An English republican in Ireland

Tony Blair may be a lawyer, and married to a human rights lawyer, but that hasn’t stopped him having some harsh words for the judiciary in recent weeks.

“For eight years I have battered the criminal justice system to get it to change,” he told the Labour Party conference last month, claiming improbably that “the whole of our system starts from the proposition that its duty is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted.”

The New Lord Chief Justice hit back last week, warning politicians against attempting to browbeat judges.

In the midst of this controversy, it’s perhaps appropriate that barrister Geoffrey Robertson has written a new book which examines one of the key historical struggles for judicial independence.

The Tyrannicide Brief explores the trial and execution of Charles I in 1649, and the life-story of John Cooke, the lawyer who prosecuted the King and paid for it a decade later with his own life.

The death of Charles I has often been seen as nothing more than a settling of scores at the end of the English Civil War. Robertson argues that it was in fact a blow for human rights, establishing the principle that the head of state is not above the law.

Robertson’s interest in the issue is more than academic. He helped to train the judges who will shortly try Saddam Hussein, who has already adopted Charles I’s legal strategy of questioning the court’s authority.

The trial of a tyrant is not the only parallel with Iraq in The Tyrannicide Brief. After the King’s execution, John Cooke joined the new English regime in Ireland as Chief Justice of Munster. He was a loyal servant of Cromwell, undoubtedly the most reviled Englishman in Irish history. Robertson, following Co Louth historian Tom Reilly, argues that while Cromwell was biased against the Irish, there is no evidence that he massacred civilians.

For Cooke, Ireland was a ‘blank sheet of paper’ to which he could apply the legal reforms in favour of the common people that he wanted to see implemented in England. Robertson records wealthy landlords complaining that Cooke would ‘temper the wind to the shorn lamb,’ favouring their poor tenants.

Yet at the same time, Cooke lectured the “poor deluded simple people” about the evils of their religion. Like most Englishmen of his time, he regarded Catholicism with fear and contempt. It was this suspicion, together with the need to pay off the London financiers who had paid for Cromwell’s invasion, that led the new regime to plant Protestant settlers and to drive Catholics to ‘Hell or Connaught.’

As in today’s Iraq, idealistic aspirations gave way before the clash of cultures between conqueror and conquered and the opportunity for exploitation by the victors.

Cooke himself left Ireland in 1660, a prisoner of the restored Government of Charles II. He was executed with a brutality far surpassing the swift beheading of Charles I. On the scaffold he prayed for Ireland as well as his own country. He was then hung, drawn and quartered at Charing Cross.

Did Cooke leave any mark on the Ireland he saw as a blank sheet of paper? It would be easy to think not.

However, that would be to forget that the Protestant radical tradition that men like him established in Ireland, was drawn on by William Drennan and Wolfe Tone in the 18th Century to turn Irish nationalism into Irish republicanism.

The English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century has been described as the indirect and unacknowledged ancestor of the Irish nationalist revolution, and the direct ancestor of the Orange counter-revolution.

If Orange and Green are ever to be reconciled in Ireland, that kinship will have to be acknowledged.

[This article originally appeared in the Irish World]

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