It’s hard to move in Dublin bookshops these days: you have to negotiate the mounds of books on every conceivable aspect of Ireland. Economics, politics, history, literature, social structures, religion, examinations of our ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ – these are the stuff of our latest native industry. Just try finding a book on ‘the English identity’ in Foyle’s or Black-well’s. Bruce Arnold, a political commentator for the Irish Independent, has now added his contribution to this profusion, What Kind of Country, subtitled ‘Modern Irish Politics 1968-1983’.[*] This book was the subject of a particularly vitriolic review in the Sunday Tribune by one Martin Mansergh. Mansergh’s father, Nicholas, is the distinguished Cambridge historian, and Mansergh fils (a Protestant) is Head of Research in the opposition Fianna Fail party. ‘Research’ is Fianna Fail code for ‘Northern Ireland’, and English readers will get some idea of Mansergh’s consequent relationship with his leader, Charles Haughey, if they consider Mephistopheles and Faust. Bruce Arnold is English, and has lived here for many years. His weekly column in the Independent is undoubtedly pro-Government in taste and bias or, more accurately, anti-Fianna Fail. This has become more evident (and Arnold’s column less valuable) since he and another journalist had their private phones bugged by the last Fianna Fail Administration in 1982. Ostensibly this was to gather ‘useful information concerning subversive activity’, but plainly it was because Arnold and Geraldine Kennedy were writing articles on the strains and splits within Fianna Fail.
So, in the week that the New Ireland Forum reported, we were treated to this intriguing little spectacle, which has its relevance to that report and its aftermath. In an early moment of self-doubt, Marlowe’s Faustus declares:
The God thou serv’st is thine own appetite,
Wherein is fix’d the love of Beelzebub.
However, he quickly smothers such realities with voluptuous determination:
To him I’ll build an altar and a church
And offer lukewarm blood of new-born babes.
Let us take Beelzebub as Northern Ireland, and observe Mephistopheles as he follows his master’s voice in dealing with one new-born babe. A babe does not fully subscribe to the historical inevitability and cogency of Irish unity and/or the supremacy of Charles Haughey. The way to carry out the sacrifice is to spill the babe’s blood: thus you demonstrate its redness – ergo, its empire-red Britishness. It is in this spirit that the tap on Englishman Arnold’s phone was warranted by the term ‘anti-national’. In the same vein, so to speak, is an FF election poster parodying Kitchener’s finger-pointing interrogation: ‘Thatcher wants Garret. Do you?’
Mansergh starts with an hors d’oeuvre of factual errors, moves on to the ‘narrowly party-political’ slant of the book, and then settles down with relish to the main course. Skinned down to its spine, this accuses Arnold of propagating Tory policies (in spite of his avowed distaste for Thatcherism) in the columns of Ireland’s best-selling newspaper and, during the last Fianna Fail Administration, of giving ‘every support and encouragement to forces inside and outside the governing party trying to bring down the prime minister’. Well, I don’t suppose Arnold will lose much sleep over that. He’s well used to such cries, and as an abrasive man himself might relish them. But these ideas hark back to the bugging affair, and are revealing in their process of thought. In this state of mind, opposition to or criticism of one thing implies adherence to its obverse. Arnold does not support our leader, hence he is a British spy. You’re either one thing or the other; you believe in one slogan or its antithesis. There’s nothing in between. Mansergh continues: ‘Duncan Campbell of the New Statesman, who critically exposes Britain’s nuclear policies and installations, was knocked off his bicycle and his papers ransacked.’ The paragraph spacing that follows this sentence leaves us a moment’s contemplation, before we reach the disclaimer: ‘All this is not to justify anything that has happened here, but to suggest that Ireland does not compare too badly with regard to freedom and tolerance.’ The subtext of this narrative deconstructs its superficial civility. Or, if you prefer, the undertow of these sentences takes your breath away. For Mansergh’s argument to hijack in its cause an investigative, anti-government journalist like Campbell who spends his working life examining the abuses of the state is ambitious. To do so one paragraph after justifying the state’s abuse of Arnold’s privacy is a fine achievement.
This review appeared at the end of a merry week. The jollity was occasioned by the publication of the Report of the New Ireland Forum and the subsequent commotion. In the early morning before the Report’s appearance we had the honour of a visit from the Reverend Ian Paisley, who stuck up a few ‘Ulster is British’ posters, adorned with the Union Jack, around the centre of Dublin. This was a fairly appropriate proleptic reaction to the Forum Report. All the publicity surrounding it concerned the Haughey statement on Northern Ireland’s future, and this was as brief and seasoned as Paisley’s: ‘Only Unity.’ The Fianna Fail leader had plenty of fuel to keep him going in his repetitions of this concept. There it is in section 5.7 of the Report: ‘The particular structure of political unity which the Forum would wish to see established is a unitary state ...’ Haughey’s triumph over the Forum Report has been to reduce any other dimensions or subtleties there may be in the document to this one insistent and well-publicised reiteration. All 11 months of talk, hearings and effort have boiled down to a single statement: ‘Only unity can stop the violence in Northern Ireland.’ In his interviews he has allowed for no intermediate stages on the way. No qualifications, modulations or ambiguities can be validated by the Forum Report: Charles Haughey stands ready, sword unsheathed, to act as sole interpreter of the text. Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party said he expected to find holes in the noses of Garret Fitzgerald, John Hume and Dick Spring – evidence of Haughey’s rope. The three men walked right into that easy quip.
So, this is what we’re all reduced to in the eyes of Northern Unionists – papal bulls. This is the old game of Irish national politics. You reduce character to caricature by refusing modulations. This is the way Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams maintain the murderous status quo in the North. It is symptomatic that Northern Nationalists are forbidden, under the Flags and Emblems Act, to display the Tricolour. The truth is encapsulated in the name of that Act: the only important discourse to do with Northern Ireland is composed of a few ever-ready, ever-steady symbols – flags, slogans, posters, mildewed declarations.
Recently the Gaelic Athletic Association held its Centenary Congress. In this month’s Magill magazine the sports writer Eamon Dunphy rails at statements by the Association’s hierarchy claiming the transcendence of ‘mere sport’: ‘Our sport,’ they say, ‘is of particular value’ and the GAA is ‘more than a sporting organisation’. Dunphy writes: ‘Our national tragedy is that decency and non-sectarianism must remain a private vice among Gaels, that in this Centenary Year, politicians, bishops and captains of industry will troop along to the celebrations and genuflect before the god of sporting nationalism. This is more than mere hypocrisy. This is social cancer.’ Dunphy protests at the absence of any irony in the Association’s use of the word ‘mere’. And in the days that follow the publication of the Forum Report, it is obvious that the notion of irony, of alternatives or options, has taken quite a battering, and is rare indeed in the dominating political discourse. Successive polls indicate how cynically the electorate regards its leaders; they can hardly whine at this, given the distance between its concerns and their dealings. The phrase ‘the National Ideal’ is as offensive in its exclusivity, its presuppositions, its definite article and its capital letters, as was the 19th-century British notion of ‘the Irish Question’ in its patronising simplemindedness.
[*] Cape, 241 pp., £12. 50 and £3. 95, 26 April, 0 224 02046 3.