Local Heroes

John Horgan

  • Elections, Politics and Society in Ireland 1832-1885 by Theodore Hoppen
    Oxford, 569 pp, £29.50, October 1984, ISBN 0 19 822630 6
  • Ireland and the English Crisis by Tom Paulin
    Bloodaxe, 222 pp, £12.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 906427 63 0
  • The Great Dan: A Biography of Daniel O’Connell by Charles Chenevix Trench
    Cape, 345 pp, £10.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 224 02176 1

In the 1840s, according to Theodore Hoppen’s densely-packed and illuminating study of Irish political realities, ‘bored’ British ministers ‘grappled with the tedious but mildly pressing problems of the Irish electorate’. Douglas Hurd may not yet be bored, but he would have difficulty in bettering the description of the problems he is facing. So few of them have changed, or have been solved.

Part of the difficulty, indeed, is that the nature of the original solution was that it could be applied to only one part of the island. The original problems remain, with a malignancy enhanced by the passage of time, in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland remains a mirror image of the original ‘Irish problem’, but with the very considerable complication that the political balance militates against the application of a similar solution.

The period between O’Connell and Parnell saw the creation, in fitful stages, of an Irish electorate which took to the practice of voting with as much gusto as it had previously engaged in riot and rebellion, but without ever actually abandoning such tactics. The traditional irredentist belief that when peaceful means do not secure the redress of grievances rapidly enough, the other option may be invoked simultaneously finds its most dramatic contemporary expression in the Sinn Fein slogan: ‘a ballot-box in one hand, and an Armalite in the other’.

At elections in various parts of Ireland between 1832 and 1868, cudgels were the basic equipment at polling stations, supplemented as and where necessary by an imposing armoury of, among other things, crutches, spikes, hatchets, knives, axes, cleavers, skewers, loaded whips and sticks, pikes, paving stones, iron bars, bottles, sword canes – and, of course, guns. These somewhat crude interferences with the system were reinforced by enthusiastic and skilful voting personation practices which, aided and abetted by the inadequacies of the relevant legislation, offered splendid opportunities to the resourceful. The Northern Ireland Office, it is to be noted, is still grappling with this particular problem.

The combination of poverty, injustice and corruption in the Ireland of that time was an explosive mixture, and it is little wonder that the ballot acted to some degree as a touch-paper. Vote-buying was rife. In Athlone, one of the boroughs where the electorate was comparatively small, and where each vote was worth proportionately more, it was hardly surprising that, in the words of one commentator, ‘with many people the periodic bribe entered into the whole economy of their poor, shrivelled, squalid and weary lives.’ Not always that shrivelled or weary, however: one English candidate for election in the town failed so signally to live up to the standards required of him in the matter of resistance to alcoholic poisoning that he was eventually shipped home with a bad case of delirium tremens. Nor was bribery always eschewed even by those whose supposed stock-in-trade was principle and morality. ‘Holy Mother Church,’ complained one embittered carpet-bagger in Cashel, ‘has a very wide mouth.’

Where the power of the purse or aggressive hospitality had failed, the power of intimidation and the mob was never far behind. The landlords, not slow to see the significance of electoral reform, operated a powerful rearguard action comprised of paternalism and oppression in carefully selected proportions. So successful were they in this exercise that when O’Connell and the clergy came to wrest the weapon of popular support from their hands, it was with some difficulty that they eventually succeeded in doing so. ‘At the Kerry election of 1835,’ Hoppen notes, ‘O’Connell’s speeches reduced audiences to wild weeping, men met in excited clusters for mutual support, one voter desperately went into hiding to escape from both proprietorial and clerical coercion only to be discovered by a priest who “gave him two glasses of brandy and then took him to vote”.’

When the extraordinarily flexible and resilient landlord power finally crumbled, it was only partly because of the O’Connellite challenge. It was also because the less rapacious landlords had bought time and good will by diminishing the exactions on their tenantry in difficult periods. Tenants who had been even partly and temporarily relieved of economic burdens were ill-disposed towards taking them up again, and the choice ‘between damnation and eviction’, as expressed by one Sligo voter in 1868, became a less pressing one. In the struggle between the landed (and almost wholly Protestant) gentry and the O’Connellite masses, the reinforcement of the Catholic clergy for the cause of land reform was in the long run the determining factor.

O’Connell’s movement, however, was anything but a blind monster. Its leader, and the clergy who rallied to his cause, were constantly aware of the destructive potential of the energy they were unleashing – destructive to their own long-term economic and social interests, that is. O’Connell’s views on the extension of the franchise tended to depend on whether he was speaking in public or in private, and his hostility to nascent trade-unionism is a matter of record. The Catholic clergy, drawn overwhelmingly from middle-class backgrounds, never allowed their enthusiasism for Catholic Emancipation or for tenant right to spill over into generalised support for the grossly oppressed agricultural labourers, and quite a few bishops were alarmed by the prospect of Repeal, even the highly Unionist version of it proposed by O’Connell. Their Poujadist ideology was succinctly expressed by Bishop Nulty of Meath in 1871: ‘The purest, the holiest, and the most innocent of society in this country, at least, certainly belong to the class of small farmers. They are high enough, in the social scale, to be above the temptation of extreme want and poverty; and they are below the reach of the seductive and demoralising influences of great wealth and affluence.’

Hoppen’s section on the Catholic Church is one of the best things in the book. Present-day observers of the role of that Church in Irish politics may have cause to consider how the pattern he describes has in many respects persisted more strongly in the North than in the South and how the modalities of power have developed in each area. You would not, today, see in the South the equivalent of the Emancipation platforms which were actually set up in front of the altars a century or so ago, and even in the recent, admittedly ambiguous, abortion referendum the hierarchy as a whole grudgingly admitted that their flock were free in conscience to vote as they wished. A degree of sophistication has replaced the theological brutalism of the past, and the Catholic bishops are now less likely to rely on threats of excommunication (on, for instance, the divorce issue) than on quasi-sociological and highly tendentious arguments about the damage which will be done to society by whatever development they happen to be opposing. The role of the 19th-century clergy has to some degree been taken over by aggressive lay guardians of the old morality. In the North, on the other hand, the leader of the Catholic Church still fills, willy-nilly, the role of a principal political spokesman for the minority; and it is not so long since his priests were thrusting in front of the faithful, as they left Sunday Mass, petitions for signature opposing – successfully – changes in the arrangements for training Catholic teachers.

Two things emerge with some clarity from Hoppen’s account. One is that local circumstances were a strong factor in determining clerical attitudes: there was no such thing as a ‘national’ policy, and bishops found difficulty in disciplining rebellious priests with strong popular support. The other is that, when the occasion demanded it, no tactics short of outright violence – and often enough the demarcation line between violence and non-violence was somewhat indistinct – were ruled out to secure the desired political end. It is an endearing indication of human frailty that the desired political end was, in not a few cases, related more closely to questions of ecclesiastical rivalry or preferment than it was to those of Emancipation or Repeal.

What O’Connell and Parnell did, Hoppen argues, ‘was to wrench their countrymen from the ways of sporadic action for local and particular interests into those of national demands and national issues’. His use of the word ‘national’ begs a number of questions. Would ‘nationalist’ have been more accurate? On the other hand, were the 18th-century Northern covenanters and dissenters any less nationalist, in their own way and in their own time, than the Sinn Feiners of this century? And when Ian Paisley accuses the British Government of treason and treachery, to what, precisely, is he proclaiming his allegiance? As any reader of Tom Paulin’s timely collection of politico-literary pyrotechnics will instantly be made aware, even the word ‘Irish’ is a ‘baffling and contradictory term’: there are few simple answers.

Paulin’s voice – in poetry as in criticism – is informed, independent, argumentative. Coming from the Northern Protestant and Unionist tradition (although born in England), he believed firmly until 1980 that the union with Britain was essential, but has travelled quite a distance since then. Conor Cruise O’Brien, meanwhile, has been voyaging in the opposite direction, setting out as a dutiful supporter of the Anti-Partition League and ending up as undoubtedly the Northern Unionists’ favourite Southern politician. Reading Paulin’s withering essay on O’Brien is like watching, in helpless fascination, a head-on collision between two powerful locomotives, each fuelled by its own distinct, and potent, renegade angst. One of Paulin’s most surprising discoveries is that ‘the writing of Irish history ... is now, and will be for the foreseeable future, inescapably political.’ It is difficult to imagine that the writing of history ever has been – or will be – anything else: but to make matters worse, there is the absence in Ireland of any agreed history at all. The class analysis which Paulin would prefer to the tribal versions of Irish history, and of which he sees the embryonic beginnings in some of the public statements by UDA leaders, is a dodgy bet. This may be one more initiative which will have to bow to the tribal realities: many a Northern Ireland Labour Party election meeting in Belfast, even in the hungry Thirties, was dramatically and effectively disrupted by the heckle from the back of the crowd: ‘Whaur’s yer flag?’ There is probably some truth in Paulin’s assertion that militant Protestantism has more than a little in common with militant Republicanism – the fact that each has adopted ‘socialism’ as a tag-word shows a shared populism, at least. But part of the reason for the Northern gridlock is that each section of the community is internally split. No political leader on either side, therefore, can attempt to deliver political support for any solution – or even amelioration – of the present impasse without exposing himself to the accusation of weakness, of selling the pass. Protestant disillusion with Britain may yet prove to be the lubricant of a political solution, but the line between wishful thinking and hard analysis, even in Paulin‘s lucid and persuasive prose, is sometimes a bit difficult to draw. Even if one hesitates before some of his arguments, however, his account of the Irishness – in a politically specific and uncompromising sense – of writers as disparate as MacNeice, Wilde, Joyce and Trevor is a sinewy corrective to the Paddywhackery and pious exegesis that sometimes passes for criticism on the summer school circuits.

Southern thinking about the North, unfortunately, has shown little enough advance over the past century or so: the Forum Report, in some ways, is as dated, and as repetitious, as any contemporary British ‘initiative’. For both O’Connell and Parnell, Northern Protestant and Unionist attitudes (the two must not be regarded as synonymous, as Paulin frequently reminds us) were only dimly apprehended and were largely discounted. This was notably true of O’Connell, and Chenevix Trench’s book puts it bluntly enough: ‘The north was terra incognita to [O’Connell]: he hardly ever set foot there, and on one spectacularly unsuccessful visit narrowly escaped ambush by booking coach-horses for one day and arriving, under a false name, in a coach bristling with blunderbusses, two days earlier.’

In other respects, it is to some degree true, as Chenevix Trench suggests, that O’Connell has been hard done by. During his lifetime, he was unfairly accused of being in league with the secret and violent societies. In the early years of this century his forthright opposition to political violence earned him the disdain of Sinn Fein. Modern Irish historiography has tended to concentrate, with the aid of a certain amount of hindsight, on his extremely conservative social attitudes. It is doubtful whether the ‘patriotic cormorant’, as O’Connell was dubbed by those of his followers who laboured under his repeated requests for financial support, needed another biography, but Chenevix Trench’s racy style will endear this book to the hard core of O’Connellites who like to think history might have been different had he lived longer. Hoppen’s thesis is that O’Connell’s marshalling of the popular forces only briefly interrupted the entrenchment of localism which had been created by the solution adopted to the land question and that Irish politics ‘remain largely immutable, with the immediate and local defining the usual limits of political activity’. Localism, however, is not conjured out of thin air. If it was given a powerful impetus by the settlement of the land question and other 19th-century developments, these would not by themselves have been enough to sustain it. It is arguable, in fact, that two of the most powerful factors ensuring its continuance have been the permanence of the Northern Ireland problem, and the adoption of the form of proportional representation peculiar to Ireland, and advocated by some electoral optimists for the Mother of Parliaments.

Any Irish electoral system has to take account of the history which Hoppen describes so pungently. For a population all but addicted to electoral contests, and to the institutionalised and sanitised form of conflict they represent, the prescription of proportional representation in multi-member constituencies was like plying an alcoholic with drink.

Each modern Irish parliamentary constituency is now represented by no fewer than three, and frequently as many as five, political plenipotentiaries. Votes are no longer bought and sold, even though the absence of an upper limit of electoral expenditure by candidates (or indeed by anyone) does not do the public house trade any harm. The fact that each voter has up to five members of Parliament at his beck and call, however, multiplies the opportunities for political blackmail.

It also encourages the development of a loosely overlapping system of bailiwicks within which each politico, guarding his jealously fenced-off territory from rivals outside (and more particularly inside) his own party, concentrates on hard grafting for those whose affections he wishes to secure: intervention with bureaucracies, getting jobs for supplicants and their relations, exercising discretionary power wherever possible and at no matter whose expense. Most of them would recognise the situations in which they work, without too much difficulty, as closely resembling those outlined by Hoppen in relation to Cashel: ‘Here blocs of voters, sometimes grouped along occupational, sometimes along purely ad hoc lines, auctioned themselves in return for communal or individual benefits. In 1852 more than half the electorate agreed publicly to support whoever would promise money for railway construction. Weeks before the 1868 contest one of the candidates (all of them “Liberals”) deposited £5000 in a local bank and had his agent parade the town waving the deposit slip for all to see.’

The competition between politicians who share a constituency is competition for the middle ground, where clientilism flourishes and clients rule OK. Public representatives, in this context, are not judged even tangentially on the ideological positions they or their parties may espouse on the national level – except where the vexed question of Northern Ireland is concerned. This, being a question which has no clearly defined class dimension, combines with localist populism to form the cement which binds together each of the two largest contemporary parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and to prevent the emergence of class politics in the form in which they have become familiar in most Western European countries.

Originally imposed by Britain on the South as a way of ensuring that Protestants would not be swamped in the post-1922 statelet, and later applied to the North in a largely unsuccessful attempt to do the same sort of thing for Northern Catholics, this particular form of electoral system has probably, at least as much as many of the factors adduced by Hoppen, helped to fix in aspic many of the factors which prevent solutions emerging to either our internal or our external problems. The danger of this particular form of the proportional representation system is not, as its British critics fear, that it promotes political instability, but that it engenders a form of stasis – corruption of the people, by the people, for the people – which is all but unamenable to political surgery.