Roy Johnston reviews Northern Ireland: the Origin of the Troubles by Thomas Hennessey, Gill Macmillan, ISBN 0-7171-3382-6, £24.99/euro29.99
THIS BOOK fails to address constructively the problem of what constitutes a nation. The author Thomas Hennessey takes as given the ethnic-nation model which is embedded in the British imperial culture, and is dismissive of the civic/economic model which tried to emerge in the 1790s under Enlightenment influence.
The United Irishmen had a vision in which Protestant industry combined with Catholic commercial acumen would have been able to develop a modern economy, with food production in a land-reformed environment without parasitic aristocrats, in a Europe dominated by democratic republics.
This the imperial-minded British saw as a threat, and they took steps to 'divide and rule', the Protestant ascendancy principle being enhanced with the foundation of the Orange Order, and the Catholics emerging as a perceived threat to democracy thanks to the London-financed foundation of Maynooth College with the aid of emigre priests from France. Both these events took place in 1793.
This I would see as the 'origin of the troubles': the nipping in the bud of the inclusive Enlightenment democratic republican model. The decades after the Union provided an environment in which this cultural division thrived. Despite this, successive attempts to develop national movements of one kind or another all had conscious participation by progressive-minded Protestants.
Hennessy however dates his 'origin of the troubles' from O'Neill's attempts at reform. Partition he takes as a given. He has however done us a service by giving an account of the British and Northern Ireland establishment's view of the developing situation; his sources are almost exclusively the state records and the mainstream media, mostly the Belfast Telegraph.
Once a reader accepts this as the perspective, it is a useful book. There are also insights from the Dublin state papers, showing how the Republic reacted to the developing situation, for which they were quite unprepared. What is lacking however is any worms-eye view, from those who were attempting to influence the situation from below, though there is a nod in this direction towards the end, with some post-1969 comments from Goulding, O Bradaigh and others.
Hennessey sets the scene in terms of Protestant fundamentalism and the perceived Catholic threat, in which context the Lemass-O'Neill meeting was seen as Lundyism, triggering the rise of Paisley. O'Neill's softening of the line fueled the development of secret hard-line militant groups under Paisley influence. The 1966 Easter Rising commemorations were seen as an external threat. Attacks on British-related locations in the Republic were seen in the north as evidence of this threat; in fact they were the work of agents-provocateurs or of head-cases under their influence.
Hennessey treats the second-class citizenship of northern Catholics as subjective, basing his researches almost totally on the Belfast Telegraph. He links this with a section on the IRA, based on Special Branch data from the Irish national archive: the September 1966 Army Council documentation found on Sean Garland. This, while indicating the extent to which the IRA was attempting to politicise itself under the influence of Goulding supported by the present writer, included also however a draft 'military plan' which had originated with Mac Stiofain.
This bore no relation to the political plan; it contained evidence of Mac Stiofain's EOKA-influenced background and it certainly was not the policy of the IRA leadership as it was then, while approximating to what emerged later under the Provisionals. This juxtaposition however helped fuel the illusion of military threat during 1966, which the Special Branch in the north was then promoting.
The inclusion of this section on the 1966 IRA as a sub-section of a chapter on the Catholics in the north is irrelevant and misleading. A serious chapter on the attempted 1960s IRA politicisation process would have made more sense, and the present writer has contributed source material for such a chapter in his book Century of Endeavour (Academica/Maunsel 2003, Tyndall//Lilliput 2006). I could have helped Hennessey had he asked.
When we first meet the Republican Clubs and the NICRA, both however are dismissed as 'IRA fronts'. No credit is given for our then attempt to introduce republican activists to the procedures of civil politics, nor to the attempt to link the civil rights campaign with the interests of democratic organisations of Protestant working people; this is dismissed as fantasy.
There is a coy reference on p111 to the 1914 civil war threat as a factor influencing politicians in Britain against taking any interest in Ireland; he could have explored this further and given us a run-down on the forces behind the 1914 Larne gun-running, as my father tried to do in his 1913 book Civil War in Ulster (re-published by UCD Press, 1999). This is a more credible recent candidate for the 'origin of the troubles', if 1793 is seen as too deep.
He shows how the Wilson government attempted to persuade Stormont to implement local government reform, and how Stormont resisted, how the role of the B-Specials contributed to worsening the situation, and how the invented threat of IRA intervention was used by Stormont to feed British contingency plans for military intervention. The granting of police protection to the Peoples Democracy march that led to Burntollet was a trap which pushed the civil rights movement into the Catholic ghettoes; the march succeeded in polarising all the communities it passed through.
Shortly before August 1969 the Young Unionists called for full use of the B-Specials as an alternative to 'weak and indecisive government'. The Silent Valley explosion, which left Belfast without water, was done by the UVF and blamed on the IRA, the objective being to overthrow O'Neill, who was replaced by his cousin Chichester-Clarke.
B-Specials were used to 'protect' Catholic houses in Protestant areas, and to 'dilute' the RUC; there was much concern as to how military intervention might be handled. I must say that from this chapter I gain a distinct impression that somewhere in the undergrowth there did indeed exist a 'committee' planning the August 69 pogrom, with a view to provoking re-invention of the IRA, being the enemy they needed to cement Protestant unity under the Unionist banner.
The August 69 events are covered as usual from official records and mainstream press, mainly the Telegraph. The sequence of events is correct; the NICRA in Belfast did attempt, under Gogarty's leadership, to organise a demonstration in support of McCann and the Derry activists, and this fuelled a Protestant backlash.
This however was primarily PD and ultra-left influence; the republican clubs get no mention; there are however references to a 'concerted IRA insurrection' in the Falls area, which is subsequently exposed for the nonsense it was by the people's complaints that there was no IRA to defend them. Yet the RUC was so convinced by its false intelligence that they deployed armoured vehicles along the border. Hennessey however interprets the events as a fortuitous accumulation of acts based on false community perceptions.
The subsequent Cameron Report had impact on the development of hard-core Protestant opposition; the analogy with the role of the 'poor whites' in the US post-Confederate states is noted. Hennessey then goes in some depth into how the early Provisionals received active encouragement, including finance, from the Irish government, key actors being Colonel Hefferon and Captain Kelly from the Army, and Haughey, Blaney and Boland in Government. The Fianna Fail government felt so threatened by the emergence of a political republican left in the Dublin context that they were prepared to wreck it by funding the Provisionals.
Hennessey's analysis implicitly supports the idea that influential elements in both British and Irish establishments, for different strategic reasons, colluded systematically in acting to keep the traditional IRA in existence, as a means of preventing the emergence of an effective political left, fit to unite working people irrespective of religion. Hennessey, from his ethnic-nation perspective, dismisses this as fantasy, but the evidence he presents suggests some trails to follow which lead in this direction. The full story has yet to be told.
Hennessey concludes with what he calls an 'ideological black hole': the question of the existence of an Irish nation. I would tend to agree with this. There are two aborted pseudo-nations: a 'Catholic' one and a 'Protestant' one. The key act in the abortion process was Partition, which was fuelled in 1914 by Tory gun-runners, in the context of what amounted to an anti-Liberal coup-d'etat.
British policy, pursued relentlessly since the 1790s, has been to prevent a unified inclusive Irish nation from emerging. It has been largely successful, reinforced in the context of the 'troubles' by disastrous decisions of people without political experience, like the PD's march in January provoking unnecessarily a Protestant backlash, and by the decision of the Provisional Army Council in 1970 to go to war against the British state, which under left-Labour pressure was in the process of encouraging the Stormont government to introduce a range of reforms which would have begun to make an inclusive republican political campaign feasible.
Overall, this is an important book, which manages to come to some positive conclusions, despite its flawed philosophical perspective and almost total dependence on establishment and mainstream media sources. It will be an important source-book for future critical analysis.
The above review originally appeared in Books Ireland
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Copyright © 2006 Roy Johnston