This review was written on July 12th 2004
I am spending a few days in my son Richard’s dower house in Clones with Louise. She has gone golfing to St Helen’s while I am alone here reading Harold Nicolson’s “King George and his Reign”, and paying a few casual visits to the outside, pulling the odd weed in his extensive young garden, surveying the quiet sea and listening to its incessant voice, and enjoying the sandy surroundings on a beautifully mild, sunny day. I walked earlier on the strand at the waters’ edge in my bare feet to the headland south of Clones, exactly thirty minutes each way – a perfect ambience and opportunity for life’s contemplation. Contemplating life means again facing the challenge of writing my medical memoirs, a task I should undertake but I continue to shirk. Despite the occasional urging of others and my own awareness of my unusual professional career, I find it impossible to undertake this task. (Memoirs of a Medical Maverick was eventually published by Liberties Press in 2010 - RM)
King George - his Life and Reign by Harold Nicolson was published in 1952 by Constable and Co. It is in my father’s library. It is underlined with notes and his shorthand comments. The book is well written if somewhat florid in the style of fifty years ago. It is heavy going but, notwithstanding this, it is educational and clearly important for anyone interested in recent European history. It is laudatory in it’s account of George V but it clearly emerges from Nicolson’s record that George V was an exceptionally dedicated monarch, and that his influence played a crucial part in the welfare and survival of his country and it’s dominions during the tumultuous years from 1910 to the time of his death in 1936. He was a modest and highly conscientious man who felt a deep love and concern about all his subjects, whatever their standing in society. His concern extended to the countries in the British dominions and colonies, and indeed to humanity in general. Under the constitution (or lack of), he had no executive or political power, but he had an important advisory and conciliatory role which was independent of the political system which prevailed in Britain.
|King George V and Queen Mary visit Maynooth in 1911|
Nicolson’s biography would suggest that, in the case of George V, the closest to an ideal political system may be the British democratic one where the head of state has an important advisory function only and is responsible directly to the people for upholding the constitution and for the integrity of the parliamentary system. It would have been difficult to promulgate any real political injustice in Britain while King George was head of state.
|Royal cousins Tsar Nicholas II, King George V and Kaiser Wilhelm II|
Our experience in Ireland, where we have had a non-executive president since 1937, is worth reviewing. Our first President had no political background but was appointed by agreement between all political parties because of his distinguished academic and cultural background. Apart from the routine of approving legislation passed by Parliament, he had no obvious advisory role. His successors, O’Kelly, De Valera, Childers and Paddy Hillery were members of the Fianna Fail party and were elected by popular vote because of the influence of their political colleagues and the political machine. O’Dallaigh, appointed before Hillery, was a judge and was not a member of a political party. He was elected by agreement and at short notice because of Childers’s unexpected death in office but he resigned soon after his appointment because of a perceived insult by the then Minister for Justice, a member of the Fine Gael Party.
Our presidents lack the long monarchic tradition of the British and up to 20 years ago have, with the exception of the first president, Dr. Douglas Hyde, been successfully nominated and elected by the dominant Fianna Fail Party. Their nominees have been mostly senior members of the party who had come to the end of their effective political careers. From the point of view of their playing a real role in national or international affairs, their tenure of the presidency was hardly inspiring, perhaps with the exception of Erskine Childers. However, we have been fortunate in our last two presidents who have represented the country internationally with great dignity and who have been active on public issues without trespassing too closely into the political arena. Mary Robinson was elected against the nominee of the government party. She was nominated by the Labour Party and received considerable Fine Gael support, although Fine Gael had put forward its own candidate. Both these parties were in opposition at the time.
Mary McAleese was supported by Fianna Fail but she had not been a member of the Party and appeared to have sprung herself on them in the absence of a convenient party nominee. Both Robinson and McAleese proved to be excellent choices. They were free from the stigma of party politics and they owed their election to the apolitical influence of the electorate. I suspect that our political system incorporating a non-executive president is as good as we are likely to devise as long as the choice of president is made by a public uninfluenced by narrow political pressures. Surely the presidency, if it is to play an effective role in Ireland, deserves better than being represented by a candidate whose only recommendation is his or her retirement from the dominant political party.
Chapter 21 of King George’s biography, The Irish Treaty, deals with the Irish situation in 1921. Nicolson confirms the complacency and lack of realism of the British in dealing with Ireland and the Irish question. Sir Hamar Greenwood was Chief Secretary for Ireland at the time. His poor judgment, his lack of integrity and his Tory attitude to the Irish must have been significant factors in creating the persistent difficulties between London and the local administration. His predecessor, Augustine Birrell, would have been clearly a better catalyst.
It is clear that Sir Neville Macready, the head of the army in Ireland, was by far the most realistic about Anglo-Irish relations and had the greatest understanding of the situation (see later review of the Macready biography, the Annals of an Active Life). The King himself, according to Nicolson, believed all the British forces, including the police, should have been under Macready. My father, as head of the IRA during the War of Independence, believed that the comprehensive intervention of the British Army during the War would have lead quickly to the end of hostilities. With the army in charge, it would have eliminated the tensions, divisions, and squabbles which existed between the administration, the police and the British army in Ireland, and contributed to the gross incompetence of the British authorities and the atrocities which were inevitable on both sides. Full army control was not allowed by the British because of the administration’s reluctance to admit that the Irish affair constituted a war and was entirely an internal matter to be dealt by the police.
Why did the Dail, on 16 August 1921, reject unanimously the generous British offer of dominion status? Were the members completely divorced from the political realities of the situation by the rhetoric of the Republic? Were they dominated and rubber stamped by de Valera? Was the latter influenced by Childers, Brugha or Stack? Were they the victims of Dev’s remoteness and his refusal to communicate or to seek advice? The Dail was certainly not representing the views of the people nor had it been elected by the majority of the electorate. Never did a man look into his own heart and do so so disastrously as when Dev failed to compromise on the Treaty. Dev was very difficult to deal with during the long drawn negotiations from early July to October in an attempt to arrange a treaty with the representatives of the British Government. His vacillation was an almost insuperable challenge to a person of the volatile and mercurial temperament of Lloyd George. There is no doubt that King George V played a vital part in maintaining Lloyd George’s patience during the three months he was subjected to Dev’s haggling on so many academic and trivial points.
Nicolson’s summary is inaccurate in some respects, sometimes by omission rather than commission. He finishes the chapter on Ireland by maintaining that the Civil War was in no sense the responsibility of His Majesty’s Government. This is probably not true when one recalls Lloyd George’s failure to act at the time of the Clune truce initiative in November 1920 when he insisted on the condition of decommissioning and he disastrously thought that he had ‘murder by the throat’. A truce in 1920 would have avoided the bitterness of the last six months of the War of Independence and it would have diminished the later commitment of the extreme IRA to the rhetoric of the Republic, and the certainty of the subsequent Civil War. There was no mention of decommissioning when the truce was arranged in July 1921.
He states, page 356, that …a formal truce was signed in Dublin between Sir Neville Macready and Mr Richard Mulcahy, Chief of Staff of the IRA. This is not correct. The truce was signed by Macready on the British side and by Cathal Brugha, Minister for Defence of Sinn Fein, on the Irish side. Of course, for reasons of protocol, Mulcahy should have signed on behalf of the Irish, an anomaly which reflects his unwillingness to question Brugha and to face up to Brugha’s antipathy to the army leaders. When I questioned my father about this lack of protocol and of courtesy on Brugha’s part he replied ‘’I would do nothing to threaten the fragile nature of the Truce’’