Partnership of Loss

Roy Foster

  • Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006 by Paul Bew
    Oxford, 613 pp, £35.00, August 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 820555 5

‘Nothing Dr Bew writes is without interest.’ The wearily Olympian judgment was delivered by a distinctly peeved F.S.L. Lyons, doyen of historians of modern Ireland, when faced 27 years ago with a short life of Charles Stewart Parnell which took implicit but cheeky issue with his own magnum opus on the Chief. The young Bew – Belfast-born and a graduate of People’s Democracy marches as well as of the Cambridge history faculty – had already published a radical marxisant version of the 1879-82 Irish Land War, stressing the only partly suppressed war of interests between large and small tenants as much as the struggle against the landlord oppressor, and casting a cold eye on the cloak of unity that nationalist historiography tried to throw over the enterprise. He would go on to write critiques both of the modern Irish state in the Sean Lemass era and of power relations in Northern Ireland (in collaboration with other figures from Northern Ireland’s leftist intelligentsia), to redefine the attempted politics of reconciliation in the Edwardian era and to continue the story of land struggle in the years just before World War One. But he would be most publicly known as a sane and sceptical voice on many aspects of the Northern conflict, having returned to a chair at Queen’s University at a precocious age. Here he moved from a loose identification with the Workers’ Party to becoming a behind-the-scenes adviser to David Trimble in his brave attempt to bring Unionism to the middle ground of power-sharing with a domesticated Sinn Féin. Bew is allegedly the originator of the pithy identification of Trimble’s desired power base as ‘the Prod in the garden centre’; the latest stage of his progress is as a ‘people’s peer’, entering the Lords as Baron Bew of Donegore (where there is, it so happens, a large and thriving garden centre). It is a pity F.S.L. Lyons isn’t around to see.

Nonetheless, even if Lyons’s judgment on the youthful challenger was delivered through partly gritted teeth, it has remained true. From the outset Bew’s bracingly left-of-centre perspective was unaffected by the wishful thinking often attached to Irish nationalist analysis. Thus his new survey of Ireland over the longue durée stresses the home-grown varieties of hatred between various entities within the island and takes pleasure in presenting paradoxical interpretations. But the angle of vision is his own. Faced with the daunting prospect of covering Irish history from the late 18th to the early 21st century, he has made a number of key decisions. Because he starts with the French Revolution rather than the Act of Union, his primary focus is on ideology and politics. By bringing together unexpected quotations and reflections, not only in the epigraphs but in the body of the text, he contrives to see several sides of a question at once, and to promote the neglected and paradoxical aspects of interpretation, both contemporary and retrospective. His approach is emphatically not for beginners. A wonderfully eclectic range of sources is surveyed, notably obscure newspapers; he has followed Mary-Lou Legg’s pioneering work, Newspapers and Nationalism, in tracing how immediately the insights of Benedict Anderson can be mapped onto the growth and form of Irish nationalist consciousness in imagining a community. But his overall preoccupation is with disunion rather than Union. Though he opens by unearthing D.P. Moran’s 1904 parody of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an allegory of Irish politics, there is much less about cultural production than one might expect from such a ferociously well-read writer; and the old Marxist leaves much about social and economic history to languish between the lines. What interests him is power relations, policy struggles, and the competing claims on the nation.

Bew pays close attention to the preoccupation of many Victorian intellectuals with Ireland, and deals with the ideas of Mill and others without falling into the jejeune generalisations of post-colonial critique. He presents, among other specimens, an unfamiliar James Anthony Froude, whose fulminations about native degeneration in The English in Ireland contrast sharply with his early appreciation of Isaac Butt’s version of Home Rule in the 1870s. (The polarisations after 1886, when the Gladstonian Liberal embrace of Home Rule transformed the political landscape, affected opinion about Ireland right across the spectrum.) But above all Bew is preoccupied with Burke, seeing Irish politics and policy after 1789 and much later as ‘the Battle of Burke’. Here he reflects another distinguished Irish political pilgrim from the left, Conor Cruise O’Brien; the combination of Burke’s conservative views on revolution and representation, and the clarity of his realisation that the iniquitous position of Irish Catholics had to be radically reformed in the interests of stability as well as justice, pervades the early part of the book. It shaped not only Pitt’s policy but also Peel’s, and the whole tradition of liberal Unionism – and even moderate Home Rulerism. (‘I have no doubt before the end of these debates,’ Hartington forecast in 1886, ‘we shall hear a good deal of Mr Burke and Mr Burke’s sayings.’ He was right.) This preoccupation supplies a connecting thread to Bew’s argument, and also assumes considerable knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the Irish situation in the late 18th and early 19th century and the historiographical battles that have been fought over the terrain: Bew’s treatment, for instance, implicitly reverts to the interpretation of the 1798 Rising as driven by inchoate hatreds rather than blueprints of brotherhood derived from French templates. But this is all of a piece with his governing theme.

In the subsequent period, the condition of Ireland under the Union preoccupied contemporaries as much as it does later historians; inquiries into Irish poverty were mounting up long before the catastrophic Famine of the 1840s, to no very obvious effect. Irish exceptionalism was also asserted by a propensity to organised violence, especially among the rural poor, and a fierce adherence to Catholicism. Taken with the British government’s defection on the issue of Catholic Emancipation (full inclusion within the pale of the constitution was part of the Union bargain but spectacularly reneged on), the conditions for Daniel O’Connell’s creation of a popular political machine lay readily to hand. In 1828, as ‘the representative of the suffering of my country’, the Kerry gentleman-lawyer threatened the whole British parliamentary system by winning a by-election though technically unable to stand. Bew judges that by then he was ‘pushing an open door’ and emphasises that the current of opinion among the governing class had moved towards acceptance of Catholic claims. But for all the hopes of Ulster liberals, the Orange reaction was ominous. So was the mean-spirited reduction of the Irish franchise which followed; by disenfranchising the ‘forty-shilling freeholder’, the government removed most of the political muscle which had provided O’Connell’s electoral power. Three years before Emancipation, Peel had privately prophesied to an Irish correspondent the consequences of bringing Catholics into the constitution:

A much more marked division than there is at present between Catholics and heretics, and a much closer union among all classes of the latter. The Catholics, having nothing to lose, will speak out more plainly. Those of the Protestants who contended for equality . . . will be against Catholic domination – and that bond of union which exists between a large class of Protestants and the Catholics – arising out of feelings of pity and justice, will be at an end.

This is the sort of cynical paradox that appeals to Bew, providing a sharp reflection of the contemporary political mind. But it leaves unanswered the question of where the elaborate collusions, acceptances and hypocrisies of the pre-Reform age would have led. As it was, the 1830s would see O’Connell in alliance with the Whigs, a link that may have moderated his course as effectively as Parnell’s combination with the Gladstonian Liberals between 1886 and 1890. The failure of the next great popular movement, to ‘repeal’ the Union, and the rise of romantic nationalism in the Young Ireland group, was rapidly succeeded by the catastrophe of the Famine. Bew’s chapter dealing with this is significantly called ‘The Politics of Hunger’ – a phrase that encompasses not only the instincts, strategies and failures of the British government in Ireland, but the use made of those failures by the endlessly influential revolutionary propaganda of John Mitchel, which presented the disaster as a deliberate genocide, arousing answering echoes to this day in American school curriculums.

America remains relevant. The construction of ‘advanced’ Irish nationalism at home relied on buttressing from abroad, and so did the creation of Irish identity. As large and influential Irish communities were established in the US and Britain, attitudes towards Ireland and its inhabitants (or ex-inhabitants) went through various mutations. Prejudice against the lower-class Irish was endemic, but the catch-all concept of ‘racism’ is too loosely employed; Bew, oddly, uses the title ‘The Impact of Anti-Irish Racism’ for a section which in fact argues cogently against the concept, employing a fascinating range of eulogies on the native qualities of the Irish from the most unlikely witnesses.

England did have a minority of thinkers whose attitude towards the Irish was explicitly racist, but mainstream writers insisted on Irish qualities of hard work and intelligence, proved, above all, by Irish success outside the island, especially in the United States; an assumption of ethnic Irish laziness is not the decisive clue to English attitudes during the Famine. England certainly did believe, however, that Irish landlordism was much at fault, though England could not be blamed for this legacy of history.

The fact that so many outside commentators believed that the Irish had to leave Ireland in order to capitalise on their innate qualities suggests that a good deal of British and American prejudice stemmed from suspicion of Catholicism, seen as exercising a social and moral dictatorship within the island. And the demographic patterns of dispersal and intermarriage among the Irish abroad, not to mention their rapid advance in professions like journalism, medicine, law and imperial administration indicate that anti-Irish feeling did not operate in the way that the colour bar did.

But the abysmal record of the Famine led many to reject the viability of the Union, now clearly a ‘partnership of loss’ for Ireland. This applied as much to a moderate federalist like Isaac Butt as to those who tried a hopeless armed rising in 1848. Bew unearths a fascinating prophecy made by Thomas D’Arcy McGee (ex-revolutionary turned successful Irish emigrant) immediately afterwards:

The people are not to blame that there has not been a revolution. Next time they must trust in local leaders like the Raparees and the Catalonian chiefs – fierce men and blunt, without too many ties binding them to the peace. They must choose, too, the favourable concurrence of a foreign war, an event which is likely to precede the settlement of the newly awakened races of the continent.

Seventy years later, the conditions of 1916-22 would bear this out exactly.

While some English people hated the Irish, and vice versa, nearly everyone could agree in hating Irish landlords. Land and the passions it arouses (historical as well as economic) drives much of Irish development. The politics of land ownership and advanced nationalism have long preoccupied Bew, and dominate his treatment of Fenianism and the developing Kulturkampf between a rising Catholic bourgeoisie and an increasingly insecure Protestant ascendancy in the later 19th century. He gives full due to the inventiveness of the Land League, as important in the history of mass politics as O’Connell’s Catholic Association sixty years before. He is predictably interesting on Parnell and Parnellism, seeing Gladstone’s adoption of Home Rule as inevitable as early as 1882. But the real revolution was the incremental destruction of the landlords under British legislation that altered their terms of ownership and, by a developing policy of legal coercion and financial inducement, created a property-owning peasantry. Looking back in the 1920s, Arthur Balfour, a Tory chief secretary for Ireland in the 1880s, would say that independent Ireland was ‘the Ireland we made’. He was not far wrong.

What came in between was a more showy revolution, on the lines forecast by D’Arcy McGee, as well as a cultural revival which Bew rather austerely leaves aside. Indeed, even the politics of the 1890s and 1900s are less closely dealt with than one might expect, perhaps because he has given them bravura treatment elsewhere. Was any kind of elastic accommodation ever possible whereby the rhetoric of nationalism could be appeased, a significant amount of autonomy ensured, and a residue of Protestants kept committed to Ireland? This was the question posed by Home Rulers in the 1870s and 1880s, the Redmondites in the early 20th century, and some Sinn Féiners towards the end of the First World War: in reduced form, it has preoccupied those trying to settle Northern Ireland for the last thirty-odd years. Bew leaves open questions about the inevitability of the sidelining of constitutional nationalism after the 1916 Rising and the guerrilla campaign that followed. But he implies that the politics of enmity were set hard enough by 1914 for conflict to be inevitable. This would be waged not only by Sinn Féin republican guerrillas against the forces of the Crown, but in the atavistic struggles which had long characterised the north-east.

From 1921, when the Anglo-Irish Treaty created the Free State and left the North as a more or less autonomous province within the Union, historians are faced with a conundrum: to treat Ireland as two separate countries, or to try and weave two disparate histories together (which can carry the assumption that they ought never to have been sundered). The trajectories are undeniably separate (at least until very recent history), though the histories are intertwined. Bew takes a deep breath and deals with both parts of the island from 1923 to 1966 in one chapter, while stressing their differences and identifying his themes as ‘melancholy sanctity’ in the South and ‘perfect democracy’ in the North. The latter phrase (a quotation from the Northern premier James Craig in 1934) carries a heavy irony, but Bew presents a brilliantly many-faceted view of his native province and the incomprehension which it met with from outside. An eerily evocative 1925 essay by the Ulster MP W.D. Allen on an Orange demonstration in Tyrone is a case in point:

Under the streamers in the long and wet and narrow cobbled streets, in the early afternoon they are forming columns. They are marching in ragged line – that great nuisance of today – the Protestants of Ulster. Where are they marching along the muddy road, solemnly and ponderously, and fixedly . . . ? You may laugh, you overeducated, you supercilious, you townbred froth of things. The signpost says ‘to the asylum’ – their muddy hobnailed boots go splashing into a wet and peaty meadow bordered with rich, green, swaying trees, cut by a savage wind, needled with driving rain, grey cloud looming over. Cheerfully, quickly, methodically, they roll the banners, for they are expensive banners . . . bought with the weekly threepences and sixpences of working men. Four men . . . noticeable for their gaunt and bitter aspect, maimed and bemedalled, roll out a banner, bordered in black crêpe, Thiepval 1916 it reads. So comfortably remote, remoter even than the ‘relief of Derry’ [in 1689] they are celebrating. Silently, humorously, doggedly, they mass around a dripping platform, a remarkable feudal, patriarchal, tribal, historical anachronism in these days of moderation, toleration – whine, don’t fight – enlightenment.

This strange Carlylean vision (wonderfully echoed much later by Frank McGuinness’s play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme) met with as much incomprehension south of the new border as across the Irish Sea; one Fianna Fáil TD suggested in the Dail during 1938 ‘storing up sufficient poison gas’ on the border and waiting for a southerly wind. Bew traces the rise of sectarian language in politics from the 1920s, not only in the North. He also gives far more space than most commentators to the efforts of liberal Unionism, the private admissions by some unlikely figures (including Craig) that the border might not last for ever, and the agonised if implicit recognition that Northern Ireland was increasingly dependent on the British taxpayer.

Not all British politicians wanted this new-style ‘partnership of loss’ to continue indefinitely, but the stark choices presented by World War Two (as in the previous conflict) helped shore up the position of Ulster Unionists. The North was strategically vital, but so would have been the ‘Treaty ports’ in the South initially retained by Britain and given up in 1938: Churchill was not the only politician to cherish the idea that Irish unity might be offered in return for Ireland joining the Allies (Chamberlain thought of it first). This did not happen, and though Irish neutrality was effectively angled towards supporting Britain, the private sympathies of several people in de Valera’s government were pro-Axis, while the IRA’s links to the Nazi state have been more and more clearly demonstrated by recent historiography. De Valera’s real thoughts on foreign policy in the age of appeasement remain as gnomic as much else about him. His son has recently testified that de Valera believed Britain’s intentions towards Ireland at this time were much less benign than those of Germany, an analysis which the son himself still seems to subscribe to. And in August 1940, three Northern nationalist politicians travelled south to meet the German envoy in Dublin and formally placed ‘the Catholic minority in the North under the protection of the Axis powers’. Around the same time, the IRA was supplying the Luftwaffe with maps of Belfast, with Catholic residential areas marked for avoidance. De Valera rigidly adhered to a moral equivalence between Irish suffering under British rule and that of the Jews in Germany (he denounced the first newspaper reports of Bergen-Belsen as ‘anti-national propaganda’ put out by British interests). A century before, John Stuart Mill liked to speculate about Irish development if the country had become a Napoleonic sub-state; the counterfactual fantasy of Ireland’s future under the Third Reich awaits its Robert Harris, but there is plenty of material to hand.

Bew needed a volume, not a chapter, for the story of the two Irelands between 1923 and 1966, and much goes unavoidably missing, including the resistant strains of Irish liberalism and dissidence which survived throughout. (Can it really be true that the Irish state banned ‘70 per cent of the books reviewed in the TLS’ between 1930 and 1939?) Here, as elsewhere, the combination of Bew’s concentration on high politics and his affection for nuggets of unexpected, unfamiliar and paradoxical evidence may skew the story. On the other hand, these very characteristics make his final chapter on ‘The Era of the Troubles, 1968-2005’ particularly challenging and thought-provoking, if also sometimes bewilderingly dense. Here we get new angles on the reforming premiers Terence O’Neill and Sean Lemass, who appear more imprisoned by traditional shibboleths than is often recognised. The Belfast-Derry march organised by People’s Democracy in January 1969 effectively led to O’Neill’s political demise when it was violently attacked by Loyalists aided by police: in Bew’s view, ‘the marchers believed they were participating in a protest for civil rights and socialism; in reality, they had helped unearth layers of ethno-nationalist animosity and hatred that had remained at least partly buried over the previous decades.’ He should know.

Pandora’s box was opened, ironically, at a tipping-point for traditional Republicanism: the IRA was splitting into new-look socialist persuaders and old-style bomb-and-bullet militants. Northern conditions ensured that the future would be with the latter. This would have surprised many quidnuncs at the time, and was far from inevitable. Bew argues, convincingly, that a key mistake was the failure to suspend Stormont and impose direct rule in 1969. The right policy was adopted too late, and under the wrong kinds of pressure. The sorry story of the British government’s ineptness and the army’s disastrous policies is counterpointed by reactions in the Republic, where those who believed in arming the Catholics and preparing for ‘Doomsday’ were rapidly and decisively outmanoeuvred and outnumbered by a new thinking on North-South relations. This was pioneered by Lemass, adhered to by the underestimated Jack Lynch, and pursued most eloquently by Garret Fitzgerald. Charles Haughey, who had tried to arm the Provisional IRA in 1969, later claimed that he played a key part in what would be called ‘the peace process’, but this now seems as threadbare as his reputation in other spheres. His attitude towards the new kind of triangular relationship between Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland, mapped, for example, in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, was grounded in a mixture of opportunism and atavism, and it is unsurprising to find him, in disgraced retirement, attacking the Good Friday Agreement.

The Haughey period also reflects the astonishing enrichment and expansion of the Republic from the late 1980s, and the fast-forward process into which social, religious and political attitudes were precipitated by instant modernisation, secularisation, the abandonment of the cultures of austerity and deference and the acquisition of loads of money. Bew touches on these changes insofar as they reflect government policy and attitudes towards the North, which remain the preoccupation of his last chapter: the unfinished business of the ‘Union’. Official papers subsequently released by both governments reveal a developing feeling among British civil servants and politicians in the 1970s that ‘some form of deal with the Irish Republic seems the best option available.’ Bew makes good use of the recent ‘witness’ seminars in contemporary history conducted in both London and Dublin. At one of them (not mentioned in this book), Garret Fitzgerald recalled his blood running cold when he was cheerfully greeted by Lord Carrington, Mrs Thatcher’s foreign secretary, with ‘Well, Garret, how do we reunite Ireland?’ Actually, opinion in Dublin was more and more firmly in favour of moderating the constitutional claim on the North in favour of a modest guarantor position vis-à-vis the Catholic minority. This tendency preceded and survived the massacres perpetrated by the Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday in 1972, and by paramilitaries on both sides over thirty years, as well as the deaths on hunger strike of Provisional IRA ‘martyrs’ in 1981. And though the latter did establish Sinn Féin as a powerful electoral force in Northern Ireland, it failed to break through in the Republic. In the North, Sinn Féin and the DUP flourished at the expense of constitutional nationalism and moderate Unionism, and the efforts of both governments to protect and nurture a ‘middle ground’ produced a depressingly scant return. Hatreds endured and intensified: the most recent nostrums, while repeating much of what was attempted unsuccessfully in the Sunningdale power-sharing experiment of 1973-74, have operated against a background of agreed ethnic carve-up and the euthanasia of centre parties.

Bew’s commentary on the political negotiations behind the scenes, and the realpolitik which lay behind reversals of policy among the mandarinate, is fascinating. This is his home ground in every sense, and his delineation of the shifts and stratagems of the 1990s, bringing Sinn Féin first into discussions and then into government of the state it had sworn to eradicate, deserves very close reading. Tutored by the Irish, the British quickly learned linguistic ingenuity; Orwell would have appreciated the way ‘an “agreed” Ireland’ turned out to mean the very opposite of a ‘united Ireland’, while ‘power-sharing’ came to denote ‘separate spheres’, not reconciliation. Forms of words mattered as much as they did at the time of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, when a civil war had been fought over a formula of loyalty (not, it should be noted, over the question of a partitioned Ireland, which somehow went through on the nod). On the language of the IRA’s ‘decommissioning’ of its arsenal, Bew is predictably scathing, and the last section, written in 2006, is called ‘The Breaking of the Good Friday Agreement’. Northern politics has not yet ended up in the asylum, but it remains to be seen whether the spectacle of Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley finally running a devolved Northern Ireland together, while ‘peace walls’ (Orwell again) continue to be erected in its towns and cities, bears him out.

In 1938, the liberal nationalist Stephen Gwynn wrote: ‘We know in Ireland, and probably they know in Poland, in Slovakia and in Russia, and in a score of other countries where revolution has succeeded, what is the cost of victorious hate.’ As a master of epigraphs, Bew might have found several more in Hazlitt’s essay ‘On the Pleasure of Hating’, which suggested that ‘the spirit of malevolence survives the practical exertion of it . . . Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.’ The opening up of supposedly pluralist dialogues in the New Irelands in the 1990s were often accompanied, at least rhetorically, by the restatement of traditional antipathies and exclusions (sometimes disguised with the camouflage vocabulary of ‘collective memory’, ‘suppression’ and ‘trauma’). One paradoxical effect of the guns falling silent in the North, and the money rolling in to the South, has been to allow a certain amount of reassertion of the old patriotic certainties and antipathies on both sides. This usefully helps to conceal the astounding reversals whereby those who cynically destroyed power-sharing and devolution thirty-odd years ago end up sharing power in a devolved state, three thousand deaths later, while the avatars of moderation are cast into outer darkness. Yeats once remarked that the ancient Irish did not ‘weigh and measure’ their hatred, but focused it into a pure idea; ‘and from this idealism,’ he added, ‘comes, as I think, a certain power of saying and forgetting things, especially a power of saying and forgetting things in politics, which others do not say and forget.’ Paul Bew’s book reconstructs the way that the language of hatred has been employed in Irish history; it also gestures towards much in politics that has been said and forgotten.