Evolution of Manx Nationalism
“Their parliaments are allowed to meet; they are allowed to talk, allowed to pass resolutions; they may go on, so long as they do not clash with the opinion and policy of the conquering country. That roughly, is the constitution of the Isle of Man (…).” (Speaker of the House of Keys JD Qualtrough in the Keys 1944)
Mann’s long standing `home-rule’ may explain the relative late development of a nationalist movement, but as Bernard Moffatt argues it has since highlighted many contradictions in so-called independence.
There are many parallels in the development of the modem Manx National movement with events in the other Celtic countries. The most striking parallel is with Ireland and in relation to cultural renaissance, social agitation and political development the linkage is close. Shortly after the establishment of the Gaelic League in Ireland The Manx Language Society (Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh) was established in 1899. At the same time the cultural renaissance developed and such stalwarts as Sophia Morrison (1859-1917) and Mona Douglas (1898-1987) were at the cutting edge of promotion of the language and the Celtic Arts. There was a strong link to Ireland in particular and some of the writings of the young Mona Douglas seem to have been influenced by the events in Dublin at Easter in 1916 particularly her poem “The Manx Call to Arms – (and the Answer)”, the intent of which is clear.
In the area of social agitation the syndicalist tradition which established a militant bridge head from the Clyde to Dublin via the General Workers Union, also embraced the Isle of Man and that Union established a branch here which existed until subsumed into the present TGWU (now UNITE).
Ironically, only weeks after British troops had ruthlessly suppressed the Easter rebellion in Dublin, armed troops were deployed at the July 5th annual open air Tynwald ceremony in anticipation of serious social unrest. In the following years newspapers were restricted and leading figures jailed as what was essentially a colonial administration continued to strive to control Nationalist and Labour agitation.
Social agitation was finally ruthlessly suppressed by the introduction into the Isle of Man of the Trades Disputes Act 1936; without doubt one of the most proscriptive items of social legislation enacted outside of a totalitarian regime. That legislation continued in place until the early 1980s, when fifty years of overt Trade Union suppression was swept aside in a wave of disputes spanning a ten year period.
The same pressures applied to contain the industrial settlement were also used to contain Nationalism. Only scraps of information remain on the period of approximately forty years up until the establishment of Mec Vannin, the present Nationalist Party in 1963. At that time Manx Nationalism emerged from the shadows, and if proof were needed of the existence of the earlier clandestine movement, it would be found in the makeup of the early Committees, of the Party which included stalwarts from the early period.
Nationalist Dark Ages
Some of the information available on the “dark ages” of modern Manx Nationalism, whilst limited, is instructive. Ny Maninee Aegey `the young Manx’ established at the turn of the century (ceased to function after 1919), by Sophia Morrison, seems to parallel the Fianna Eireann established in Ireland. Eventually a further and more long-standing youth movement, Aeglagh Vannin, emerged in the early thirties and the official emphasis was strongly cultural.
A more directly political development was the establishment of Ny Manninee Dhooie, `the true Manx’, which came into being in the early 1940s again in an uncanny echo of the Irish adage “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” Manx Nationalists saw England’s wartime preoccupations as the time to move. They were rewarded for this brashness by being labelled anti English and pro German, although their motivation was inspired less by interest in either of the belligerents, more the example of De Valera’s neutral stance. Again records on the period are vague. The movement was suppressed and some members left the Island for wartime exile in Dublin.
Suppression could not quiet all Nationalism however, and in a discussion on the contentious issue of self determination at a sitting of the House of Keys in January 1944, a most vitriolic and strikingly Nationalist attack on the British Government was launched by the Speaker of the Keys, J. D. Qualtrough, its significance in understanding the deep seated resentment to Colonial rule over the Island warrants its reproduction below.
“Nobody living in the Isle of Man could fail to be impressed by the exposure of the limited powers of the House of Keys and of Tynwald which has taken place even in very recent weeks, in the appointment, without any consultation with us, of the principal officer who administers and is in charge of practically the whole government of the Island – under the Governor – (…)
Without tending to use any strong or violent language, it is obvious that the House has been ignored (…). We have an object lesson of the fact that we are controlled from outside the Island. The Lt-Governor is sent here; he is not appointed by us, he is not responsible to us (there follows a full list of the posts held by the Lt. Governor). In these high posts in the government of the Isle of Man, I think it is obvious today that “no Manxman need apply”- not because they are not capable of doing the work (…), but because they are Manx, and in the opinion of those who make the appointments a Manxman is not a suitable person to be responsible for the Government of the Island. We are, in other words, treated as a conquered country (…). I personally am unable to see such a tremendous lot of difference between the theory of government as applied by Germany to the conquered countries – Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France. In these countries the men who have the supreme power are appointed by Germany. I understand that in some of them at least, Germany has not interfered with their parliamentary institutions. Their parliaments are allowed to meet; they are allowed to talk, allowed to pass resolutions; they may go on, so long as they do not clash with the opinion and policy of the conquering country. That roughly, is the constitution of the Isle of Man (…).”
Record of the House of Keys – Hansard – 4/1/44
Qualtroughs attack was remarkable not just for the vitriolic nature of its content, assigning to the United Kingdom all the attributes of the Nazis, but also for the timing. At this stage of the War the Isle of Man was an armed camp, with training installations for all three services and vast numbers of personnel. Many Manx people were engaged, or had family involved with war service or war work. That Qualtrough felt moved to make the attack shows his courage. That it was apparently received without visible dissent shows the undercurrent of Nationalist resentment.
Limited reforms were eventually conceded to Tynwald. The War ended, and in the euphoria of victory, agitation receded. The post war boom soon turned to slump and the Island settled into a 50s depression that forced many Manxmen, including some of the key figures who would establish Mec Vannin, overseas to work.
In the early 1960s, and with a furtiveness that emphasised the intimidation of the times, a number of clandestine meetings were held culminating in the formation of Mec Vannin, on the 11th of January 1964, at Sulby in the north of the Island.
This organisation was very different from its timid predecessors, and indeed very different from the organisation that it has evolved into today. The conditions of the early sixties were not greatly removed constitutionally from the turn of the century, despite the limited reforms sought via the agitation of Speaker Qualtrough. It would be another ten years before an entirely unpredictable enactment by the UK government of legislation into Manx Law would lead to the Constitutional freedom we know today. In these circumstances, not surprisingly, the method by which some Nationalists believed independence could be achieved was via insurrection and the first steps along that road were taken. An element within the newly formed movement started to quietly prepare for militant confrontation. An Irish link was once again to develop but because of unusual circumstances, via a circuitous route.
On the first week of April 1995 a para-military funeral took place with all the trappings we have come to associate with television reports on the IRA.
National flags were in evidence, the coffin flag draped, men in paramilitary dress and black berets. The setting however was not Ireland. It was St Sulien’s church on a weather beaten hillside in Carmarthenshire. The party had gathered to pay their respects to Julian Cayo Evans. Evans, thirty years earlier had led the Free Wales Army, one of a number of militant Welsh groups which had sought to import the “armed struggle” into Wales long before that generic term had gained the notoriety of recent years. Evans (or Cayo as he was known) in addition to being a committed Welsh nationalist was committed to supporting other groups in the Celtic countries and elsewhere to achieve their freedom. He forged links with them including some Manx nationalists. The various groups also established contact with members of the “old” IRA (what is now termed the Official IRA). In the early 1960s that organisation disillusioned, after many years of fruitless military campaigning and without the popular support which the repression of the Civil Rights movement would give the Republican movement later, had decided to “dump arms” or demilitarize in today’s parlance. Many of the struggling and emergent national movements saw an opportunity in this to acquire their own arsenals.
I will go into no further detail. The period is excellently covered for those interested in the book by Roy Clews – “TO DREAM OF FREEDOM – The Struggle of MAC and the Free Wales Army.”It ended, towards the end of the decade, with a sensational series of arrests and crackdowns across the United Kingdom and in Brittany.
In Mann too the somewhat dangerous aspirations of the militants were derailed by a combination of those two essentials in `Celtic fate’, good luck and division.
The good luck was the incredibly clumsy and naive attempt by the British government to impose on the Island an item of legislation it believed the Isle of Man government might try to block: An obscure amendment to Wireless Telegraphy legislation aimed at cutting-off the sustenance of “Pirate” radio stations, then broadcasting off-shore at various locations around the British Isles had to be extended to severe the lifeline to Radio Caroline (North) anchored in Ramsey bay off the east of the Isle of Man. This action shook into life what had been until then a compliant Tynwald. It prompted a constitutional furore which led to the first of many significant changes which have progressively loosened the links with the UK, so that today the only impediment to total independence is the Manx governments’ lack of confidence in itself.
The Colonial enemy was going and there was no need to fight it. In any event the new Nationalist party, born with great optimism, was enduring the first of a number of internal crises. It would emerge from this first and subsequent setbacks, but the problems it now confronted were of our own Administration’s making. Militant nationalism would occur and reoccur, Fo Halloo in the seventies, FSFO in the eighties and a myriad of other short lived dabbles at direct action. The targets of this action however were perceived “enemies within” rather than the Crown.
Mec Vannin, however, now firmly embraced the Constitutional road. Despite enduring sustained attacks and criticism over thirty years, in the early 1990s it was able to turn the tables on the Main government which over those thirty years in adopting almost all Mec Vannins early policies had “stolen the Nationalist Party’s clothes”. The list of initial Mec Vannin proposals adopted is staggering, our own postal service, Manx Currency, extension of the Territorial sea and our own enforcement agency, status for the Manx language and its reintroduction into the Islands schools, the stripping of all but ceremonial power from the Lieutenant-Governor etc.
No greater compliment can be paid to any political Party than to see its policies and ideas adopted.
J B Moffatt
The author is a founder member of Mec Vannin and a member of its present Executive Committee. He is also the Assistant General Secretary of the Pan Celtic body the Celtic League.
(1) Ten years after this article was first published hitherto unseen footage shot by RTE at the 1966 Easter Rising commemoration came to light. The brief item opens with a colour party of Manx nationalists marching from Dublin Quay to the main commemoration at Glasnevin cemetery. A copy of the footage has since been obtained
(2) Post WW 2 a further attempt to establish Ny Manninee Dhooie was also suppressed.
(3) This is a slighted modified version of an article which appeared in the Celtic History Review in the early 1990s. It was one of two articles covering historical and contemporary Manx Nationaliam up until the 1990s. Copies of the Celtic History Review are held by the Manx Museum (MNH) Library.
Photo: Speaker Qualtrough who made the now famous speech about how the United Kingdom condemning the IKs treatment of the Isle of Man – has much changed in over 70 years?
AGS Celtic League (04/10/20)