Frank Acknowledgments

J.J. Lee

  • Ulster: Conflict and Consent by Tom Wilson
    Blackwell, 330 pp, £9.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 631 17006 5
  • Biting at the grave: The Irish Hunger Strikes and the Politics of Despair by Padraig O’Malley
    Blackstaff, 330 pp, £9.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 85640 453 5
  • Politics in the Streets: The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland by Bob Purdie
    Blackstaff, 286 pp, £9.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 85640 437 3

Tom Wilson’s Ulster counts among the handful of truly distinguished analyses of the Ulster question. However many reservations a Nationalist may have about his assumptions, his text offers an admirable basis for constructive debate: this is one of those rare books about a tragic problem that one wishes were longer. Its superior quality brings us up starkly against the bleakness of the problem. Wilson’s solution is that the IRA should he repressed by a variety of simultaneous measures, including internment, North and South, and that Nationalists should indefinitely postpone the attainment of their aspirations. Stressing the need for consensus on a future regime ‘that is universally supported, or nearly so’, he urges fair treatment for Nationalists within Northern Ireland. These proposals seem to me to be unrealistic, for three reasons.

First of all, even if these measures succeeded in suppressing the IRA, a doubtful proposition, they would not address the underlying issue, which would almost inevitably provoke a further response from a successor generation. Secondly, achieving a consensus within Northern Ireland, for all the encouragement Wilson derives from opinion polls suggesting that many Catholics really prefer UK citizenship to a united Ireland, would be a very protracted, not to say hopeless process. Thirdly and most fundamentally, the solution fails to address the issue of the legitimacy of Northern Ireland.

Wilson’s thinking is a mirror image of that of benign Nationalists about a united Ireland. Noting that Protestants constitute a smaller minority in Ireland than do Catholics in Northern Ireland, these Nationalists cannot see why Unionists should not come to feel at home in a united Ireland where, in due course, a consensus would also somehow emerge.

The basic problem is that consensus thinking is incompatible with zero-sum thinking, with the assumption that one side’s gain must be another’s loss, with the ‘not an inch’, ‘them or us’ thinking so pervasive in Ulster. Wilson accepts that at the time of partition in 1920, ‘it was indeed the case that there had to be some losers.’ The losers were the Nationalists who constituted about one-third of the population, and more than 50 per cent in roughly that half of Northern Ireland adjacent to the border.

Partition was a natural consequence of the existence of two identities in Ireland. But the actual line of partition did not, for the most part, divide Nationalist from Unionist. The actual partition, imposed by the diktat of superior British force, mainly divided Nationalist from Nationalist. Although Fermanagh and Tyrone resemble a patchwork quilt of sectarian settlement, the real partition between the areas of Unionist majority and of Nationalist majority chiefly occurs not along the border but within Northern Ireland. Most of the gruesome atrocities, outside the special case of Belfast, occur in areas with Nationalist majorities close to the border, where by any normal criterion the security forces are occupation forces.

Wilson himself thinks that the Crossmaglen area, the notorious murder triangle on the border in South Armagh, ought to be conceded to the Republic – not, apparently, on the grounds that this is the will of the overwhelming majority there, but simply because the men of violence have succeeded only too well. This is a dangerous suggestion. If the claim is just, should it not be conceded in principle? And if it is unjust, violence surely ought not to secure concessions. It is disconcerting that so subtle an intelligence, which candidly concedes that a form of ‘social apartheid’ in Northern Ireland ‘resulted in Catholics being regarded as, in some sense, inferior’, and which accepts that the line of partition could have been ‘better’ drawn, nevertheless adopts as criterion for ‘better’ solely the defensibility of Unionist Ulster, and has nothing to say on the justice, as distinct from the expediency, of possible borders.

For all the sophistication of the presentation, and the genuine attempt to wrestle with an intractable problem, there are strong hints of a double standard at work here. Wilson employs conventional majority/minority terminology to justify partition. But the basic assumption underlying his interpretation is that one Nationalist does not equal one Unionist. He does not hesitate to espouse the fallback position that even if a Nationalist majority were to emerge within Northern Ireland as a whole, there would still be a substantial area in the North-East where Unionists would continue to enjoy a majority that would then justify repartition. Unionists, according to this thought process, are entitled to control Northern Ireland, including the half which now has a Nationalist majority, because they are the majority in Northern Ireland as a whole. If they should lose that majority, they would have a right to redraw the border, and instal their own new regime in that reduced area in which they would still constitute a majority. Unionist majorities mean something different from Nationalist majorities.

It is in the light of such opportunistic reasoning that the vehemence of Unionist reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement seems so bogus to many Nationalists. One might think from the intensity of the reaction that the Agreement denied a Unionist right to self-determination throughout Northern Ireland in just the same way as Unionists deny it to Nationalists in South Down, South Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone and part of (London)derry. All the Agreement says, however, is that the Dublin Government has the right to have its opinions heard on a limited number of issues. The explanation for the exaggerated response must lie as much in psychology as in politics. It is because so much of the Protestant sense of self-worth is unfortunately invested in a sense of superiority over Catholics that the Agreement is felt by many as a personal violation. The response is deeply rooted in the mentality reflected in the nomenclature of Unionism, which still tends to use ‘Ulsterman’, or ‘the Ulster people’, to refer exclusively to Protestants.

Of course, Article Two of the Irish Constitution, which claims de jure authority over Northern Ireland, is based on the premise that, whether or not Ulster Unionists exist, they have no right to self-determination. Wilson argues that the elimination of Article Two from the Constitution would do much to reassure Unionists of the genuine commitment to peace of the Dublin Government. Some opposition parties in Dail Eireann share this belief. In my view, Article Two ought to be revised, but not eliminated. And it ought to be revised only as part of a revision of the totality of relationships between Britain and Ireland.

There are two reasons for this. First, Dublin’s current de jure claim demands nothing in principle that London is not implementing in practice over the Nationalist population of the North. In the matter of revising territorial claims, it is hardly for the pot to call the kettle black. Secondly, the fundamental issue is not the territorial integrity of Northern Ireland, but the integrity of the Unionist identity. Northern Ireland was originally established only as a means to an end. The end is legitimate. The means is not. No proposal that starts from the assumption that Northern Ireland is a legitimate political entity will achieve a lasting solution. Dublin’s claim to rule Unionist Ulster is illegitimate in principle. Its claim to Nationalist Ulster, however, if we assume that Nationalist Ulster agrees with it, is legitimate in principle.

Both London and Dublin ought simultaneously to acknowledge the illegitimate impulses behind their maximum demands. London has the right, and the duty, to defend the areas of Unionist majority. It has no right to occupy Nationalist majority areas, at least where geography permits self-determination. Britain has allowed herself to become trapped in the wrong fight.

A joint declaration by London and Dublin involving simultaneous repudiation of their ‘not an inch’ claims, of their denial to their ‘national’ minorities of the right to self-determination, would begin to undermine one of the main psychological barriers to ultimate conciliation. The territorial imperative on what A.T.Q. Stewart has called ‘the narrow ground’ of Northern Ireland is particularly intense because the demand for territory is a surrogate demand for self-respect. By explicitly recognising the right to self-determination of majority Nationalist areas, London would enhance the self-respect of Nationalists, just as Dublin should acknowledge the Unionist right to self-respect by explicitly recognising the right to self-determination of majority Unionist areas in Northern Ireland. Human rights should no longer be trapped within the strait-jacket of the territorial imperative.

All this may seem utterly unrealistic to practical men. What about the Nationalists of Belfast, or the numerous local Unionist majorities within the Nationalist ‘half’? I am not suggesting an actual transfer of majority Nationalist areas to the Republic, even where this is geographically feasible. If a peace of reconciliation is the ultimate goal, and if a capacity for co-operation is to be developed between Unionist and Nationalist, repartition is unlikely to contribute to evolution in that direction, although it is high time that London sought means of engaging Dublin in the direct governance of Nationalist areas, reluctant though Dublin might be to sup from what it might consider a poisoned chalice.

What then is the practical import of the proposal? It is based on the belief that the Ulster problem exists as much in men’s minds as on the ground. Unless a new mental map emerges, the physical one will always remain a source of bitter conflict. For both London and Dublin to recognise in principle the legitimacy of the Nationalist and the Unionist right to self-determination, even while maintaining the territorial status quo on practical grounds, is a necessary first step towards any process of mutual conciliation. A solution cannot be imposed on existing communal psyches. The psyches themselves have to be reconstructed. That will take time. But is this approach any more unrealistic than the current official alternative, as expressed in Article One of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, that a united Ireland can emerge only with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland? In principle, this could happen even though the vast majority of the Unionist population were to remain adamantly opposed to unity. Should they then be compelled to come in? Who would compel them? However opportunistic the reasoning at present, would they not still be entitled to self-determination, so far as this was geographically feasible? Ironically and sadly, the Agreement, while acknowledging the legitimacy of the two identities in Northern Ireland, makes no real provision for the protection of the Unionist identity in principle if the numbers game turns against it. But identity ought not to depend on numbers. Dublin ought to acknowledge a Unionist right to self-determination irrespective of numbers, Otherwise Irish Nationalism is no better than imperialism.

Until some such thinking begins, and proceeds jointly between London, Dublin and the two communities in the North, the Ulster imbroglio will continue. Many in the IRA may, of course, seek to sustain the armed struggle, on the grounds that their goal is an Ireland one and indivisible. Padraig O’Malley’s haunting evocation of the atmosphere of the hunger strike in 1981 reminds us of the difficulty of coping with mentalities in which idealism and fanaticism are often indistinguishable. In Biting at the grave, O’Malley continues the theme of his earlier work, The Uncivil Wars, which did so much to excavate the mentalities of participants in the Ulster tragedy. His focus on the hunger strikes is necessarily narrower, but he continues to probe with a sureness of touch that blends the skills of the surgeon with those of the psychologist. His respect for human dignity, even in the vilest circumstances, enables him to understand, and even sympathise with, those whose deeds he deplores.

The IRA response to a frank acknowledgment by Dublin that it had no right to rule over Ulster Unionists could lead to bitter conflict between Nationalists. But the IRA cannot be defeated in the long run by the British. They can only he overcome by the Irish. And they can only be overcome by the argument from legitimacy, not by the argument from expediency bestowing a sort of shadow legitimacy on their actions. That is one reason why Article Two should be revised – but in favour of a new concept of legitimacy, not merely as an exercise in expediency. The running sore of Ulster confirms that expediency is not enough. Basic principles must be reappraised, however agonisingly, on both sides, if an enduring solution is ever to be found.

Bob Purdie’s Politics in the Streets surveys, often quite literally, the streets of the Sixties, providing a painstaking and valuable account of the background to the civil rights campaign, and making it only too clear how incompatible civil rights demands were with Unionist self-images. Purdie is sympathetic towards, but by no means misty-eyed about, the various movements whose fortunes he chronicles, though he does sometimes dignify as right or left-wing thinkers a number of essentially wingless minds. I think he may be too harsh on Terence O’Neill, whom he criticises for moving too slowly and for confining himself to the politics of gesture. By historical standards, however, O’Neill moved at breakneck speed. If much of his movement was gesture, this was itself part of the substance of Northern Ireland politics, as of ethnic politics everywhere. The struggle is just as much about images as about material matters, about psyches as about pockets.

Purdie hopes that ‘Europe’ may somehow help the antagonists to transcend their parochial animosities. I would like to think he is right, but I cannot believe it, if only because ‘Europe’ does not confront the fundamental issue of legitimacy. One of the strengths of O’Malley’s approach is that he grasps the absolutely crucial role of legitimacy in the whole Northern issue. This is why he, unlike Wilson and Purdie, offers no solution, convinced that the conflict will continue indefinitely.

No solution to the Ulster question will endure until that fundamental issue is resolved – an issue which was evaded both by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, with its imposition of a border based on the morally untenable denial of a right to self-determination to the majority of Northern Nationalists, and by the Irish Constitution of 1937, with its morally untenable denial of a right to self-determination to a majority of Northern Unionists. No solution will last until both sides are prepared to abandon their ancestral ways of map-reading. If both could agree to do it simultaneously, then some glimmer of hope for a peaceful, dignified and enduring solution might begin to emerge. Otherwise there is none.