Century of Endeavour

Senator James G Douglas

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

At Ireland Yearly Meeting in 1999 I undertook to do this review for Quaker Monthly, published by Friends House in London. It was published, I think, in the October issue.

'Memoirs of Senator James G Douglas, Concerned Citizen'
J Anthony Gaughan (ed)
UCD Press 1998; ISBN 1 900621 19 3
NPG, but enquiries should go to Barbara.Mennell@ucd.ie

It may come as a surprise to Friends in Britain that such a career as that of James Douglas (1887-1954) could have existed. He was a close adviser to Michael Collins during the War of Independence, and played a significant part in the political and business world of the early Irish Free State. He was representative of a significant sector of the Protestant business community who had before the 1914 War been supporters of Home Rule. Subsequent to 1916 he became a supporter of Sinn Fein politically, while maintaining opposition to the use of violence.

He was apprenticed to the family firm of outfitters in 1902, and was married in the Friends Meeting House in Eustace St in 1912. In 1905 he has established the Young Friends Association, travelling around all the Irish meeting-houses. He visited the US on their behalf in 1914.

When the war broke out in 1914 he set up a group to assist people resident in Ireland who had German, Austrian or Hungarian backgrounds, who were suffering from jingoistic discrimination. He became a member of the Dublin Liberal Association which was the focus of Protestant Home Rule politicking.

The 1916 Rising took Douglas by surprise, but the execution of the leaders triggered an interest in Sinn Fein, and he became involved in an Irish Conference Committee, which functioned during 1917, and which sought a political response in the form of full Dominion status for Ireland, on the Canadian model. My father Joe Johnston was also associated with that committee, which also included George Russell ('AE') and others, who broadly corresponded to the politics of liberal Home Rule fortified by Horace Plunkett's Co-operative Movement.

The Convention took place but was unproductive, because Sinn Fein boycotted it, despite the best efforts of Douglas. There followed the threat of conscription and the anti-conscription campaign, which led to the Sinn Fein landslide in the 1918 election.

Douglas's role in the War of Independence was to run the White Cross organisation, the objective of which was to supply relief to people whose property had been devastated by the Crown forces, in reprisals for IRA activity, raising funds for the purpose in the US. Douglas and his committee of seven (which included 5 Quakers) surveyed the damage and estimated it at $25M. Only a small fraction of this was however raised, and this was mostly used for the direct relief of families. During all this time he was in close touch with Michael Collins, who ordered that the IRA was not itself ever to seek funds by this channel, and that they were to respond to Douglas's requirements as if they were from Collins himself. These orders were respected.

Douglas was surprised by de Valera's opposition to the Treaty, and astonished at the bitterness of the split that led to the Civil War. He made unsuccessful efforts to forestall this disastrous development, which in retrospect it is clear need never have happened. It caused considerably more mayhem and damage than did the War of Independence.

Douglas had a hand in the framing of the Free State Constitution, reporting directly to Collins. Subsequently he became active in Free State politics, serving in the Senate, and being actively involved with the process of registration of the Treaty with the League of Nations, which the British opposed. He later became involved in Church and State issues, over the issue of referral of appeals to the Privy Council.

He also became involved in attempts to undo Partition via a federal all-Ireland approach, via business contacts in Belfast. This initiative however was sabotaged by Lord Glenavy, who tipped off Craig, who in turn successfully unleashed the loyalist intimidation machine against the alleged 'conspirators', so that the contacts came to nothing.

Douglas worked for the rest of his life against the evil effects of Partition; for example in 1947 along with my late father Joe Johnston in the Senate he proposed a motion which would have enabled Northern MPs to sit in the Dail. This was prior to Costello's declaration of the Republic. What they had in mind then, as they had proposed earlier, was a United Ireland within the Commonwealth.

The full detail of Senator Douglas's political career is given with clarity by Gaughan; it deserves attention by those wishing to understand the nature of the interaction between politics and religion in Ireland. The key message is that dissenting voices can stand up, be counted and be respected. The 'Catholic nationalist' perception of Ireland, as seen from Britain, is a long way from the reality, which is much more complex, and indeed provided, even then, an environment where people could be creatively critical. The environment today is substantially more friendly to critical views, most if not all James Douglas's aspirations having been achieved.

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999