Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1919-1923 by Ronan Fanning, Faber and Faber, 2013


A light and easy read about the British perspective during the Anglo-Irish War. I greatly enjoyed this book. Since I normally read about the conflict from the side of the IRA/Irish Nationalist’s, this book was enjoyable and provided needed context for the British reactions to the Irish rebels. Fanning is a strong writer and takes the minutia that is British parliamentary politics and make it easier to understand as well as interesting.

Fanning argues that, in terms of Ireland, violence worked. He convincingly argues that Ulster’s violent resistance to the Third Home Rule Bill and Asquith’s refusal to do anything more than buy time, led to the partition of Ireland back in the early 1910’s. The rest was a bloody and drawn out affair that Lloyd George took advantage of, to get rid of a troublesome colony while retaining Northern Ireland

Fanning starts his book by explaining the uneasy alliance that had developed between the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Liberal party, dating back to Gladstone and Parnell. Fanning’s at his best when writing about Asquith’s reluctant disdain for anything that had to do with Ireland, preferring to play a game of wait and see, while making promises to everyone. He also tolerated Ulster violence and gun running but cracked down on the Nationalist’s gun running.

Asquith was an imperialist liberal and was annoyed by the alliance Gladstone and Parnell created between their two parties. He sided with Ulster because it allowed him to retain Ireland and satisfy his colonial aspirations. World War I put the Irish question on hold, except for Easter Rising, which hardly registered as a blip for Asquith’s government. He only interfered when there was some backlash against the executions of the leaders.

Asquith was replaced by Lloyd George, who was more slippery and conniving than most prime ministers. He was a key figure in pushing for Ulster exclusion from Home Rule while in Asquith’s government, and stuck to his guns, playing the extremist when he needed to, to keep his government together, bullying and courting the Irish Nationals, and desperately hoped that the Americans wouldn’t interfere in their affairs. Fanning argues that for the British Government, the IRA were an embarrassment, but not empire threatening, which seems fair. It is hard to argue that the IRA could have ever truly threatened the British government, but they were able to make things painful enough for Lloyd George to realize that it was easier to cut off the gangrenous parts of Ireland while retaining the six counties that wanted to stay with England, allowing the imperialists within his own cabinet the satisfaction of retaining a portion of Ireland while saving his empire from the Irish headache.

Fanning’s book is a great study of how a loud and violent minority can dictate policy if there is a party willing to benefit from that violence. The UVF were able to kill the Third Home Rule Bill while making partition an acceptable solution for the British government, should they ever have to deal with Ireland. Meanwhile the Nationalists were able to cause enough trouble that Lloyd George realized it was easier to just let it go then convince a war weary Britain to get involved in another war, especially one so close to home.

However, Fanning also reveals how disconnected the British government was from Ireland. The government seemed more annoyed than concerned about the IRA and often bemoaned that they had to deal with troublesome Ireland. The tragedy that followed the Treaty and Partition was as much Britain’s responsibility as it was Irelands, but they never accepted that responsibility or did anything to ease relations between Ireland and North Ireland. Instead, as soon as the treaty was signed, the British washed their hands and let the Irish kill each other, occasionally urging Collins and Mulcahy to deal with the IRA, but that was a last gasp of the imperialists, then of concern.

Overall, a well-written and fascinating book that reveals how violence can get results out of an indifferent and annoyed government that no longer has the stomach to endure a violent counterinsurgency.

Pros: Easy read, well-written, in-depth analysis of British parliamentary politics

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