Northern Irish Initiatives

Charles Townshend

Towards the end of the debate on the Northern Ireland Constitution Bill in the House of Commons Enoch Powell produced a document which purported to prove the existence of clandestine agreements between the Northern Ireland Office and the Irish Government. The document showed, he said, that the Conservatives had reneged on the policy of integration with Britain on being told by civil servants of ‘certain undertakings’ made to the Irish Government about the future of the province. The affair casts a lurid light on the hysteria beneath the granite surface of Ulster Unionism. The document itself, which has the appearance of a transcript of an interview with an official, named as Clive Abbott, of the Northern Ireland Office, is less than convincing. Prior has told the House of Commons that Mr Abbott did not say what he is alleged to have said in the interview. When I discussed the matter with the research student named by the Northern Ireland Office as the interlocutor of the unfortunate Mr Abbott, he roundly denied all involvement. Mr Powell himself has reverted to vaguer, more familiar allegations of conspiracy and submission to blackmail.

The real significance of the affair, however, is that it illuminates the obsessive fear of Ulster Loyalists that the two governments are acting in collusion with each other. In the Loyalist view, any official contact between Westminster and Dublin smacks of treason. The unique conception of ‘loyalty’ involved here does not mean compliance with the general will of the polity to which the group is ostensibly loyal, but insistence that the polity should comply with the will of the Loyalists, even to its general disadvantage. The claim of loyalty is held to give claimants a veto over the policy of the United Kingdom.

At the same time, the suggestion made by Julian Amery that, whatever the provenance of the document, it conveys the essence of official thinking in the Northern Ireland Office, is not easily dismissed. For two generations the views of high officials seem to have remained constant. As one of them recently told Mr Molyneaux, reunification is the only ‘intelligent’ solution to the Irish problem. From the start they had little patience with what Warren Fisher, Head of the Civil Service between the wars, described as the ‘blackmail and bluff (oddly enough called loyalty)’ consistently deployed by the then Northern Ireland Government. Fisher prescribed a dose of reality for these ‘parochial diehards’. (Politicians, however, baulked at administering it.) It is important to note that the term ‘blackmail’ seems to have come to his mind as readily as it does to Mr Powell’s, and, at the same time, that he described Unionist intransigence as ‘bluff’. This was also the traditional view held by Irish nationalists. Mr Abbott’s alleged remark that the creation of Northern Ireland was a ‘squalid deal’ is quite characteristic of high-minded officialdom, as is the idea of launching another ‘high-powered political initiative’.

The history of British rule in Ulster during the last decade is littered with the debris of ‘political initiatives’, as the history of British government in Ireland before 1922 is littered with the wreckage of political reputations. A more forgiving, or less demanding, British Parliament may now permit Irish Secretaries to enhance their reputations in coping with a tiresome, incomprehensible problem of little apparent relevance to the British polity. But the unforgiving realities of Ireland have continued to crush each effort at solution.

The British press, for which reportable activity is ipso facto preferable to stasis, has continued nonetheless to demand renewed ‘initiatives’. The Irish Government, with rather more complex motives, has done the same. At the root of all these demands lies a common assumption: that a ‘solution’ is not merely desirable in principle but attainable in practice, if only the correct policy is adopted by government. The deeply British belief, expressed by an earlier Irish Secretary at the time of an earlier Irish Convention, that ‘honest and intelligent men can always agree on some solution for a question,’ no doubt provides part of the ground for the Irish Government’s faith. But that faith rests mainly on the romantic idea that the inherent, ‘essential’ unity of the island of Ireland will supply the attitudinal framework for resolving conflict. In other words, although intra-Irish divisions may be all too obvious, less obvious but nonetheless real Irish affinities will – indeed must – in the end overcome them. This islandism has, it may be suggested, no very secure theoretical or practical foundations. Yet it visibly affects the evaluation of British policies by Irish nationalists both extreme and moderate, and has since Gladstone’s time influenced the formulation of these policies themselves.

The British Government’s habitual off-handedness in tackling its ‘Irish problem’, illustrated in the last decade by the alternation of first and second-rate politicians as Secretaries for Northern Ireland (with more of the latter than the former), has weakened the impact both of ‘initiatives’ and of attempts at what Lord Salisbury called ‘resolute government’ (intended to restore law and order by demonstrating that violence would not influence political decision-making, and automatically nullified by each reversion to an initiative). If the recent appointment of a front-rank minister to the Secretaryship has commanded general approbation, his announcement of a fresh initiative has produced mixed feelings.

Mr Prior’s constitutional proposals, however, represent an unusual synthesis of continuity and initiative. Perhaps unavoidably, they betray the British Government’s anxiety to secure some democratic basis (consensual rather than majoritarian) for administration, and point up the damaging fact that neither of the other major parties to the Ulster conflict shares that anxiety. But the White Paper, Northern Ireland: A Framework for Devolution, pitches the issue intelligently in speaking of the ‘responsibility’, rather than the ‘right’, of the Northern Ireland people to run their own affairs. In offering a mechanism for progressive devolution, it does not break entirely new ground: the concept of ‘reserved powers’ goes back to Gladstone’s Home Rule Bills, and a multi-stage process was built into the 1920 Government of Ireland Act with its provision for a Council of Ireland. The mechanics of the new proposals, however, are more sophisticated, and allow workable administrative arrangements to emerge from the bottom upwards, rather than being imposed from the top. This is a more organic political process whose results, if any, must possess some validity.

Above all, the new proposals seem to be free of the burdening assumption that a ‘solution’ must be found quickly – or, indeed, at all. Perhaps for this reason the initiative has been received with little warmth by Irish nationalists. In fact, Mr Haughey has used it to make an ostentatious reversal of earlier démarches towards co-operation with Westminster. He has announced that it will ‘be regarded by history as one of the worst things to have happened in Anglo-Irish relations’. One may recognise in this extravagance, and, perhaps, in the personal attacks on Mr Prior and Lord Gowrie, traditional Fenian rhetoric in which sound and fury have their own significance.

Fenian tunnel vision, with its intense, reality-excluding concentration on the distant light of an absolutely independent, united, all-Ireland republic, undoubtedly continues to influence nationalist perceptions. However, few, if any, Irish politicians (as Mr Haughey’s own career has shown) now cleave to it unflinchingly. More complex visions are being assembled, even by physical-force Republicans. The reality of the complication represented by Northern Protestants is openly accepted. The question is how realistic the new realism can become without detaching itself altogether from its validating ideal.

The foremost advocate of realism, Dr FitzGerald, is a statesman who, in the Fine Gael mould effectively cast by Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins, seems to share British attitudes to the politics of the possible. His views on the future of Ireland are therefore of particular significance in connection with the new initiative. In the Richard Dimbleby Lecture, under the title ‘Irish Identities’, he developed an approach to the problem more complex than that of any earlier nationalist leader. At the same time, he made very explicit his belief that ‘ultimately there has to be a solution’: ‘the present tragic chaos cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely.’ He also remarked that Mr Prior’s initiative was ‘presumably’ directed towards providing ‘a breathing-space in which the people of the island can consider their longer-term future’. It offers, he thinks, an ‘interim solution’.

The implications of these comments are clearly islandist. There has to be a solution, not only because chaos cannot be accepted, but because Ireland is divided. The people who cannot allow chaos to continue are the people of the whole island. Dr FitzGerald twice dismissed the possibility of a ‘simple geographical solution’ which would redraw the border on a more just basis – the most obvious remedy, but one which has found astonishingly little open support – giving as his reason the assertion that no line drawn on a map can resolve the Irish identity conflict. (He states darkly that attempts of this sort in the past have intensified the problem – though it is not at all clear what these attempts, apart from the 1920 Partition, actually were.)

The island of Ireland, in this view, forms a natural framework for political development. The sense is that this naturalness is not merely geographical, but also ethical – one might even add aesthetic. This traditional nationalist idea is modified, though, by the recognition that within this natural unit there is a clash of ‘identities’. These must be entities of lower logical or ethical priority than the island, but what are they? They are clearly identified by Dr FitzGerald with ‘traditions’ – and by coincidence Mr Prior’s White Paper also sees two ‘identities’ or ‘traditions’ as being at the core of the problem. Does this reflect current intellectual orthodoxy rather than reality? What real political forces are signified by the terms ‘identity’ and ‘tradition’?

A tradition may subsume almost any aspect of a culture – law, belief, art. Many traditions may co-exist within a single country without creating political problems. So also may many identities, personal or local. A workable democratic polity may indeed be defined as one in which subordinate identities and traditions do not interfere with the overriding allegiance of citizens to the polity as a whole. If we are confronted with dominant traditions, such as those identified in Northern Ireland by Mr Prior and Dr FitzGerald, which demonstrably override allegiance to other political structures, the question arises whether it is possible to envisage any polity in which they might become subordinate. We must ask whether it is realistic to regard them as a sort of intermediate entity, half-way between local and national identities.

Lack of rigour in approaching awkward realities may be found in FitzGerald’s and Prior’s use of the term ‘community’. A cohesion based on shared traditions is the essence of a community. To use the term to describe a collection of people which forms, in Weber’s famous distinction, a gesellschaft but not a gemeinschaft is at best misleading: to use it of people who form neither, who are merely the inhabitants of a certain geographical area, is surely misconceived. Mr Prior’s Paper speaks incongruously of ‘the two sides of the community’. This says more about the Government’s wishful than about its realistic thinking. Dr FitzGerald also uses the term in this way when he speaks of ‘the nationalist section of the community in Northern Ireland’. A paragraph later, however, a very different usage appears, when he focuses on the ‘Unionist community’.

Here, suddenly, is the real thing. This is a group with a common tradition, a ‘siege mentality’, a group consciousness, and with the cohesion to defend itself. Consistently, at junctures perceived by it as critical, this community has organised itself (by processes more ‘democratic’ than the mobilisation for war of most nation-states) to defend ‘the Union’ or ‘the Constitution’. These are not merely political devices but symbols of its political culture and its way of life. This focus of loyalty has often made Loyalism baffling to outsiders. Dr FitzGerald is not one of these, and he recognises that the Loyalist community’s allegiance has increasingly detached itself from the modern British political system. It is unfortunate that he speaks of this group as having a ‘British tradition’: he is much more accurate when he describes it as ‘Ulster Scots’ (though, like most Irish nationalists, he quietly ignores the work of the Dutch geographer M.W. Heslinga, whose book The Irish Border as a Cultural Divide firmly underlines that identity). The ‘Protestant Province of Ulster’ – ‘the Province we love’, as Lord Brookeborough described it – has undoubtedly been a primary focus of Loyalist identity since 1911. Dr FitzGerald admits that recently there has been an observable tendency for more and more Protestants, when pressed to select a single description, to call themselves ‘Ulster people’, but he does his best to play this down.

Yet it is potentially very significant indeed. Objectively, it is hard to distinguish the Ulster Protestant identity from the identity of groups who have made good, through self-defence, their title to self-determination as national states. In the last analysis, readiness to fight for ‘freedom, religion and laws’ – a way of life – is the ultimate determinant. Loyalist selfishness, so violently expressed even to a Conservative statesman such as Chamberlain when he appealed to their wider patriotism in 1940, is surely the ‘sacred egoism’ dear to post-Romantic materialists. What has been missing, so far, has been a preparedness to accept political self-reliance.

It may still be that, as Dr FitzGerald suggests, Ulster Protestants ‘uneasily recognise that Ulster is not a nation and cannot credibly become a state’. But his choice of verb indicates that he himself may be uneasily engaged in fending off an unattractive but real possibility. For there is nothing here to ‘recognise’. The objective criteria of national identity are amply present in the Ulster Protestant tradition. The history of other national movements – the Irish included – suggests that intellectual and political leaders could build on them very quickly if they came to see such a course as desirable or necessary. As for credibility, Ulster would hardly be amongst the most incredible of already existing states.

Pragmatic politicians, as distinct from idealists, must take facts as they are. For the foreseeable future, Ulster’s political centre of gravity will be the Protestant community, and only a ‘solution’ that emerges authentically from it is likely to survive. If Ulster Protestant tradition amounts in effect to a national identity it might be wise to come to terms with the fact. Acceptance of national status could be of real value to everyone in the six counties, not merely Protestants, because only when such responsibility is assumed can Loyalists be expected to develop political maturity. So far, in spite of their evident strength, Protestants have persistently manifested anxiety and even fear. The British ‘guarantee’ perpetuates rather than assuages this sense of inadequacy, leading Protestants to use their strength negatively, to frighten the British into reciprocating their ‘loyalty’ (as in 1912 or 1974), rather than to build mature political structures.

Until this misleading support is removed there is little chance that the primitive confrontational politics of Ulster Loyalists will be modified. Dr FitzGerald skilfully seeks to remind them that Northern Unionism ‘sees itself as founded on the principles of civil and religious liberty’. There is a real element of truth in this, which may in the end produce results. For the time being, however, the more obvious feature of Loyalist attitudes remains a perceptual obscurantism of the sort labelled by psychologists ‘perpetual set’. The symbolic annual reassertion of the message of the Boyne and the siege of Derry shows no sign of lapsing from political vitality into amiable folksiness. The Constitution must be defended, if necessary by force: Catholics are a threat to that Constitution, ‘enemies of law and order’. In these circumstances, the hopeful argument of Mr Prior’s Paper that ‘total repudiation of violence’ may come about when ‘both sides of the community recognise each other’s different aspirations’ is almost bereft of meaning. For a Loyalist to ‘recognise’ nationalist aspirations is impossible, except in the banal sense of recognising that they exist. This they all too clearly do. But to accept such aspirations as legitimate would instantly destroy the very thing that Loyalism exists to defend.

The most remarkable of Dr FitzGerald’s contributions to the refinement of nationalist assumptions is his readiness to accept that aspects of the nationalist ‘tradition’ may legitimately provoke Protestant anxiety or hostility. It is questionable how far other nationalists may be willing to go with him in this, as Roy Foster pointed out in the London Review of Books earlier this year (Vol. 4, No 1), and it has to be said that even his reasonableness, extraordinary by nationalist standards, is possibly inadequate by the more dispassionate standards of outsiders. He lays great weight on the United Irish and Young Ireland movements’ doctrine that Irish nationalism must be non-sectarian. But while the intellectual importance of these groups is unquestionable, it is misleading to pretend that they ever represented mass opinion. Dr FitzGerald cautiously admits that the adoption of this ‘basic doctrine ... has not been accompanied by a full emotional acceptance of all its implications’. The plain fact, repeatedly confirmed by modern analyses, is that the identification of ‘Irish’ and ‘Catholic’ is fundamental to Irish national consciousness. It is hard to see what would be left if this ‘divisive’ identification were to be abandoned, as Dr FitzGerald urges.

Islandism is surely not enough. The same contradictions that vitiated the reasoning of Thomas Davis are to be found in that of latterday Young Irelanders. Dr FitzGerald’s reminder that a ‘substantial all-Ireland element’ continues to exist in the cultural and social life of Ulster is well taken: but it is hard not to feel that when the chips are down this element has little more political weight than the Eurovision Song Contest.

If the drift of the last century has been towards an autonomous Ulster, it may be asked whether there is any useful function for Britain in Northern Ireland. Direct rule, as the White Paper tells us, is moribund. Dr FitzGerald pays unusual tribute to the beneficial effects of the British connection (though he also sharply accuses Britain of economic crimes which, as he says, are the stuff of Irish history textbooks, but which – he omits to add – look increasingly doubtful in the light of recent Irish historical scholarship). He expects help in clearing up ‘the debris of centuries of British policy’, and, like the White Paper, makes positive, sensibly-scaled administrative proposals. In particular, he focuses on the issue of civil liberties, which, as he points out, are more unambiguously guaranteed by the Irish Constitution than by British custom.

It is here that Britain’s most unprovocative initiative might be made. As Richard Rose argued some years ago, in comparing the ‘priorities of citizenship’ in the American Deep South and in Northern Ireland, it is probably correct – and definitely feasible – to place justiciable rights before electoral rights. Ulster Loyalists, and many British Conservatives, may dislike the conception of a Bill of Rights, but they can’t oppose it on moral principle. Comprehensive and effective human rights legislation offers a way of reordering the framework in which adversarial socialisation at present occurs. If the Ulster identity is really to be liberal and the Ulster state is not to be in a permanent state of siege, something more will be needed than the pressure of rhetorical appeals.