by H. MONTGOMERY HYDE
The Chief Secretary Augustine Birrell in Ireland by Leon O'Brion (Chatto & Windus 42s.)
AUGUSTINE BIRRELL was perhaps the most urbane. sophisticated and witty figure in the Liberal Cabinets of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, which contained some of the most talented men of the present century.
After a short spell as President of the Board of Education, during which he gave Ireland her first Catholic University. he took on the much more difficult job of governing the country as chief executive minister. He held Office for the unprecedented period of nine years, finally resigning after the bloody Easter Week, 1916, in Dublin. since he blamed himself for failing to foresee the rising.
Others were equally responsible, not least Asquith the Prime Minister, but it, was Birrell who took the rap. Dr. O'Brion's carefully researched and well documented study of Birrell's time in Ireland is a valuable corrective to the inadequate account of his character and career in the Dictionary of National Biography.
The son of a Liverpool Baptist Minister, Birrell himself was probably never baptised, though he remained, as he put it. theologically minded but unorthodox, at heart an agnostic. Nevertheless he confessed to having a soft corner in that heart for religious minorities such as Catholics and Jews. In a discussion about what happened at the Reformation he once expressed the view that "it is the Mass that matters: it is the Mass that makes the difference, so hard to define, so subtle it is, yet so perceptible, between a Catholic country and a Protestant one, between Dublin and Edinburgh." He prefaced his statement by saying that nobody nowadays save a handful of vulgar fanatics speaks irreverently of the Mass nor could witness, however ignorantly. the Mass without emotion. Fortunately for him he did not live to see the Rev. Ian Paisley in action.
Sir Henry Robinson, an experienced Irish chill servant, warned Birrell what to expect when he went to Belfast. Robinson did not believe in Ulster's so-called loyalty. "At the root of it all was a firm determination not to be under the rule of a Roman Catholic Parliament," he told his chief. "England was Protestant and the Ulstermen would not be torn away from their Protestant Parliament. "That was the whole thing."
The severance was only partial, since the six northeastern counties of Ulster are still represented at Westminster, while she now has her own Parliament at Stormont for local affairs, "a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people," as one Prime Minister of Northern Ireland has described it. In a hitherto unpublished letter to Winston Churchill, as he was preparing to go over to Belfast and address a Home Rule Meeting in 1912, at which trouble was expected. Birrell wrote: In Belfast two mobs are necessary, a Catholic mob and a Protestant mob. and it is the military who seek to prevent them from murdering each other. In this case there would have been no Catholic mob .
It is scarcely necessary to add that the situation in Belfast has changed little in more than half a century.
This is an altogether fascinating book on a troubled chapter of Irish history. Throughout a long and rather pathetic retirement after his promising political career lay in ruins he was actually tipped as Campbell-Bannerman's successor as Prime Minister — Birrell had no illusions about his fate which he accepted quite philosophically. "As for history, be damned to history," he said at this time. "What's history done for me? To this melancholy plight am I red uccd."
Augustus Bissell deserves to be remembered for his tolerance and understanding, and also for his gallant attempt to give the whole of Ireland self-government within the United Kingdom framework. He nearly pulled it off, but events overtook him in the shape of Sinn Fein.