The weekend just gone saw the centenary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarejevo in 1914. The event is commonly ascribed as either the beginning of the First World War or the moment when it became inevitable. I happen to believe neither of those things, but the popular consciousness is what it is. Regardless, we are now on that centenary path, one that will resurface in the media over the next four and a bit years.
So what does that mean for Ireland? Naturally, we should be remembering the costs of that gunshot, or shots, and how many thousands of Irishmen would be dying in various parts of the world as an indirect consequence of it. But the time for their true remembrance is yet to come really.
So what did the assassination mean to Ireland right then, at the end of June and the beginning of July 1914? It is interesting to note the circumstances of Ireland at the time, an island that seemed to be edging towards some form of civil war over the expected enactment of the Home Rule legislation previously agreed by London. The murder of Ferdinand changed all that, and it’s fascinating, in things like Ronan Fanning’s Fatal Path, to read of how some British politicians involved at the highest levels of the Irish crisis were almost grateful for the distraction that the assassination provided, some unknowingly delighted at the coming war, seeing it as an opportunity to essentially kick the Ulster issue to touch. They would come to really regret those sentiments I’m sure, but very few really saw the nature of the war that was coming. These feelings should tell us just how important the Irish crisis really was in terms of larger European politics: not very, the entire thing fizzling out and then, by the agreement of most participants, being put on pause until the fighting on the continent was over.
There is a kind of history dubbed “counter-factual history”, that deals with how history might have panned out if certain events did not happen the way they actually did. It’s also called more simply “alternate history” or more flowery “’What if?’ history”. Either way, it is the sort of thing that is mostly derided by modern academia, a low brow thing that’s more at home trying to sell bad fiction. I would generally agree, though with the standard caveat that just about every historian I have ever read has engaged in some limited form of it, even if it’s just imagining what would have happened in a battle if a flank had been turned, or not as the case may be.
The value of counter-factual history is that it tests our imagination and our ability to read the course of history, it seems to engage people on a larger level that normal history and it is, in a word, fun, an odd way of playing God with the past. So, allow me to posit three points of counter-factual history based around the simple question: How would Irish politics have proceeded if Franz Ferdinand was not assassinated? That is, if his car had not taken that wrong turn, and the general European conflagration was postponed, perhaps indefinitely?
Thinking about it, and unwilling to go into too many specifics for fears of getting too entangled in the concept and turning into this guy, here are my top three thoughts:
There would have been no 32 county Home Rule settlement.
I think most would have been willing to agree that this would have been the case. Many politicians in Britain were already openly in favour of a split Home Rule settlement that left Ulster in charge of its own affairs. It was anathema to many in the south, but it was an enticing solution for people from all backgrounds, the compromise that would mirror the end of the Irish War of Independence. I don’t doubt that Parliament would have tried to alter Home Rule in such a fashion, and then it would only be a matter of seeing if Redmond and company would have accepted. I think, they being conciliatory and unwilling to force the issue, would have accepted such a settlement, probably with the excuse that “Northern Ireland” could not possibly last as its own separate entity, for all the same reasons that Irish politicians insisted the north could not survive as its own separate entity for much of the last century.
There would have been no Volunteer civil war in Ireland.
I’ve talked about this before in slightly more detail, but a summation will do: both Volunteer organisations in Ireland were gung-ho, armed and seemingly willing to start shooting each other. But they were also inexperienced in fighting actual wars, undersupplied, lacking transportation and communication equipment and, in both cases, unlikely to open fire on British forces if they were in the middle (more so with the Ulster Volunteers). I’ve always found the “threat” of civil war in Ireland to be exaggerated at this time and if the above political solution was near fulfilment, I doubt the Redmonite Volunteers or the Ulster Volunteers would have been willing to take that fateful step.
There would have been a violent rebellion in the next five years anyway.
I base this largely on what we know of the IRB and the men involved in it at the time. Pearse, Clarke, McDiarmada, men like that were already well on the way to advocating an open path of violent resistance to British authority. Combine with the militant socialist element personified by James Connolly, and you have great potential for violence regardless of the Irish political settlement. Men like Pearse would never have been satisfied with Home Rule. They would have lacked the “opportunity” that the First World War provided – to arm themselves, make friends with “gallant allies” or to just simply surprise the British – but remember, these are the men who bought wholesale into the idea of blood sacrifice, of fighting a hopeless battle with the aim of whipping up nationalistic sentiment into a frenzy with their deaths. I do not doubt that their rebellion would have been of a smaller scale, and perhaps more easily defeated – probably more 1867 than 1916 – but it would be the aftermath, and what it provoked, that would be important (there would have been no DORA for immediate executions for one thing). Regardless, those men existed in this timeframe, and I do not believe that they would have been easily dissuaded from making their attempt at Irish freedom, even if it was just to add to the annals of glorious Irish failures.
This is all just a pageantry of the mind of course, a thought experiment that draws my attention for a while. It’s always interesting to speculate. Lacking a great Irish reaction or involvement with Ferdinand’s death, this is as good as I can offer for that seminal moment, a gunshot that reverberated throughout the north and south of Ireland.