Treaties, Histories and Spins

Centenary events in Ireland have led to some interesting presentations, including some stimulating historical discussions as part of President Higgins’ online Machnamh seminars.

Working on a collaborative project on the origins of Irish diplomacy has reminded me of the significance of law to all international settlements.

How this can differ from perceptions of, or spins upon, the same issues is worth noting. As Conor Cruise O’Brien, a fine writer and one-time diplomat, once noted (in a stimulating 1968 essay within Conor Cruise O’Brien introduces Ireland), subtle legal clauses in international agreements were important “but unlikely to make the rafters ring in Roscommon”.

In the current day, the extent of freely-available, online historical footage is not only welcome but can also create expectations to be able to find whatever one seeks. For Irish material, rather than broadcasting on YouTube, RTE Archives places material on the RTE website. It is often tantalising to see interviews or statements by historical figures, yet I’m often disappointed that it is but of a brief extract from some longer, unknown programme that will probably never be seen.

One that popped up recently was a clip from a 50th anniversary event from 1971 that was held by the Fine Gael party and was evidently televised by RTE. In it, Arthur Griffith was cited as a champion of non-sectarian politics in engaging with both unionists and nationalists in Ireland. It was not pointed out that his hope in getting a legal agreement with which unionists could abide was that this would compel them to cooperate with a nationalist-led government. As things happened, the refusal of Irish banks to work with such a government essentially starved it of resources.

When I was working on a biography of Griffith, I was wondering if he anticipated this development or not prior to his death in August 1922. I never found a definitive answer to that question. He was certainly determined to make the best of a situation, yet evidence suggests that he died in disappointment, even if he would not admit disillusionment. His principal critic, Robert Barton, later suggested in his Bureau of Military History statement (which can be found online) that Griffith made the mistake of viewing an Anglo-Irish agreement in political rather than legal terms. If that is a moot point, historians certainly could make a similar “mistake” if they do not tease out the full connotations of any legal settlement, be it international or otherwise.

Perhaps that is a moral that could be drawn for historical commemorations as well, no matter how interesting the breadth of their reflections may be. If all historians were as sharp as constitutional lawyers it may be all the better for historical studies, yet public interest may well dwindle in the process. Interpretations of law and interpretations of history can be equally broad and open to change, yet the connection between the two mental disciplines is not always self-evident, even to “us” historians. In my own experience, this thought can serve as a good reminder to self during the process of developing various historical interpretations.