Roy Johnston reviews From Political Violence to Negotiated Settlement, Maurice J Bric and John Coakley (eds), UCD Press, ISBN 1-900621-84-3, 25 euros, £18.85
MOST OF the contributions in this book are from academics at Irish universities, north and south. They also includes a paper from John de Chastelain, an active participant in the process and a foreword by the taoiseach, in which he compliments UCD and its Institute of British-Irish Studies for running the conference on which the book is based.
The introduction by the co-authors/editors gives an overview of the historical background, touching on the issue of the nature of the British 'constitution' and its built-in Protestant hegemony. This opens up the issue of what is the nature of a 'constitutional' party, as seen from the European democratic republican perspective. They also remind us that the origins of 20th century militarism in Ireland lie in the 1912-14 period of Tory-led armed conspiracy.
Maurice Bric (UCD) continues with a historical overview of public protest movements from 1760 to 1900, homing in on Parnell, Davitt and the IRB and their relationship with Protestant opinion, the latter tending to be associated with the national cultural revival movement. In his conclusion he draws attention the weakness of British historiography, in the extent to which it marginalises the role of Ulster in their paradigm.
This aspect is developed by Ronan Fanning (UCD) who examines the 1912-14 Home Rule crisis, reminding us firmly in his introduction that it was the Tories who introduced the gun to Irish politics in the 20th century. The sectarian nature of the British State was revealed in the attitude of the king and cabinet to the 1908 Eucharistic Congress, held in London, a ritual procession of cardinals being, in effect, banned.
The way the emergent partition concept was handled indicated the existence in ruling circles of a anti-Catholic mind-set rooted in the origins of the English nation centuries previously. It seems that there was even an undercurrent of welcome for the 1914 European war as a means of avoiding the spectre of 'civil war in Ulster'. He fails however to pick up any feel for the Protestant liberal support for all-Ireland Home Rule, which did exist, and was exemplified by my father Joe Johnston's 1913 book (re-published by UCD Press in1999), which exposed that very threat. This suggests the continued existence of Catholic-nationalist blinkers among some UCD historians.
The period 1913-1923 is covered by Michael Laffan (UCD), under the title 'triumph and containment of militarism'. We are reminded of the extent of the broad-based support for Home Rule, underlining the failure of British constitutional democracy under the Union to accommodate Irish interests: in 1913-15 eleven out of twelve candidates in Irish by-elections were returned unopposed. The emergence of a military dimension however was inevitable, with the combination of the Larne and Howth gun-runnings, and the differential attitudes of the British authorities to these events. Some problems underlying the treaty and the civil war are stated; these were rooted in aspects of militarist elitism, but remain unresolved.
Paul Bew (QUB) in his chapter on 'Moderate Nationalism, 1918-23' suggests starting-points for several further inquiries into the respective roles of Stephen Gwynn (Redmondite MP for Galway 1906-18), Father Michael O'Flanagan, Sergeant Sullivan, Sir John Anderson and the 'Anderson group' in the Castle, and Erskine Childers. The latter, it seems, when on the run in 1921, was on occasion sheltered by Anderson. The implications of this are staggering and need to be teased out. Was moderate nationalism unpartitioned seen by the British as a greater threat than militant nationalism undermined by partition and civil war? Why was Childers, who was acting for Lloyd George in 1917 at the time of the Convention, in 1921 supportive of de Valera and the processes leading to the civil war?
I can see echoes of this in the origins of the current 'troubles': why did they leave Sean Mac Stiofain at large in 1969, to undermine the politicisation of the republican clubs in the civil rights context, and arrest Malachi McGurran the leading republican politiciser? These are difficult questions, but in the end historians must face them. Pardon my digression, but Bew is to be thanked for uncovering an interesting Childers-related nugget.
Eunan O'Halpin (TCD) teases out the interactions between the republican movement in its various phases with the geo-political scene as it evolved after the first world war, and later in WWII and the subsequent cold war. We have links with Bolshevism and Nazism successively, but neither of these global forces had much feel for Irish political realities, and post WWII evolution was internal and without significant influence by outside forces. British intelligence-gathering was so obsessed with the cold war that they ignored the trouble brewing in their own back yard.
Alvin Jackson (QUB) traces the development among the unionist establishment of a cult of the period 1912-14 as a 'foundation myth', with Paisley playing Carson to Molyneaux's Craig. He omits to remind us that the April 1914 Larne guns came from Germany, though he does characterise the episode correctly as a 'coup'. While Carson later helped his biographers to generate his own mythology, it was Craig who master-minded the political genealogy going back to William III and the earlier Scottish Covenanters.
He mentions in passing the Howth gun-running, suggesting it was 'contemporaneous'; it was of course subsequent; this error is in conflict with a key objective of this book, which is to highlight the role of the Tory-Orange coup as the trigger for militarism in the 20th century. He usefull reminds us of the wealth of resources deployed in support of the coup: cutting-edge Edwardian technology like motor transport and film, indicating access to serious upper-crust imperial resources.
Joseph Ruane (UCC) develops a somewhat blinkered catholic-nationalist view of evolving republican strategy. His view of 1798 totally ignores the role of Protestant leadership and its Enlightenment roots. He goes on to interpret the 1960s uniquely in terms of Catholic mobilisation, and August 1969 as basically communal in nature, despite the evidence if its being initiated by the forces of the state. The chapter is somewhat redeemed by his analysis of the process of recognition of the process as a 'war' rather than 'terrorism', and the development of the peace process.
Paul Dixon (UU Jordanstown) contributes an interesting analysis the the tactics of contemporary unionism in support of the retention of their hegemony. He reminds us that Northern Ireland is not accepted in Britain as part of an emergent 'British nation' as are Scotland and Wales, and that an all-Ireland national identity is widely accepted within Ireland. He analyses critically unionist insecurity and loyalist backlash processes. I have personally encountered unionists who were republican in the British context and who traced their ancestry to 1798 and the then objective of a federation of republics in Britain and Ireland. This is indeed a political domain to be explored, in the context of the increasing irrelevance of the English monarchy.
John de Chastelain is the only non-academic contributor to the publication, providing a welcome insight into the realities of the current situation. One can wryly remark that the slowness of the peace process, as seen from his perspective, has given him plenty of time to chronicle its progress. His report is clear and objective; he reminds us that his key role is in the avoidance of the perception of defeat or surrender in the minds of the protagonists, and issue with which Ian Paisley at the time of writing has difficulty in coming to terms. This is a useful chronology of the events up to the time of writing, July 2003.
John Coakley (UCD) in a final chapter overviews the book as a whole, in an assessment of the legacy of political violence, in which he adumbrates a comparative approach, both in European and in post-colonial contexts.
In Ireland he stresses the relatively non-violent nature of the 19th century as compared to the 20th, giving a context for Pearse's eccentric approbation of the Orangeman with the rifle. The overall mortality 1969-2002 was 3471, 2055 being due to republicans, 1028 to loyalists and 368 to security forces. In the European context the comparable figures for the Basques and for Cyprus are respectively 500 and some figure in the range 1600-6000. The figure from Bosnia is 200,000 and Chechnia 72,000. The figure for Iraq (among the Kurds) is 180,000-200,000, with a further 5,000-9,000 in Turkey. Numbers in Africa and Asia are much greater.
He attempts to map a path away from the culture of violence, but I found this disappointing, as nowhere does he advance the idea of people uniting and working together in the common interest irrespective of religious or ethnic background, this being the classical founding concept of Irish republicanism, rooted in the Enlightenment. This approach we tried to re-develop in the 1960s, via the civil rights movement, which picked up significant Protestant support via the trade union movement, especially on the issue of the property franchise.
Introducing the gun served to keep the people divided on ethnic and religious lines, and to prevent the development of genuine common-interest politics, based on realisable objectives. This aspect needs more research attention than it is getting from the current academic community, who seem largely to have accepted as given the 'divide and rule' categories imposed by imperial interests. At both ends of the century, the gun was introduced from the Orange side, in order to retain a religious/ethnic hegemony. Those who responded with the gun, in the perceived interests of Irish nationhood, did exactly what the imperial strategists wanted, and helped to prevent the emergence of a united Irish nation with a positive role for those of Protestant culture.
There are many more issues here to be teased out, and hopefully this book, when read critically, will be a stimulus.
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Copyright © 2004 Roy Johnston