Book Review: Fatal Path by Ronan Fanning

Cover of Fatal Path by Ronan Fanning

This book was published last year to much acclaim. There were lots of complimentary reviews, and I’m not going to dissent here from the majority view. Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin and this book represents the fruits of extensive research, analysis and thinking over decades.

Political Violence

Its reception was accompanied by some controversy because of Fanning’s assertion that it was violence that brought about the negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Free State and ultimately an Irish Republic. In his own words:

“This book argues that it [the violence of 1919-21] was indeed necessary: that there is no shred of evidence that Lloyd George’s Tory-dominated government would have moved beyond the 1914-style limitations of the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 unless impelled to do so by the campaign of the IRA.”1

But the violence did not begin with the IRA. Fanning firmly lays the blame on Home Rule’s opponents in Ireland:UVF photo

“Fear of Ulster Unionist violence so paralysed British policy from 1912 to 1914 that it prevented the implementation of home rule and corroded the faith of Ireland’s constitutional nationalists in parliamentary democracy.”2

In his introduction Fanning pre-empts the criticisms he anticipates this viewpoint will bring.

“This book neither sympathises nor identifies with the political uses of violence then or now. It is simply a case study in the high politics of how physical force can prevail over democracy.”3

To suggest otherwise, Fanning argues, is to distort history in order to affect the present. This may be a tempting thing to do, for fear of encouraging those still involved today in political violence in Ireland, but “it is not history”.4

Personally, I remember debating Mao Zedong’s statement that “political power grows out of the barrel of the gun” in my political studies class at school, and coming to the conclusion that – however galling it may be – Mao was right. So I have to agree with Fanning on this.

High Politics

This is very much an account of the ‘high politics’ of the period. Attention is focussed on what was happening in the UK:5 the manoeuvrings and shifting alliances among the various grouping within the Houses of Parliament and even within the government are dealt with in greater detail than any other book on the subject that I have read.6 What was happening on the other side of the Irish Sea is more often alluded to as background. So, for example, the tempestuous Dáil debates over ratification of Anglo-Irish Treaty and the ensuing bitter split are only given two sentences.

Fanning’s key thesis is that British government’s ‘Irish policy’ (if you want to dignify it with such a name) revolved around political expedience, and in particular the wish of British politicians to get into or stay in power. Never in this whole period was there a principled attempt to deal with the ‘Irish question’, such as Gladstone’s thirty years earlier. Hand-in-hand with this goes an implicit condemnation of many of those involved:

  • Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was determined not to lose office over Ireland but had no particular interest in Home Rule (indeed, he had a certain personal antipathy to it). The entire issue encouraged what Fanning calls his “predilection for procrastination”. (Asquith was the populiser of the phrase “wait and see”.)
  • Irish chief secretary Augustine Birrell was “amiable but indolent” and the advice he gave the government was completely at odds with what he thought in private.
  • John Redmond appears as a man out of his depth and constantly deceived by Asquith.
  • On the other side are Fanning’s real villains, diehard Unionists Edward Carson and James Craig, prepared to use illegal methods to frustrate Home Rule, and Tory opposition leader Andrew Bonar Law, who encouraged the unconstitutional behaviour of the UVF and others.

All of these strong opinions promise the reader a story filled with strong passions, excitement and dodgy dealing, which isn’t really the case. In fact, I found the narrative a bit flat, as it moves from one committee room to the next, from X’s meeting with Y to Y’s written memo about it to Z. Drama is often lacking when it needn’t. Take, for example, Prime Minister Lloyd George’s meeting with de Valera in 1921. There is a lot to relish in this scene: two skilled political operators, their positions utterly opposed, meeting for the first time face-to-face. On the wall of the room they are talking in, Lloyd George has a huge map of the world, with the vast territories of the British Empire marked in red, in order to impress de Valera. The Irishman pointedly isn’t impressed and instead treats the British PM to a lecture on Irish history. At one point, Lloyd George notices (or perhaps pretends he has just noticed) the letterhead on de Valera’s official notepaper. “What does Saorstát Éireann mean?” he asks. “Irish Free State,” replies de Valera. Lloyd George then queries whether this is the Irish translation of “Republic”. He possibly knew, and his opposing number certainly knew, that the rebels of 1916 had declared a “Poblacht na hÉireann”, not a “Saorstát”. Lloyd George then turns to his Secretary Thomas Jones (a Welshman like the PM) and the two men begin a long discussion in Welsh, which was actually Lloyd George’s first language. De Valera, the American-born English-speaker, who only learnt Irish later in life, can’t understand a word and has to sit there until the discussion finishes. To his further discomfiture, Lloyd George then informs him that they have decided that neither Welsh nor Irish has a word for “Republic”, as this form of government is alien to Celtic cultures!7

lloyd george photo

David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister who forced through a settlement of the ‘Irish Question’ in 1921.

Or take what happened just before that: as de Valera is going in to see Lloyd George, he come across James Craig, leader of the Ulster Unionists, who is on his way out. Craig asks de Valera if he plans to go into the meeting alone and when de Valera confirms this Craig says to him, “Are you mad? Take a witness. Lloyd George will give any account of the interview that comes into his mind or that suits him.”8

It’s amusing to think that Craig was so shocked by the Prime Minister’s duplicity that he was prepared to give his arch-enemy advice like this.

None of this ‘human interest element’ is in Fanning’s book.

Revelatory Insights

But that is my single criticism. Otherwise there are some very valuable insights. For example, the Parliament Act of 1911 that limited the House of Lords’ powers is normally presented as an unalloyed victory for the pro-Home Rule party; Fanning points out it meant a delay that its opponents exploited very effectively:

“The assumption that the Parliament Act smoothed the way for the passage of home rule cemented the Liberal–Irish alliance. Neither ally saw profit in acknowledging that its triumph contained the seeds of disaster or in dwelling on the uniquely corrosive feature of the act: that, while it removed the largest obstruction to the resurrection of home rule, it effectively postponed the day of resurrection for at least three years. For, although it destroyed the permanent veto of the House of Lords, it sanctioned a new two-year veto. What this meant in practice was that, although a home-rule bill could be introduced in 1912, it could not be enacted before the high summer of 1914.”9

This fact encouraged delaying tactics by the opposition, both within and outside of Parliament. The Parliament Act had also reduced the length between elections from seven to five years, and with the next election due in 1915 the Tories – playing ‘the Orange card’ – had good chances of getting in and ending any Home Rule plans.

Or take another instance where Fanning provides an illuminating extra angle to a well-known event: the treaty negotiations of 1921. It’s generally accepted that the Irish delegates sent to London were not as experienced as the British delegation, and were correspondingly manipulated by Lloyd George (the ‘Welsh Wizard’) but Fanning offers an additional explanation, namely, that the Irish were hampered by the ‘purity’ of their Republican ideals:

“[…] even the very name ‘Sinn Féin’ (‘Ourselves’) with its emphasis on the virtues of self-reliance, revealed a mentality scornful of negotiation. The first act of Dáil Éireann, declared its ceann comhairle (speaker) at its inaugural meeting on 21 January 1919, was to break with Britain. Until the truce ended the Anglo-Irish war, Sinn Féin’s solution to the age-old problem of the constitutional relationship between Britain and Ireland had been as simplistic as it was psychologically satisfying: the declaration of an independent, sovereign republic and the denial that there was any legitimate connection between the two islands. The truce marked the point when such simplicities were discarded. As de Valera admitted to the Dáil, ‘Negotiations were necessary because we held one view and the British another.’ But the revolutionary distrust of talking to the enemy was not so easily shed. The Dáil, moreover, was a one-party assembly where there was no opposition to be persuaded or convinced.”10

Such an attitude despised the muddy compromises necessary in politics. (“I know nothing about your politics. I have only to think of Ireland,” Michael Collins told C. P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian.)11

Conversely, the British delegation had come to the talks determined to come out of them with something, whatever that ‘something’ might be. Indeed, Fanning asserts that once the entity of Northern Ireland was established, both the Cabinet and Her Majesty’s Opposition regarded pretty much everything else as negotiable.

And that’s pretty much how things turned out: the topic of Northern Ireland was put aside by the convenient device of a ‘boundary commission’ (which Fanning deals with in his Epilogue) and an agreement was forced through that gave the Irish a lot of what they wanted (not everything but certainly more than had been on offer before). The Ulster Unionists, who had never wanted Home Rule, pragmatically sat on what they had got and refused to budge for anyone, while the more doctrinaire Republicans had a last attempt at expunging all British influence in Ireland and helped thrust the country into civil war instead. The Irish Civil War effectively ended attempts to destabilise or do away with Northern Ireland, as IRA brigades in the North moved south to fight for one side or the other. Fanning ends in December 1922 with James Craig, now first Prime Minister of a newly official Northern Ireland, going on holiday.

To summarise, I’d say that even if you think you’ve read all you need to about the period, you should read this one nonetheless for its unique perspective on events.

Photo by kyz

Photo by The Library of Congress


  1. Introduction. 
  2. Introduction. 
  3. Introduction. 
  4. Introduction.  
  5. It’s worth reading this book alongside John Dorney’s ’Peace After the Final Battle’: The Story of the Irish Revolution, which deals with the same time period but from the Irish point of view. (By ‘point of view’ I mean focus, rather than bias, though I don’t think Dorney quite understands the Ulster Unionists.) 
  6. Disclaimer: I haven’t read them all. 
  7. I am retelling this from memory, as I can’t find the book I read it in. (Can anyone help?) Part, but not all, is in ‘I Signed My Death Warrant’: Michael Collins and the Treaty by T.Ryle Dwyer. 
  8. Ireland Since the Famine by F. S. Lyons, p. 427. 
  9. Chpt. 3. 
  10. Chpt. 10. 
  11. Quoted in Chpt. 10. 
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