- Too Long a Sacrifice: Life and Death in Northern Ireland since 1969 by Jack Holland
Columbus, 217 pp, £7.95, July 1981, ISBN 0 396 07934 2
- A History of Northern Ireland by Patrick Buckland
Gill and Macmillan, 195 pp, £3.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 7171 1069 9
Two months after the suspension of Stormont in 1972, Belfast’s retiring Lord Mayor, Sir Joseph Cairns, delivered a farewell speech in which he reflected on the political situation. Ulster, he said, had been cynically betrayed by Britain’s policies: policies that had relegated it to ‘the status of a Fuzzy Wuzzy colony’. The Lord Mayor’s parting shot is one of my favourite quotations, for as well as being banal, ridiculous, righteously angry and very dim, it offers a profound insight into the Northern Irish troubles. It has an ironic resonance – a sort of Belfast ou-boum – which must haunt and torment anyone who probes the nature of Ulster Loyalism. It’s a deeply parochial statement, and like all such statements, it issues from an intense love of place, while also containing a definition of nationality and cultural identity.
Vol. 3 No. 22 · 3 December 1981
From David Gregg
SIR: Tom Paulin’s review of Northern Irish history (LRB, 5 November) rests on several flimsy and controversial assumptions which require elucidation.
1. Paulin accepts uncritically Holland’s assertion that Northern Ireland is a ‘non-historical state’. Obviously Northern Ireland, in recognised existence from 1921, does not possess the historical credibility of Greece, for example, or even Britain. But Paulin’s contention conveniently glosses over important distinctions between the Northern counties and the remainder of Ireland – discrepancies defined in terms of religion and national identity from (at least) the late 16th century and the notorious Plantation. However, variations between Ulster and the other provinces are equally evident during Gaelic and Medieval periods, with the warrior kings of Ulster (ranging from the Red Branch Knights to the O’Neills and O’Donnells) pursuing a course of fierce independence from the rest of the island.
2. It is facile to suggest, as Paulin does, that Northern Ireland is ‘merely an administrative entity like the Borough of Hendon or South Humberside’. Neither of these bodies has experienced fifty years of recent, and tragic, devolved government – nor the expectations and frustrations associated with devolution.
3. By extrapolating from one example of unforgivable judicial leniency, Paulin believes he provides ‘a compelling illustration of Protestant middle-class sympathy with Loyalist terrorism’. He does no such thing. Surely he is aware of the statistical fact that around 10 per cent of terrorist crime in Ireland is attributable to Protestant extremists? Yet he never attempts to counterbalance his ludicrous assertion with any analysis of Roman Catholic support for IRA activities a – salient issue in the light of the H-Block controversy and the Sands/Carron election success in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. This omission is symptomatic of the double standards employed in Paulin’s review.
4. Loyalists in Northern Ireland may indeed be ‘politically immature’ and provide ‘example after example of Unionist incompetence and mediocrity’. They may even possess ‘a very hazy sense of nationality’ (although this contradicts Paulin’s earlier thesis: ‘one section of Loyalist opinion is breaking out of a backward-looking Britishness and beginning to formulate a truly Northern, non-sectarian identity’).
I have lived in Ireland for many years, and I suspect that Northern Unionists are prone to failings similar to those of members of the middle and working classes elsewhere in Western society. They exhibit a materialist desire to hold or increase that which they possess. Yes – they have been guilty of limited discrimination and electoral gerrymandering. Paulin, however, fails to recognise this as a response to an intractable historical dilemma and the presence within the new state of a substantial minority whose religious and national aspirations were opposed to that state’s very existence. The Republic of Ireland’s constitutional claim to jurisdiction over the territory of Northern Ireland further provided an external threat to Unionism.
This is why Dr Fitzgerald’s brave initiative should be welcomed, as it represents an attempt to break out of the present impasse. By continuing to attribute blame (implicitly), Paulin tightens the sectarian straitjacket on Irish politics. Northern Ireland requires a renewal of political structures at the most basic level, and for the abject failure of this policy to date I suggest that the Labour Party in Britain will bear a heavy historical responsibility. Perhaps I am too pessimistic. Perhaps there is still time to reconstruct politics in Ireland on the basis of class, rather than on the divisive sectarian claims of religion and nationality.
Paulin aims at objectivity, but his ill-concealed desire to denigrate the historical pretensions of Northern Ireland to nationhood results in a grotesquely oversimplified distortion of Irish history. He provides another example of that genre which has proved uniquely unhelpful to the contemporary predicament of the Northern Irish – the analysis which begins from an unrevealed position of prejudice.
Linacre College, Oxford