Victoria and the big-bang theory Fenian Fire: The British Government Plot to Assassinate Queen Victoria Christy Campbell HarperCollins 18. 99, pp 320 Twenty-five years ago, I was one of the Secretaries of State who accompanied James Callaghan to Buckingham Palace when he presented the Queen with the Government’s silver jubilee gift. After we had discussed a short list of suitable presents, including a saddle and a clock set in Welsh anthracite, we had decided on a silver coffee pot. The gracious speech with which it was accepted included a joke. The Queen was grateful that her Ministers had not followed the precedent of the 1887 golden jubilee, when the Cabinet had given the sovereign a portrait of the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. We can only speculate about the pleasure with which Queen Victoria received her Ministers’ tribute.
But we can be certain that, when the usual courtesies were exchanged, she had no idea that Salisbury knew of, and was encouraging, a Fenian plot to blow her to smithereens during the service of thanksgiving in Westminster Abbey. Anyone who believes in the doctrine of absolute ministerial responsibility will argue that the Prime Minister was, at the very least, an accessory to the planned regicide. It was devised by the secret service and the employment of the principal assassin was explicitly approved by Downing Street. Of course, Salisbury always intended that the plotters should be caught and convicted before their dastardly work was done. And the 30-year history of Fenian incompetence justified the assumption that it would be easy enough to frustrate their knavish tricks at the last minute. But James Munroe, head of the Metropolitan Police ‘secret department’, thought it prudent to persuade his children not to attend the service and, when the procession set off for Westminster, there was still a possibility that the ‘conspirators had managed to get some dynam it into the Abbey vaults’.
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Whatever the odds, Salisbury was risking the Queen’s life. The ‘jubilee plot’ is such a bizarre episode that I would regard it as the product of a febrile imagination had Christy Campbell not documented sufficient evidence to remove all reasonable doubt. His explanation of why Salisbury behaved in such an extraordinary fashion – the hope of both smashing the Fenian dynamite gangs and destroying Parnell by implicating him in the attempted murder – is convincing but not conclusive proof of the Prime Minister’s involvement. But the detail – of both the bombers’ movements and the machinations of the police – justifies a conviction. To secure that verdict, Campbell has set out his case paragraph by paragraph. Each item in the indictment is headed with date and location.
An author who constructs a book in such a fashion takes a risk comparable, in terms of danger, to a Prime Minister jeopardizing the life of a sovereign. But, like Salisbury, Campbell more than gets away with his reckless behaviour. From Mexico City to Liverpool and from the House of Commons to Chicago coroner’s court, the story moves at the pace of the best sort of adventure story. All the Boy’s Own Paper ingredients are there, including General Frederic Millen, a Tyrone-born soldier of fortune who emerges from the Mexican army to play the part of double agent and villain, and Robert Anderson, a bumbling civil servant, who was eventually ‘relieved of all duties relative to Fenianism in London’. But although sales will be built on the colourful characters and compelling story, Fenian Fire contains far more than the account of what its subtitle calls ‘The British Government Plot to Assassinate Queen Victoria’. Its account of Fenian organisation and activity makes a real contribution to nineteenth-century history.
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The Victorian bombers were almost as incompetent as they were brutal. An attempt to blow a hole in the wall of Clerkenwell Prison demolished the Corporation Lane tenements nearby, killing six people and, at least according to the Times, inducing 40 premature births and causing 120 casualties ‘including 15 permanently injured with loss of eyes, legs, arms etc’. The 1881 attempt to blow up the Salford Infantry Barracks succeeded only in killing a seven-year-old boy. Yet the Fenian ranks were strengthened by the presence of men who had fought, on both sides, in the American Civil War and its arsenal was financed by American money. For all of the nineteenth century the US reacted to Irish revolutionary violence with a sentimental lack of reason which is only just beginning to evaporate.
None of us finds it easy to be objective about Ireland. And, towards the end of Fenian Fire, I found myself both doubting and resenting Campbell’s judgment that Charles Stewart Parnell was ‘the coping stone in the universal conspiracy’ that killed so many innocent British citizens. Parnell himself was the intended victim of a plot in which the Times printed incriminating letters that it knew to be forgeries. Then the same newspaper, which had followed him for months, revealed his relationship with Mrs O’Shea at the moment that his disgrace was most likely to reduce hopes of Irish Home Rule. As Fenian Fire confirms, there is something about Irish independence which encourages both its supporters and opponents to advance their respective causes by dirty work. That is why loyal subjects should rejoice that the Good Friday Agreement tenuously holds, the Stormont Parliament still meets and the IRA continues (in a limited way) to decommission its arms.
Otherwise, on the 1887 precedent, the Queen, who we must hope will read Fenian Fire, would be entitled to treat Tony Blair with understandable suspicion when he presents her with his golden jubilee greetings.