What can the matter be?

Denis Donoghue

  • Ulster Politics: The Formative Years, 1868-86 by B.M. Walker
    Ulster Historical Foundation/Institute of Irish Studies, 327 pp, £15.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 901905 40 2
  • Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society by J.J. Lee
    Cambridge, 754 pp, £55.00, January 1990, ISBN 0 521 26648 3

‘We feel in England that we have treated you rather unfairly,’ Haines says to Stephen Dedalus in the first chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘it seems history is to blame.’ But he doesn’t say which history. The history that accounts for the sporadic but endless killings in Northern Ireland begins no later than 24 December 1601, when Lord Mountjoy’s forces defeated Hugh O’Neill’s at the battle of Kinsale. After the ‘flight of the earls’ to the Continent in 1607 the way was clear for the confiscation of land throughout the country. There was a particular plan for the North. In 1610 the English and Scots Privy Councils started the Plantation of Ulster, an arrangement by which settlers were established on the best land in the northern counties of Ireland. These settlers – or ‘undertakers’, as they were called – started arriving in September: they were to build towns and fortify them, making them the centres of trade. As a case in point, the walls of Derry were completed in 1618. Catholics, ‘a threatening majority’, as Roy Foster describes them in Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (1988), were not allowed to live in the town, so they clustered in the Bogside beyond the walls.

On 12 August 1969 the (Protestant) Apprentice Boys held their customary triumphalist march through the streets of Derry, and were pelted with stones and bottles by the Catholics from the walls along the Bogside. The ‘battle of the Bogside’ continued into the next day, when TV cameras presented to a dismayed world the image of the Police (the RUC), the B-Specials (part-time Protestant constabulary) and sundry Protestant yobbos beating up the Bogside Papists. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic of Ireland, Jack Lynch, appealed to the UN and said, evidently referring to the Irish Army: ‘We will not stand by.’ The wise knew what Lynch meant: we will huff and puff and do nothing. Fools thought he meant – and Unionists in the North pretended to think he meant – that he would send the Army across the Border to protect Catholics from the Protestant mobs. In August and September 300 Catholic families were burnt out of their homes in Belfast. It seems history is to blame.

B.M. Walker argues in Ulster Politics: The Formative Years, 1868-86 that in 1868 politics in the North might have continued along the conventional British line, mobile Parliamentary conflict between Liberals and Conservatives, but that by 1886 this was irrelevant. There was now only one question: Home Rule for the whole of Ireland, and the determination of Unionists to oppose it by any and every means: ‘Within Ulster, a unionist movement emerged, of former liberals and conservatives, to face the new nationalist movement which had appeared throughout Ireland. The religious division between protestant and catholic became the single most important social feature of the new political scene... The conflict that emerged at this time between the powerful forces of unionism and nationalism, with their associated religious divisions, led to partition in 1921 and has provided the basic source for the troubles today in Northern Ireland.’ Walker proves his case – not that I can imagine anyone disputing it – by a study of the general elections and by-elections in Northern constituencies between 1868 and 1886. But he hasn’t shown to what extent Catholics in those constituencies, in the years before Home Rule appeared on the Westminster agenda, felt that their interests were accurately represented by disputes between Liberals and Conservatives. My own sense of the matter is that hostility between Catholics and Protestants has been an incorrigible feature of life in the North since the Plantation. It would be erroneous to deduce from Walker’s book that this hostility started with the General Election of 1885 and Gladstone’s announcement of a Home Rule Bill on 8 April 1886. Since 1610, most Protestants in the Northern counties have believed that they, unlike their Catholic neighbours, are decent, sober, hard-working, trustworthy people, an innately superior breed: they have always regarded most Catholics as intellectually and morally inferior, a slovenly lot, feckless, unreliable, mendacious. In turn, most Catholics have regarded Protestants in the North as hard-nosed, cruel, imperious and imperialist; and besides, not Irish at all.

Unionists like to persuade themselves that the Troubles are sufficiently explained by Eamon de Valera’s Constitution of 1937, two articles of that document claiming the right of the Dublin Government to exercise jurisdiction over the ‘whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas’. On 1 March 1990 two Unionists, Dr Christopher McGimpsey and his brother Michael, took a case to the Supreme Court in Dublin, claiming that the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed on 15 November 1985 by Mrs Thatcher and the Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, is unconstitutional; that is, in breach of the 1937 Constitution. Thatcher and Fitzgerald solemnly agreed that no change could occur in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. They also agreed that the Dublin Government had a legitimate interest in the governance of Northern Ireland, and that this interest would be embodied in an Inter-Governmental Conference, which would meet on a regular basis and which would have a permanent staff of civil servants, from Dublin and London, housed in Maryfield, Belfast. The role of the Dublin Government in this arrangement would be advisory only.

Unionists have not accepted the Agreement, and they refuse to enter into talks with other constitutional parties in the North – the SDLP, specifically – till the Agreement and its Conference are suspended. The Dublin Government and the SDLP have refused any such suspension. Meanwhile the McGimpsey brothers lost their case. The Supreme Court treated the relevant Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution as a claim of legal right. This claim is in no respect undermined by Article 3, which confines the jurisdiction of the state to the 26 counties (the Irish Free State), pending the reintegration of the national territory. The Court decided that the Anglo-Irish Agreement recognised the de facto situation in Northern Ireland but did not abandon the claim upon the whole island. The Agreement is not, therefore, unconstitutional. After the decision, Ken Maginnis, Unionist MP at Westminster for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, said that the Dublin Government’s territorial claim upon the six counties of Northern Ireland would be used by the IRA as justification for their campaign of violence.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement provides the last chapter of J.J. Lee’s Ireland 1912-1985. The book was completed, I gather, in a mood of unwonted buoyancy on Lee’s part, his spirits temporarily lifted by what appeared an act of statesmanship by Thatcher and Fitzgerald. I don’t claim to be wiser than Lee, but I think he was naive about the Agreement. It is clear that Mrs Thatcher entered upon the Agreement in bad faith: her sole interest in it was as a device to force the Dublin Government to patrol the southern side of the Border and catch any IRA villains who committed acts of violence in the North and hoped to nip across the Border into the haven of the South. She never intended fulfilling any practical undertaking, such as the one by which the Ulster Defence Regiment, a body of soldiers much (and with cause) hated by Catholics, would be accompanied on their patrols by members of the less-hated RUC. Sir John Hermon, former Chief of the RUC, said on BBC TV a few weeks ago that this undertaking was never seriously intended. On the same programme, the officer in charge of the UDR said that the regiment’s assignment was to defeat the IRA, and that they took no action against paramilitaries on the Unionist side. Indeed, several members of the UDR have passed information about suspected IRA members or affiliates to the Unionist paramilitaries, so that punishment could be swift, informal and decisive. Mrs Thatcher has spoken in such praise of the UDR that one would think they were the finest flower of Sandhurst. The truth is that they are doing the work of the UDA – that they are licensed to harass Catholics and, on occasion, to kill them. The UDR, rather than Articles 2 and 3 of the 1937 Constitution, provides the IRA with its most immediate justification.

J.J. Lee has several chapters on Northern Ireland, but his main interest is in asking hard questions of the South. The first five hundred pages of his book recite the history of Ireland from Home Rule, the Great War, and the rising in Easter Week, 1916, to the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The evidence he uses is chiefly political, diplomatic, economic and biographical. Actions are explained by the characters he ascribes to the actors. De Valera did such-and-such because he was such-and-such a man and he worked within certain constraints. No philosophy of history, no theory of historiography, is allowed to impede bigraphical and contextual explanations. Mostly, elected leaders of Ireland, especially in recent years, are presented as puny figures, lacking in vision and courage. The exceptions are Michael Collins, shot and killed at the age of 32; he might have proved a great man; de Valera, a great man indeed, though limited in the range of his vision; and Sean Lemass, a modest man who tried to drag Ireland into the 20th century and is honoured for the attempt.

The five hundred pages in which the political and economic history of modern Ireland is narrated don’t claim any particular novelty. The events are the ones we expect to find in such a book. There is much detail on budgets, expenditure, borrowing, the GNP and the GDP, enlivened by acute biographical commentaries. But Lee is far more interested in arguing about the results than in narrating the causes. In a sense, he assumes that his readers are familiar with these matters, and ready for a good High Table argument about them. I think he has spent too long at Peterhouse. He assumes that his readers know about the Curragh Mutiny, the Fourteen Points, the nature of ‘Italian trasformismo following the fall of Minghetti’, ‘a potent dose of Keynes and Beveridge’ and ‘the Lipset-Rokkan model’. He doesn’t think it necessary to explain how the green pound works, and what it has to do with the snake. Remarking that Ireland’s neutrality in the War was fairly easy to sustain, Lee seizes the rhetorical occasion as if he were A.J.P.Taylor: ‘No crises comparable to those faced by Hansson, Guisan or even Franco confronted de Valera. There was no Engelbrecht Division, no Field of Rütli or Order of the Day of 1 August 1940, not even a Hendaye.’ At that point a footnote invites the reader to consult further documents in English, French and German.

The question that really holds Lee’s attention is this: how well, or how badly, has Ireland conducted its affairs, given the conditions it has had to meet? The state, as the Provisional Government received it from the British on 16 January 1922, was in pretty good condition; it had a fairly well-educated populace, an administrative system in good order, an inherited structure of law and finance. By Western European standards, Ireland was not a poor country. Fifty years later, a different picture emerges:

Ireland recorded the slowest growth of per capita income between 1910 and 1970 of any European country except the United Kingdom. Every country ranked above Ireland in the early 20th century pulled much further ahead. Every country below Ireland either overtook her, or significantly narrowed the gap... Not even such notoriously sluggish performers as Great Britain and Northern Ireland lagged as badly as Ireland in terms of national income.

‘What can the explanation be?’ Lee asks himself, and spends the last 160 pages brooding on dismal considerations. Irish people don’t like facing reality, they prefer to rest upon ancestral pieties which they don’t actually believe, they have retained many of the qualities induced by their colonial experience, notably ‘ambiguity, evasiveness, furtiveness, mendacity’. There has been a dearth of enterprise in government and the civil service. The most typical (and influential) civil servant of modern Ireland, J.J. MacElligott, for many years Secretary to the Department of Finance, set his mind against every risk of change. Such a man, in communion with national lethargy, was well able to forestall initiatives. Not even the best efforts of Sean Lemass, forward-looking businessman, could circumvent MacElligott. There has also been, according to Lee, appalling concentration upon ‘the possessor principle’ at the expense of ‘the performance principle’. The possessor principle is fulfilled, apparently, in ‘the comfort of the survivors’ – land, property, security, money – provided that the survivors don’t have to work hard to retain these felicities. The performance principle is fulfilled in work, initiative, inventiveness, expansion of trade and services. There are indeed a few outstanding performers in Ireland, but most people in public and commercial life are too lazy to shift themselves. Ireland 1912-1985 is a headmaster’s report on Independent Ireland: the boy is slovenly, complacent, morally inert.

I would represent these matters quite differently. I think the first and most important fact about modern Ireland is that, after the Civil War, there was unquestioned transition to democracy. It might not have happened: any one of half a dozen leaders could have tried a coup. But the will of the people was clearly acknowledged, and democratic institutions were allowed to prevail. As for the people generally, I don’t see them as differing, at least in any ‘essentialist’ sense, from other people. They don’t work as hard as the Japanese or the Germans. Who do? They think the world owes them a fat living because of the Famine and the lean years thereafter. They like to think of Ireland as an agricultural country, its produce flowing effortlessly into their bank accounts. Well, yes, that’s true. But the main defect of modern Ireland (apart from the dreadful North) is that most of its civil experience is derivative. Derived first from the British: we inherited, and retained without question, the British system of law, banking, civil service departments, trade unions and police. Some of these institutions have not worked well. The Central Bank, indeed the system of banking and investment as a whole, the Stock Exchange, legal arrangements for corporations, planning authorities, and the like, have not protected the public against thieves and predators. Democracy is well grounded, but it has not produced a tradition of accountability, or indeed of intelligent discourse on matters of public moment. Lee gives irrefutable evidence that Irish governments, virtually since the foundation of the state, have been lurching from one bout of thoughtlessness to the next, rarely knowing the issues or how they might be met. From 1972 to 1981 the country was cajoled into thinking well of itself. In fact, those years were scoundrel time. Politicians of every stripe rushed to beggar the country, so that they could gain office and keep it, borrowing vast sums of money and letting the future pay the cost.

Ireland’s experience is now derived from the EC, not from the British Empire. Since 1 January 1973 Dublin has been a suburb of Brussels. I admit that membership of the EC has brought Ireland enormous financial gain, mainly through the Common Agricultural Policy and the European Development Fund. In the early years of membership especially, Irish farmers had tangible reason to believe that they were riding the gravy train with a free ticket. With the enlargement of the EC to include countries poorer than Ireland, and now with the question of East Germany to be attended to, Irish politicians in Brussels will have to produce even more sustained acts of persuasion than their norm. But they are expert now in the art of requesting, so I think they will do quite well.

All is not lost or degraded. I should note, especially since Lee doesn’t, that successive Irish governments in the past few years – since 30 June 1981, to be precise – have acquired, however belatedly, a sense of responsibility. The quality of public administration, especially in education, health, social services and local government, is still mediocre, but the ‘performance principle’ in large considerations of finance, borrowing and taxation is at least acknowledged. The country is in good standing with its creditors and, I gather, financially sound. Comparisons with certain Third World countries are no longer valid. Lee’s book doesn’t give Ireland such credit as it has deserved in recent years. The unimportant Anglo-Irish Agreement takes up too much of his attention in the last chapter. So he hasn’t been able to tell Patrick’ anxious parents that the boy is now performing well, has had a much-improved term, and may yet turn out to be a decent scholar.

That leaves the North. It is now 20 years since the People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry was attacked by Protestants at Burntollet Bridge; 19 years since the IRA solved its ideological problems by splitting into Officials and Provisionals; 18 years since the imposition of Direct Rule from Westminster. It is generally understood, even by Mrs Thatcher’s Administration, that the IRA can’t be defeated by military action. Indeed, given enough Irish-American dollars, daily provocation by the UDR, and a conviction of ‘unfinished national business’, the IRA can continue for ever. And probably will.