The Conservative Party’s support for threatened loyalist insurrection in Ulster in 1914 was a “dark period” in Tory history, one of the party’s most prominent politicians of the modern age has said.
Michael Portillo, who was a famously right-wing young member of Margaret Thatcher’s government, was speaking to the News Letter about his film on the Easter Rising.
The documentary, which examined the 1916 rebellion through the prism of official British files from the period, was screened on BBC One NI on Thursday and has also been shown on RTE and BBC Two in England and Wales.
After working on the programme Mr Portillo, who was seen as a strong British nationalist when he served under the intensely unionist and patriotic first woman prime minister, seems to be critical of both the Rising rebels and Ulster loyalists.
“Ireland was pursuing a constitutional course and the Irish nationalists in parliament had formed a coalition with the Liberals, had produced Home Rule, which had passed all its stages, and had become law in 1914 and it’s a dark period in the history of the Conservative Party that a Conservative Party allied itself very publicly with what was ... prospectively an armed rising against the Crown, against the will of parliament, as the Ulster volunteers armed themselves.”
He is referring to Bonar Law and his Tory party’s emphatic support for Ulster loyalist resistance to Home Rule.
Mr Portillo is a Cambridge University graduate of modern history but he insists that he knew little about the Rising prior to the TV project. During filming he was made welcome by people in the Republic, having been there previously to make episodes for his TV series about railway journeys in the British Isles.
“It was great to film in Ireland ... of course we were dealing with some very grim subjects, and I found that that weighed upon me because I was trying to put myself in the position as a former politician of the politicians of 1916, the British politicians, and try and reach a fair judgement as to whether they had done their jobs as well as they personally could.
“I think by and large my suspicion was that they made a lot of mistakes but probably their choices were between making the mistakes they made or diferent mistakes.”
The film makers said that Mr Portillo had a rare perspective as a former cabinet minister for defence, a role which he says saw him visit Northern Ireland “a great deal”.
He well understands the stresses of high-level politics and he cites the extreme pressures on the 1916 prime minister, Herbert Asquith.
“The government had been in since 1906 – ten years – Asquith had been in for eight of those and it was worn down I would have thought by the terrible crises from before the First World War began, which included the Suffragettes, intense industrial strife, the rejection of a budget, the need to reform the House of Lords.
“Then from 1910 he has to govern a coalition with the Irish nationalists, the price of that is Home Rule, which of course brings an enormous price, then he has to think about how or whether to react to the Ulster volunteers who are drilling and arming, he decides – and this is part of the mistake – not to react at all to what they are doing, he faces the prospect of civil war in Ireland in 1914 and then is relieved from that burden but only because he has to fight a world war, an existential war, against Germany.
“Just wonder how these people bore those burdens.”
That burden on Asquith he says is “many times greater” even than that on David Cameron, who has been battered by crises including the near independence of Scotland, the refugee influx, the rise of Isis and the coming Brexit vote.
Asked if the biggest British mistake in the face of the Rising was the executions, Mr Portillo says: “There is a prior key mistake which is not to stop the Rising.
“To me it is clear that the Rising could have been stopped, the intelligence was there, the intelligence was clear, and you know the British easily had the military capability to do that, they had the intelligence, they could have rounded people up.
“Of course had they rounded up the troublemakers that would have had consequences too, that would have provided a terrific sense of grievance to Ireland and that would have been a serious problem.
“However, there wouldn’t have been a Rising and so the question of the executions would not have arisen or certainly would not have arisen in the same way. So I think you have to say that Augustine Birrell (chief secretary for Ireland) who overlooked the intelligence bears a very important responsibility.”
He said that Mr Birrell “came from the best of motivations” as a British politician who “most unusually” had made an effort to understand Ireland but did not believe the intelligence, or did not want to believe it.
Mr Portillo points out that executions happened in a context of thousands of men dying at the Western front, where deserters and traitors were shot, and in an age where the death penalty applied to murder – “... this uprising began with the murder of Irish citizens”.
He also adds that “the Proclamation declared Germany ‘gallant allies’, that it was accompanied by a shipment of German arms, that there was a German submarine bringing in Roger Casement to Ireland, that is a big context at a time when the war was going badly”.
Even so, Mr Portillo says, the British military leader General John Maxwell “motors on with the executions in a way which is hard to defend”.