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Vol. 3 No. 22 · 3 December 1981

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Northern Irish History

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.

David Gregg
Linacre College, Oxford


SIR: I am very sorry if I misinterpreted Neal Ascherson’s article on Speer. I thought I had drawn valid inferences from it, but, if he says not, of course I accept his word. Nevertheless I am puzzled by his contention that British Military Government could have handed de-Nazification over to ‘the thousands of Germans who wanted a social-democratic revolution’ or who were offended that the British would not permit it. For better or for worse, the British insisted that if Germany was to become a democratic state the rule of law must be established. There was no legitimate German organisation which could legally undertake the task. Under Control Commission law, I think, the only legitimate political organisations were the licensed political parties. Only the KPD would have relished the task. The SPD realised at once that their best line was to criticise Military Government for their failure to de-Nazify; and that they would be mad to court the unpopularity at the polls of volunteering to do the job. Failing them, to what organisation could Military Government turn and say: ‘Make a social-democratic revolution for us.’ In any case, this would have made the British insistence on restoring parliamentary democracy and the ballot box ridiculous. Whether we like it or not, the Germans in 1945-50 were not all that keen on a social-democratic revolution. They showed where their heart lay when they voted Adenauer and the CDU to power.

Epuration is a nasty business, and the experience of France in those days showed that, if justice was rough, it also gave the unscrupulous a wonderful chance to pay off old scores. It is true that the British hadn’t the heart for it, nor the manpower to carry it out. But I’m afraid it is romantic to think that cohorts of Germans were then keen and competent to do the job for them.

Noël Annan
London NW8

Cutting the universities

SIR: I am worried about Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer’s argument (LRB, 19 November) that the shrinkage of universities can’t or ought not to be resisted. In the mid-Sixties this was what everyone said about the British coal industry. The issue dividing the parties was not whether or not coal had had its day (obviously it had – everyone from the editor of the Times to the panelists on Any Questions knew that oil was cheaper, burned better and was easier to handle than coal), but how rapidly the mines should be run down. Today what everybody knows, with equally suspicious unanimity, is that the Robbins principles were hopelessly utopian, that universities diluted their standards during the Sixties and Seventies by taking in too many students and hiring a number of under-qualified teachers, and that (worst of all) the great largesse lavished upon higher education failed, as Sir Peter says, to ‘produce prosperity’.

What are the facts? The ‘Robbins revolution’ increased the age-participation rate at British universities to a staggering 4.8 per cent (now falling), and the figure for all forms of British higher and further education to around 12 per cent. It is hard to see how that proportion of the 18-to-21 age-group educated at universities and polytechnics, even over ten years, could have made much difference to national wealth (if one insists on defining ‘wealth’ so narrowly), especially given the reluctance of industry, the law and the Civil Service to alter their modes of recruitment to take account, not only of the increase in graduates, but also of the different kinds of graduate.

Now the universities are being told that they will be further penalised for any applicants they accept beyond the age-participation percentage to which the Robbins ‘revolution’ has already lapsed, and the rest of further and higher education is to have its ‘pool capped’ at something below its present student numbers. (What an inappropriate metaphor, by the way, since the oil in a capped well, like coal, can be used at a future date.) It really is time to turn and ask the Government to explain – and it is particularly the responsibility of Vice-Chancellors and Her Majesty’s Loyal and Silent Opposition to insist on a reasoned answer – why they consider the British to be so uniquely untalented that more than 10 per cent or so of the age-group represents a ‘dilution’ of our institutions of higher learning, when the comparable figures in other advanced countries range from 22 to 50 per cent. Are there more students elsewhere because other countries are richer? Or are other countries richer because they have faith and hope in more of their populations? I do not know the answer, but I am sure that the failure to fulfil even the spirit of Robbins cannot constitute an experiment proving anything.

Sir Peter ends his article with a touching – though, in the circumstances he outlines himself, fancifully optimistic – figure of the universities as a caterpillar afraid to become a butterfly. Some caterpillar; some butterfly! My own analogy would be a large rocket on the launching-pad which, when it began to smoke and rumble and shake the surrounding buildings, was shut down in anxious haste before it could get off the ground.

Stephen Fender
Herne Hill

Women’s History

SIR: Suzie Fleming hates (Letters, 19 November) my review of Nella Last’s War, of which she was co-editor. She writes of ‘Turner’s attack on women’s history’, but I made no such attack. I criticised Mrs Last’s chronicle, which consists of an edited version of the diary she kept for Mass-Observation during the last war. Because my evaluation of it differs from Suzie Fleming’s I am accused of supposing that only my view of the world is valid. It is also suggested that I am outraged that a housewife should have written a book. I am ‘preoccupied’ and ‘irritated’ because on one occasion Mrs Last referred to her husband as ‘that one’: in fact, I mentioned it once in passing and later to make a tiny joke about it. Some preoccupation! Some irritation!

Suzie Fleming really has an exceptional gift for detecting intolerance, arrogance and prejudice. She thinks I showed ‘explicit hostility’ to Mass-Observation, when I merely suggested that its highly personal reports need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Must we believe everything in everybody’s diary?

Nella Last’s War, we are to believe, is ‘unique not only because it has been edited from two million words, but because [the author] has so honestly captured the experience of millions of housewives like herself.’ Whether Mrs Last wrote two million words or ten million is immaterial; whether the account is as representative as is claimed is a matter for judgment. In my view, the writer tended to strike attitudes. Bafflingly, Suzie Fleming says that ‘as a whole historians have served us so badly that for a long time we were misted into assuming that the current women’s movement began in the 1960s.’ Historians have been writing about the women’s movement since the days of the suffragettes. How does Suzie Fleming suppose housewives occupied themselves during World War One? They were doing the same things that Nella Last was doing. And I do not doubt that they were developing a growing self-awareness and questioning their husbands’ authority. Perhaps this makes her representative?

Finally, was I wrong to refer to ‘foreigners’ who might read the book? Is this really a dirty word?

E.S. Turner

Portrait of the Army

SIR: What a pity that Nigel Hamilton (LRB, 5 November) could not grasp the central point of my book. Soldiering On – An Unofficial Portrait of the British Army. Mr Hamilton, through his eminent father, has had the advantage of the acquaintance of Field-Marshal Lord Montgomery on which to build his literary career. Had he found himself able to approach his reviewing task in a less exalted state of mind, he might have saved himself the trouble of composing so many facile insults by noticing that the thrust of my book was exerted on a quite different, though equally valid wavelength. It was based on the premise that the British Army deserved and needed an opportunity to talk colloquially about itself and its job at all levels, not only those within the knowledge of Mr Hamilton and his friends; and that the public needed to know what they would say. I tried to convey to the average civilian what it now feels like to be an average soldier, something I do not remember being done before in this particular way.

It is interesting, though perhaps vexatious to a certain brand of snobbery, that Soldier, the magazine of the profession, described Soldiering On as ‘one of the best books to be written about the Army for some time’. The reactions of professional soldiers also lead me to think that Mr Hamilton is somewhat isolated on the crest of his self-esteem.

Dennis Barker
London NW3

New Evidence

SIR: The benign and generous notice of History and Imagination: Essays in Honour of H.R. Trevor-Roper by Mr A.J.P. Taylor that appeared in your last issue (LRB, 5 November) has given me so much pleasure that I am reluctant to complain of anything that it contains. But I cannot refrain from commenting on Mr Taylor’s belief that Classical studies are concerned with a body of evidence that never increases. For more than a century a steady flow of papyri and inscriptions has added to our knowledge of ancient literature and ancient history; and there is also the evidence of archaeology. Mr Taylor imagines that Bentley, writing 250 years ago, and I were dealing with exactly the same evidence in discussing the Homeric question: in fact, the discovery of Minoan and Mycenaean civilisation by the archaeologists has made rather a big difference.

Hugh Lloyd-Jones
Christ Church, Oxford

Translation Prize

SIR: It may be of interest to your readers to know that in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the death of Goethe, the English Goethe Society is in 1982 offering a prize of £100 for the best translation into English verse of three of his poems; the judges will be D.J. Enright, Michael Hamburger and B.A. Rowley. Those who wish to receive full details should send a stamped addressed envelope to me.

F.M. Fowler
Department of German, Queen Mary College, Mile End Road, London E1

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