Books: Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith's vision for a new Ireland 'left door open to northern Protestants'

Almost 100 years after the death of Arthur Griffith, Colum Kenny argues that the generosity the Sinn Féin founder displayed in his efforts to reassure unionists about their place in a unified Ireland offers lessons for today's nationalist politicians

Griffith did not expect unionists to like a united Ireland at first, but he was convinced that it could safeguard their cultural, religious and economic interests
Colum Kenny

ARTHUR Griffith was of Ulster Presbyterian stock, and given (some said) to a very Protestant “private judgment”.

During the War of Independence in 1920 Griffith was acting-president of Dáil Éireann, as de Valera went to America for 18 months. A pragmatic man, Griffith tried to convince unionists of the economic and social benefits of a united Ireland, until his sudden death in 1922.

Trumpeted by The New York Times in 1922 as “Head of the Irish Free State”, Griffith's hard work and realism were too quickly forgotten when he died.

He was elected in 1921 for two Ulster constituencies, Cavan and Fermanagh-Tyrone. He was generous in his efforts to reassure unionists. In my new assessment, The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: ‘Father of Us All', he emerges as the pragmatic voice of Sinn Féin, the party that he founded.

Given recent fumbling by politicians in the Republic, talking about the retention of red letter-boxes in Ulster and commemorating “decent” members of the RIC, there is much to learn from Griffith. He did not expect unionists to like a united Ireland at first, but he was convinced that it could safeguard their cultural, religious and economic interests.

Griffith, in common with Edward Carson, was born in Dublin. But his widow said that "his grandfather or great-grandfather had come to Dublin from Redhills in Cavan, having been thrown out by his Presbyterian family because he had become Catholic".

He saw both sides of the sectarian divide and was never craven. Yeats described him as an anti-cleric. He voiced criticism of Catholic bishops in the nationalist papers that he edited. One of his titles was closed when a priest successfully sued him for libel.

In the Northern Ireland general election of 1921, while interned in Mountjoy Jail, Griffith headed the poll in the eight-seater constituency of Fermanagh and Tyrone. He received more votes than the next two candidates combined (both unionist). He was also returned unopposed in Cavan. He did not take his seat in the Northern Ireland parliament but sat in the Dáil.

Griffith and other Irish signatories of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 believed that the Boundary Commission that the treaty envisaged would allow swathes of Northern Ireland's six counties to pass into the Irish Free State. He had advised de Valera from London that such a scheme “would give us most of Tyrone, Fermanagh, and part of Armagh, Down, etc.”

That of course never happened. Collins and Griffith drove a weak deal on the Boundary Commission. In any event, their cabinet colleagues in Dublin got windy when Protestants and unionists living in some border areas of the emerging Free State demanded that their lands be included within the boundary of Northern Ireland.

Griffith was said to be “extremely reticent” about his family or ancestors. But one researcher was directed to the story of an ostensibly fictional ‘Billy Griffith' of Co Tipperary that appeared in 1885 in Young Ireland. This concerned a Protestant farmer, Billy Griffith, who long ago hid a Catholic priest from men hunting him.

To Catholics of Griffith's day Arthur's own name and that of his brother Billy (William) would seem more likely to be Protestant than Catholic. Occasional speculation that Griffith's ancestors came from Wales to Ireland as settlers is no more than gossip, but the kind of gossip that might do damage to one's Irish nationalist credentials.

Griffith's advocacy of a system of government for Ireland somewhat like what had existed before the Act of Union, including a monarch but now with a Catholic majority in a restored Irish parliament under a much broader franchise, echoed the future president of Ireland Douglas Hyde's desire “to render the present a rational continuation of the past”.

It left the door open to northern Protestants to support independence, not least by maintaining a link with the Crown. Griffith was a republican, not a monarchist, but he was willing to compromise for the good of all Irish people on the island.

He objected to events surrounding the Larne gunrunning in 1913, not because he felt that Irishmen should not be allowed guns (as Americans were guaranteed them under the United States constitution), but because be thought it wrong that Crown forces facilitated unionists owning them while in practice denying the right to nationalists.

Griffith himself took part in the subsequent gunrunning at Howth in 1914. He can be seen in a photo taken soon afterwards drilling with the rifle that he got there. Indeed, always eager to be inclusive, when he wrote of attempts to conceal the Howth guns from Crown forces that day, he noted that, “Some were stored in the houses of the neighbourhood, including the houses of many unionists who freely and honourably assisted in preserving the weapons”.

He did not fully oppose the Belfast Boycott. It was intended to help protect Catholics who were under sectarian attack but was arguably excessive and thus damaging to the prospects of a united Ireland. He made concessions to more extreme republicans in order not to split nationalists.

Yet Griffith was willing to offer unionists a disproportionate number of representatives in any Irish parliament and to give them reassurances on their own security and related matters of concern. Of course some Ulster unionists opposed any form of united Ireland as inimical to their traditions regardless of material considerations, as many still do.

With demography tipping the balance of power in Northern Ireland today there is still much to admire in Griffith's attitude and thinking. One should not wait for the other side to go a half-mile (or even further) towards reconciliation. Griffith's willingness to compromise generously is never out of date.

:: Colum Kenny is author of The Enigma of Arthur Griffith: ‘Father of Us All', published by Merrion Press (€19.95) and available now.

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