Garret’s Crusade

Roy Foster

‘Garret’s crusade’ is the affectionately dismissive term given by Dublin opinion – traditionally dismissive if seldom affectionate – to the Irish Premier’s desire to abolish the ‘sectarian’ articles of the Constitution which enshrine Catholic social doctrine. But the reaction in Irish politics at large has been less worldly-wise, and the ensuing fuss has obscured some of the most important implications of the affair. The surprise occasioned should, in a sense, have been minimal. In the best academic tradition, Dr Fitzgerald was not only repeating Lecky (‘the secularisation of politics is the chief means and condition of political progress’), but also repeating himself. Ten years ago, in a ‘study group’ organised by the Institute for the Study of Conflict, he fulminated against the Irish Republic’s attempt to exert a moral sway over the North while implicitly excluding from its constitutional definition of ‘Irish’ ‘the Northern Ulster Scots Protestant tradition’. The state, therefore, in Dr Fitzgerald’s view, ‘evolved in a lopsided manner that has notably failed to reflect the whole of the island’s culture and history’. This is as patently true now as it was then, and his intellectual honesty, as well as his political impatience, would inevitably have forced him to say so from the platform as well as across the seminar table.

What surprised at least some observers about his recent statement were its accompanying remarks, in the course of which he emotionally declared his own commitment to a United Ireland and identified that aim as, more or less, the ultimate point of all Irish political activity. The rhetorical function of his additional flourish was obvious enough – an attempt to short-circuit hard-line Republican criticism. But the large constituency ready and happy to practise birth control and divorce with abandon must have had their ardour cooled by this coda: and the audience which desires secularisation primarily as a prelude to a united Ireland may not be nearly as sizeable or as committed as Dr Fitzgerald and his advisers evidently believe.

It is too often assumed that ‘the Dublin view’ is the Republican view tout court. In fact, the last ten years have drastically moderated Southern attitudes. Recent events, public correspondence, and meetings at all levels in Dublin and London, have more and more clearly indicated a scenario whereby any British government (desperate Conservative, left-wing Labour or tentative SDP) will accept more or less any arrangement in order to be able to declare future withdrawal of troops and an eventual ‘Irish’ solution. And in such a situation the Paisleyites’ Pavlovian howl of betrayal should not be allowed to drown out the fact that a large section of the Republic’s population will feel equally delivered over, and equally dismayed. The picture that may emerge is one of the British and Irish Governments coercing, not only a noisy Northern majority, but also a silent Southern one, into a ‘unity’ very far from what they need, desire or can afford.

For Southern attitudes to the North, like Southern attitudes to nearly everything, have changed greatly from the days when D.P. Moran could write that ‘the only thinkable solution of the Irish national problem is that one side gets on top and absorbs the other until we have one nation ... any genuine non-Catholic Irish nationalist must become reconciled to Catholic development or throw in his lot with the other side.’ Respected dons can no longer affirm, as did Professor Conovan in the 1930s, that ‘the poetry or life of what is called Belfast can only be Irish by being assimilated.’ (The assumptions on which such attitudes rested need not have been so rabidly expressed: I was taught by my Southern Protestant mother that a united Ireland was desirable because it would be ‘neater, somehow’.)

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[*] The State in Northern Ireland, Manchester University Press, 239 pp., £6.95, 1980, 0 7190 6814 X.

[†] J. Bowyer Bell: Review of Politics, October 1974.