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’.)

It may be claimed, therefore, that the old certitudes are being forgotten in the Republic just as they are being learned in Whitehall. A recent meeting of a group who convene in Dublin to discuss national questions was galvanised by the testimony of a member bearing a great patriotic name, who said that her father had died for an independent and united Ireland, but that she no longer felt it was worth a single act of violence (of course, she had to declare her pedigree for such an unexceptionable sentiment to have its full effect). Statistics, moreover, speak louder than anecdotes, and a survey of public opinion in the 26 counties, published three years ago, pinpointed new departures as well as traditional doublethink. Seventy per cent of those interviewed supported withdrawal of the British Army from the North: yet 69 per cent were deeply pessimistic about the outcome of such a step. A similarly contradictory proportion was indicated among those who declared ‘sympathy’ with the aims of the IRA, yet condemned their ‘activities’. Other findings were equally confused. One of the few conclusions, however, was that both support of the IRA, and antipathy to partition per se, decreased sharply as the sample of people interviewed became more educated. In this one might trace a growing realisation that partition is not the problem, but a symptom of the problem; that the war is not the British versus ‘the Northern Irish people’ (that convenient Noraid rationalisation), but one Northern Irish people against another; and that, looked at from Dublin, neither of these ‘Northern Irish peoples’ has much discernible affinity with their neighbours in the South.

One cannot yet quantify how widespread this attitude is: but it may be safely supposed that to the bourgeois Republic the increasing problems of their local economy weigh more heavily than the slaughterhouse in the North; that the smashing of plate-glass in Grafton Street windows by unemployed youths, after a H-block march last summer, caused more reverberations than any Belfast baton charge; even that Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien’s repudiation by the world of Irish politics was not due, as he and others supposed, to his facing up to the existence of Ulster, but to his record as Minister of the kind of Posts and Telegraphs department which drives consumers to despair and small businessmen to bankruptcy.

Moreover, the Provisional IRA have given recent signs of recognising that it is the consumers and the small businessmen who make up Southern Irish opinion; and they know that this opinion is not with them. In a particularly interesting interview with a Mexican newspaper last month, a commanding officer of the Provisionals was asked what would happen if the Republic refused, for financial as well as political reasons, to incorporate the Six Counties. He replied:

We call the shots. We don’t really give a damn what they want. We have always called the shots ... The Irish Republic is no more than a self-governing annexe of rich men’s dubious neocolonialism. We want a democratic socialist republic for all Ireland.

The IRA follow the Moran line, and embrace a racialist view of Irish history based on attitudes of the late 19th century (and, ironically enough, on the earlier antiquarian and literary achievement of Anglo-Irish unionists): but the only way they can argue round the distaste felt for them by Southern opinion is by cobbling this view onto an attempt at Marxism.

An older generation of Irish nationalists used to admit that to attempt such a conjunction was tantamount to squaring the circle. Dr Erhard Rumpf, researching in the 1950s for his excellent Nationalism and Socialism in 20th-Century Ireland, was categorically told ‘by an authority on Irish politics’ that as a foreigner he ‘could not hope to understand the dynamic of Irish nationalism ... there was no sociological, sectarian or class problem or angle in it from beginning to end.’ However, Lenin and Connolly chose to believe that Ireland had to be independent before the workers could rightly recognise their class position, and to this rickety and anti-historical position the IRA have pinned much rhetoric. A rigorous Marxist analysis of Northern Irish history has, however, come from post-Althusserian scholars like Paul Bew, Peter Gibbon and Henry Patterson,[*] and their work on the class dynamics of Unionism, as well as the nature of Southern nationalism, leads to very different conclusions:

Struggles over the status of the North are no more automatically anti-imperialist than crimes against property are automatically anti-capitalist. Nobody to date has shown that the IRA’s fight for territorial completion offers any prospect of an end to British imperialism. Most of the evidence points to a different interpretation – that in the long run British imperialism would itself prefer a form of territorial completion. The real objections to unification come not from Britain but from local Protestants. Of course the British want to crush the IRA and are prepared to use force to do so. Yet this is a separate question. The proof is that, even if the IRA forced the British to withdraw, territorial completion would be as far away as ever.

The IRA’s discovery of ‘Marxism’ adds a moralising gloss to the increasingly outmoded old-Republican case. It has certainly helped their cause among the ignorant young in Britain, by legitimising it for adoption into the Time Out package of values. Closer examination, however, should raise some doubts among this fraternity as to the ‘people’s army’ which they have co-opted. The attitude of the IRA towards feminism is hardly enlightened: when the innocently admiring reporter from that Mexican newspaper asked her interlocutor about opportunities for women in the Provisionals, she was crisply told: ‘You just don’t want to come home for dinner and find your wife shooting the RUC out the back window.’ (It might be noted that the RUC are automatically identified as the tribal enemy, not the British Army.) Nor does gay liberation find favour: homosexuals in IRA-controlled areas run the risk of knee-capping. If Ken Livingstone knew more about the movements he endorses, he would find himself squaring circles as frantically as the Provos themselves.

Nonetheless, the package is accepted wholesale by the woolly would-be-Left, who believe that, because the IRA use Kalashnikovs instead of Armalites, they are engaged in a war of liberation. The fellow-travelling attitude to IRA atrocities remains that of Charles James Fox to Napoleon, or the 1930s intellectuals to Stalin: regretting the deed, not for its effect on the victim, but for the damage done to the perpetrator’s reputation. Watching the social workers and polytechnic lecturers march through Camden the other day, calling for troops out of Ulster and an end to the Prevention of Terrorism Act, at least one Southern Irish observer could only echo the Catholic mother’s reaction to Vatican edicts on birth control: ‘I wish to God I knew as little about it as they do.’

But at the very time when IRA values are being legitimised by a section of British opinion, they are increasingly rejected in the Republic. The view of Irish history taught in Irish schools and colleges is no longer the old, self-righteous, wound-licking tale of a people coming out of bondage. ‘The real Irish history,’ in the words of a recent commentator, ‘is seen as largely accommodating in political matters, not even focused on separatism, and not a matter of endless centuries of confrontation with Britain.’[†] This view has been disseminated, not only by the History Schools of Trinity College and the University Colleges of Dublin, Cork and Galway, but also as a result of painful reassessments on the part of old-Republican scholars with impeccable nationalist pedigrees. It is represented in the world of action by the increasingly canonised career of the late Sean Lemass, whose flexibility and pragmatism regarding Ulster have caused him to be elevated to the pantheon of lost leaders by the most unlikely historians. A current of re-examination was setting hard by the late 1960s; even the subsequent ineptness of British government in the North, and the episodic brutality of the British Army’s record there, could not deflect it. Why did the IRA not restrict itself to an all-out political offensive after the hunger strikes (who talks of Owen Carron now)? Possibly because they knew that their much-publicised support in the South was temporary, emotional and sectional. In the interview already mentioned, the IRA officer remarked that the hunger strikes were essentially aimed, not at the British Government, who had explicitly accepted political status before, and would implicitly accept it again, but at opinion in the South, which was where headway had to be made.

Some progress was indeed evident there, but again, the areas where it was located should be defined. When the IRA murdered a part-time policeman last September, the traditionally Green papers of the South, like the Sunday Tribune, produced editorials against the IRA and the H-Block campaign: fellow-travelling was left to the Irish Times, still expiating its ancient Unionist past in fits of editorial pusillanimity. (The Sunningdale agreement gave Southern politicians exactly the limited, inexpensive and indefinitely postponed stake in the North which is all they wanted: it was probably the triumphalist over-reaction of Southern newspapers to the ‘Irish dimension’ which helped precipitate the Unionist strike that destroyed it.) Running with the Green hare while secretly supporting the Orange hounds is a time-honoured tactic. It is too often forgotten that the Civil War was not fought over the issue of partition; and the correspondence of IRA members in the 1930s, as well as de Valera’s statements ten years earlier, reveals that the more realistic of these people were prepared to consider a 26-county republic. British observers in the 1930s were in the habit of seeing de Valera as Kerensky to the IRA’s Bolsheviks: he may have left the part to be inherited by his political successors.

It remains nonetheless true that, despite decades of institutionalised Anglophobia and chauvinism under the de Valera dispensation, the Republic has emerged as a comfortable, petit-bourgeois, culturally mongrel, English-speaking, European-inclined, inflation-ridden EEC state, closely linked to Britain by economic ties and citizenship laws. This is what the IRA mean by ‘neo-colonial rich men’s annexe’. The extraordinary mental gyration whereby the state could be identified as ‘Catholic’, and at the same time claim to exert moral authority over a million disaffected Protestants, was crude enough to be covertly dropped some time ago: last September Dr Fitzgerald presumably felt it was time to draw atention to the fact. He may have been given cause to doubt by Mr Haughey’s virulently unreconstructed reaction, but this reaction may have been miscalculated. On Mr Haughey’s accession to power, the Dublin line was that he was unscrupulous but clever: his record slowly demonstrated the dismaying fact that he was not even clever.

It is likely that some of the antipathy felt by Irish opinion towards changing the Constitution stems from a feeling that the Northerners are too dislikeable to be worth changing it for. If the Protestants have shown themselves repellent because of the record of Stormont, the Catholic ethos appears repugnant because of their endorsement of the IRA. On television screens in Dublin and Cork, IRA spokesmen mouthing sectarian and nationalist pieties long forgotten in the Republic, and Unionists singing hymns in the streets with mingled hysteria and resolution, are equally incomprehensible, and equally undesirable.

By a Shavian paradox, ‘united Ireland’ is being preached by romantic Englishmen to sceptical and pragmatic Irishmen; the gap in understanding is as wide as ever, even if the roles are reversed. When the Sunday Times comes up with one of its periodic ‘solutions’, it is couched in impeccable tones of obtuse condescension: ‘the Northern Irish are a peculiarly gifted people, highly politicised at all levels, well able to conduct their own affairs, with deep reserves of tenacity and courage’ (23 August 1981). To the suspicious Republic, this reads like Newspeak for political immaturity, an aboriginal tendency to violence, and a commitment to dogged bigotry – those characteristics which have taken it sixty difficult years of independence to subdue in its own nature. If ‘unity’ comes, it will evidently come in the same bloody, precipitate and questionable way that ‘independence’ came in 1919-23: a good deal of opinion in the South may safely be considered rational enough to doubt whether the game is worth the candle.

Such romantic simplifications are for IRA ideologues, intellectuals on holiday in Donegal, and well-meaning English visitors. One of the latter was sitting in a Dublin pub this summer, talking fervently of a united Ireland, and entreating the company to tell him what ‘the solution’ was. When it became evident that he would not be stifled by the weary silence of his bored Irish companions, one of them delivered a Delphic answer. ‘The solution,’ he said heavily, ‘is the Cake.’ ‘I’m sorry?’ ‘The Cake.’ More pleas for enlightenment. At last, to nods of quiet approval, the oracle answered in mime: deftly sketching with his hand the action of cutting the Irish cake into four provincial slices, decisively spearing one on the point of a knife, and, with an expression of distaste, throwing it away.

[*] 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.