Thursday, May 04, 2023

John Stuart Mill, 'On Liberty' – and 'England and Ireland' (1868)

The government of the Republic of Ireland looks set to implement some of the most far-reaching and 'shockingly draconian' 'hate speech' laws in the western world. But who gets to define 'hate'? The current government? A future one? A recently unsuccessful candidate for the leadership of the SNP, Kate Forbes, wrote this tremendous article today in defence of free speech in Scotland. Some years ago, conservative evangelicals I know took great delight when a play they objected to was 'cancelled' by a local council here in Northern Ireland. I did what I could to explain to them why free speech for everyone, including those they disagreed with, was far more important than 'winning' through the temporary numerical strength of representation on a sub-committee.

John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859; Wikipedia here) is regarded as 'one of the most celebrated defences of free speech ever written'. In 1868, he wrote England and Ireland. Over 50 years before 'partition'. A century before the Troubles. Long before the EU. Long before Brexit. Have a look at this extract: –

"... In all this I am supposing that Ireland would succeed in establishing a regular and orderly government: but suppose that she failed? Suppose that she had to pass through an interval of partial anarchy first?

What if there were a civil war between the Protestant and Catholic Irish, or between Ulster and the other provinces? Is it in human nature that the sympathies of England should not be principally with the English Protestant colony, and would not she either help that side, or be constantly believed to be on the point of helping it?

For generations it is to be feared that the two nations would be either at war, or in a chronic state of precarious and armed peace, each constantly watching a probable enemy so near at hand that in an instant they might be at each other's throat. By this state of their relations it is almost superfluous to say that the poorer of the two countries would suffer most. To England it would be an inconvenience; to Ireland a public calamity, not only in the way of direct burthen, but by the paralysing effect of a general feeling of insecurity upon industrial energy and enterprise...

... Ireland might be invaded and conquered by a great military power. She might become a province of France. This is not the least likely thing to befall her, if her independence of England should be followed by protracted disorders, such as to make peaceably disposed persons welcome an armed pacificator capable of imposing on the conflicting parties a common servitude. How bitter such a result of all their struggles ought to be to patriotic Irishmen..."

Full text here