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.

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