Why are we honouring Gandhi but snubbing the Irish leader who helped to inspire him?

Earlier this month brought the news that Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi will be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, joining the ranks of other dignitaries immortalised in stone there, among them Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, Benjamin Disraeli, and Robert Peel, and international heroes including Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln and Jan Smuts.

The announcement was made by the Chancellor George Osborne and the outgoing foreign secretary William Hague while the pair were in India for a trade visit. The official Government communiqué said Gandhi had been awarded the honour because he was “the inspiration for non-violent civil rights movements around the world … and because he had studied in London”. The project, we were informed, had the full support of the British Government and an advisory group, led by the Culture Secretary Sajid Javid, had been set up to support progress. Hague was effusive in explaining what had led to the decision. “Gandhi’s view of communal peace and resistance to division, his desire to drive India forward, and his commitment to non-violence left a legacy that is as relevant today as it was during his life,” said the Foreign Secretary. “He remains a towering inspiration and a source of strength.”

There is little to argue with over this decision: Gandhi’s contribution, and his legacy, are hardly in doubt, and this is a much deserved plinth. But if the Government are already getting the sculptors down to Westminster, perhaps this is an opportunity to add another resident to the square. And if so, why not a civil rights activist from an earlier era who, like Gandhi, studied in London and had a significant impact on the course of this country’s history, and who for too long has gone without the recognition he deserves?

It is time for the Government to recognise the debt of gratitude we owe to Daniel O’Connell: the London-trained lawyer who went on to lead the Irish through a time of great turbulence and who could lay claim to be the inspiration for non-violent civil rights movements. Indeed, Gandhi himself looked to figures in 19th-century Irish history for inspiration, O’Connell among them. A statue of O’Connell would honour his legacy and send out a powerful message about democratic pluralism, inclusion and non-violence.  

Nearly 170 years after his death, there is no statue of O’Connell erected anywhere in London, let alone Parliament Square. Yet few figures in the 19th or 20th centuries changed the course of Britain’s parliamentary democracy, and influenced the health and vitality of its democracy and pluralism, as much as he did. 

O’Connell’s greatest contribution was in the area of religious pluralism. He fought for and won the right for Catholics to take their seats in Parliament. Choosing politics over force, he achieved Catholic emancipation through the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act in 1829, which also annulled the remaining Penal Laws and the Test Act, and helped to pave the way for the restoration of the Catholic Hierarchy in England and Wales, and Scotland. O’Connell’s 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act is also credited with helping to secure the passing of the Jews Relief Act of 1858.

O’Connell’s absence from his rightful place in Parliament Square is all the more grating given that Robert Peel, who initially opposed Catholic emancipation, is honoured there. It was a lonely campaign for O’Connell, and Peel was ultimately persuaded not on any grounds of enlightened principle, but simply by fear that failure to repeal prejudicial laws would trigger further rebellion in Ireland. Why should the former stand proud just minutes from our seat of power, and the latter be overlooked?

Critics might suggest that O’Connell was merely an Irish nationalist, but that is to diminish his role and impact. His contribution was broader than that. He was responsible for a key development in the maturity of our democracy.

Last week as the foreign secretary and the Chancellor were in India announcing the new Gandhi statue, I was in Westminster with parliamentarians representing all three main parties, many of them Catholic. I could not help but think that they owed their right to be an MP to this great Victorian parliamentarian whose memory and contribution is yet to be recognised anywhere across the parliamentary estate or its environs. 

Perhaps we should take a leaf out of O’Connell’s book and raise funds as he did through popular subscription among the lay faithful. He founded and paid for his Catholic Association through donations from ordinary people. So perhaps Catholics in England and Wales, and Scotland – who owe O’Connell a debt of gratitude – could help to raise the necessary funds for the statue, or petition their elected representatives, the Government and Westminster City Council. 

There are stirrings of change. In April, the Queen spoke of O’Connell while welcoming Irish president to Windsor Castle. “We can celebrate not just the
Irish men and women who helped to build Britain but also the Irish architects who helped to design it,” she declared, “including that great architect of parliamentary reform, Daniel O’Connell.”

Let us hope that that was the first step in giving O’Connell the public recognition he is owed. The time is right for him to take up residence in Parliament Square, with so many other great dignitaries who changed this country and the world. After all, O’Connell showed them and so many others that human rights could be secured through peaceful means, and proved that politics can triumph over force. It is right and proper that we honour this great architect of parliamentary reform in the heart of our political capital. 

Francis Campbell is the vice-chancellor designate of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and former UK ambassador to the Holy See

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (18/7/14)


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