carson’s experiences in government, when it was revealed that he was much better suited to leading the opposition to a movement, than directing a cause, hurt his image as a leader. 


Alvin Jackson is one of the finest historians writing about Irish and British history, and this book adds to his already considerable reputation.  It is also a welcome addition to the ‘Judging’ series that has produced important volumes by Diarmaid Ferriter, Tom Garvin, and Michael Laffan on De Valera, Lemass and Cosgrave, and by Fintan O’Toole on George Bernard Shaw. 


Not so long ago, one of my forbears was criticised for having a portrait of John Redmond in his office.  The idea of a Taoiseach having a portrait of Edward Carson in his office would have been unthinkable. 



The mature, inclusive way we commemorated the centenary of the 1916 Rising suggests that we have moved beyond such emotive reactions.  Today, a Fine Gael Taoiseach can have a portrait of Sean Lemass in his office, as well as one of Michael Collins, alongside ones celebrating the Irish suffragettes and other campaigners. Perhaps, it is not too far fetched to imagine a day when a portrait of Carson or Craig adorns the Taoiseach’s office or even the possibility that the office hold might hale from that tradition.



On this, the centenary of his death, it is right that we remember John Redmond and his legacy.   For my own party, there were some long connections.   His son, William, became a Cumann na nGaedheal TD in the early 1930s, and William’s widow, Bridget, was a Fine Gael TD for twenty years until her death in 1952. 


When another of my forbears, Garrett FitzGerald, was campaigning for the local Fine Gael candidate, Eddie Collins, in a by-election in Waterford in 1966 he was told that he needed to be presented as ‘Redmond’s man’.  And I am delighted to see that some of John Redmond’s descendents – and some of John Dillon’s, another massive figure in the history of constitutional nationalism - are here today.


Carson has been described as a patriot not a nationalist.  It reminds us that there can also be nationalists who are not patriots. 

Sometimes the people who speak loudest about how ‘our’ day will come, never provide details about what kind of day that will be, or whether it is one that will welcome all people. 


The book is a finely argued account, which makes judgements but is never judgemental. 


It represents a more nuanced and mature approach to the conflicts which shaped the creation of the Irish state and the state of Northern Ireland. 


It is time to approach the past, with empathy and a spirit of generosity, with a respect for the context in which decisions were made, and not with how we would have preferred things to have happened.


If we can approach the past with toleration, respect, and understanding, then perhaps we can approach our challenges of the present in the same way as well.