Disaster

Ronan Bennett

  • De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow by Tim Pat Coogan
    Hutchinson, 772 pp, £20.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 09 175030 X

We know all about Republican violence, about its worst excesses; in Britain, some people, maybe even most, know what the initials IRA stand for. I wonder how many could name the principal Loyalist organisations, still less distinguish between them. You could say that there has been little reason for the average Londoner to get acquainted with the world of Loyalist terror: the UFF do not bomb the City, the UVF don’t shoot policemen. Loyalist paramilitaries now claim more victims than the IRA, but they confine their murdering to Catholics – in Northern Ireland. So while we rightly remember the two boys murdered at Warrington, we conveniently forget the five Catholic workmen killed in County Derry after the two boys died.

Sometimes the Loyalists manage to kill a Sinn Fein official, or even on the rare occasion an IRA man; but usually their victim is a Catholic with no known terrorist affiliations. It has never mattered that much to the Loyalist paramilitaries because the result is the same regardless of the victim’s political leanings, or lack of them. If they remind Catholics to keep Clear of Republicanism, killings like these can be useful, as John Taylor, an MP from the ‘respcetable’ side of Unionism and a Minister of Home Affairs in the days of Stormont, has acknowledged.

Another Stormont MP, now very happily deceased, took the logic of his strong feelings about Northern Catholics a stage further. In 1921-2, when Eamon de Valera was playing his disastrous. Machiavellian games in the course of the negotiations that eventually partitioned Ireland, John W. Nixon, a District Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary (later reorganised as the RUC), led a police murder gang in Belfast. As the negotiations between the British Government and Sinn Fein reached their conclusion, Nixon’s gang went on a sectarian killing spree. In one episode, on the night of 24 March 1922, Nixon organised a group of armed men, four of them in police uniform, who broke into the home of Owen McMahon, a Catholic publican from north Belfast. Six members of the family were killed and another wounded. Nixon went on to perpetrate the Arnon Street massacre on 1 April 1922, and in July his gang killed 14 Catholics in the Millfield district of Belfast after a constable was shot.

Although Michael Collins brought these killings to the attention of Winston Churchill during the London negotiations, Nixon was never arrested or charged. He became an embarrassment only when Sir James Craig and the Unionist hierarchy got involved with the Governments of the Irish Free State and Britain in the delicate negotiations about the border. Nixon was forced out of the police, although not before being awarded an MBE for ‘valuable services rendered during this troubled period’. He went on to pursue a successful political career, securing election to Stormont as an independent Unionist. The young Ian Paisley used to travel to the parliament building in Nixon’s car, and he called Nixon ‘the most able and effective politician of his days’.

The RUC-Loyalist murder gangs killed with gruesome theatricality. Crucifixes and rosary beads were draped over corpses. The violence was calculated to spread terror and panic in the Catholic community, and the murder gangs quickly became part of Catholic folk memory, a reminder of what would happen should they challenge the Protestant state. There was an equally profound impact on the Protestant mentality: the killings helped create and foster the belief that it was the duty of Protestants to deploy terror against the Catholic community whenever Unionist supremacy was defied. It is now often overlooked that it was Loyalist violence, in reaction to the growing strength of the non-violent civil rights movement, that sparked the explosion in the North in 1969.

‘The new province of Ulster has no point or meaning, except as the largest area which the Protestant tribe could hold against the Catholics,’ the Sunday Times (amazingly, one might now think) wrote shortly before the British consigned Stormont to the skip. The Loyalist paramilitaries are pro-state terrorists. Now that the squalid corner they called their state is no more, they kill for the line on the map that continues to partition the country. The danger is that they will interpret – indeed are interpreting – the Hume-Adams initiative and the various contacts between the Republican movement and the British and Irish Governments as the writing on the wall. They give every sign of preparing for war. The cargo of arms from Poland, destined for Loyalist terrorists, contained, among other materiel, two tons of high explosive. This time British intelligence intercepted the freight. But what about last time? Brian Nelson, a Loyalist terrorist and army double agent, was jailed last year for his part in the murder of several Catholics. In January 1988, while acting as a British intelligence agent – and with the full knowledge of his army and MI5 handlers – Nelson played a pivotal role in purchasing and smuggling a large consignment of sophisticated weapons into Northern Ireland from South Africa: 200 AK47 assault rifles; 90 Browning pistols; 500 fragmentation grenades; 30,000 rounds of ammunition; a dozen RGP7 rocket-launchers. Some of these weapons were stopped by the security forces; but others, unaccountably and suspiciously, got through to the UFF, and are being used in the present campaign of sectarian violence. This failure – if failure it was – concerns me. What about the next cargo? Can British intelligence be trusted if the Government’s position on Ireland moves in a way the spooks do not like? And what about the proven collusion between elements of the RUC and the Loyalist paramilitaries? Will the police hand over more lists of Sinn Fein members to be assassinated?

Whatever view one takes of recent Irish history, it is hard to see partition as anything other than a disaster. In the South it led to civil war and arrested political development; in the North it led to the establishment of the Orange state and one-party rule; to institutional discrimination against Catholics in housing and jobs; to gerrymandering, corruption and favouritism; to the coercion of a whole community; and a polarisation of politics that made the eventual resurgence of the IRA a virtual certainty. The sooner the line and its history are left behind, the sooner people can get on with thinking about Ireland’s political, social, cultural and economic development – the reason I, for one, favour reunification.

I read Tim Pat Coogan’s excellent biography of de Valera with the recent dramatic developments in Ireland very much in mind; I also happened to read it in Vietnam, a country with its own tragic history of partition. I was struck above all by the section dealing with the treaty that the delegation picked by de Valera – led by Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith – negotiated with Lloyd George and Churchill. It was the treaty that led to partition and Collins was fully aware that it would provoke a crisis for Sinn Fein and the IRA. Little in Coogan’s rendering of the convoluted story of the treaty is new (he has himself been over this territory in his life of Collins), but what stands out is the implacability of the case he builds against the duplicitous and irresponsible de Valera. In my Hanoi hotel room it was tempting to contrast the results of the Vietminh’s unity after 1954 with the consequences of the Republican movement’s split in 1922: the Vietnamese achieved in 20 years what Republicans have failed to do in more than seventy. De Valera by no means bears sole responsibility for the continuation of partition, but acting, according to Coogan, out of a mixture of jealousy, ambition and cunning, he succeeded in turning the crisis Collins predicted into a tragedy.

In Coogan’s account, the peculiarities of de Valera’s personality loom large in a political career littered with betrayals, and were crucial during the treaty negotiations. Coogan quotes an earlier assessment of de Valera with which he seems barely to disagree: ‘If behind the cold, impersonal countenance ... there seems to be little real humanity, possibly it’s because there was none.’ This is what a volunteer in his company had to say of him before the Easter Rising:

He was a man we didn’t care much about. He was very severe drilling, giving the orders in Irish and none of us knew Irish. He would never make free, was always grim, and we would make fun of him. He would come from Blackrock on a bicycle and, at that time, he was very thin and very tall, and he would have his full uniform on him sitting on the bike, and it looked so funny, he looked so grim on this bicycle, frowning.

Though there is some anecdotal evidence (most of it provided by de Valera himself) to suggest a warmer side to the man, and though he could inspire intense personal loyalty, he had none of the rough banter and easy-going camaraderie which, in Collins, inspired affection as well as respect.

The aloofness, which became chillier as de Valera’s sense of himself as a man of destiny grew, may have been the result of maternal rejection. Born in the United States to an Irish mother in 1882, de Valera was sent, aged two, back to the family home in Limerick, where he was brought up by an uncle. It was a grim life, digging potatoes by day and sleeping in a one-roomed labourer’s cottage by night. Coogan’s researches suggest that de Valera’s mother, Catherine Coll, was unmarried at the time of her son’s birth and that the rumours of his illegitimacy had a profound effect on the devout de Valera. But psycho-history is not the author’s strong suit. He assures us that illegitimacy ‘must have had a marked effect on his character, if even a portion of what the psychiatrists tell us about the influences of childhood be true.’ He is on firmer ground charting the course of de Valera’s life up to the Easter Rising. De Valera’s determination to better himself was typical of his class, but he possessed untypical qualities which enabled him to do so: a fine, if narrow, intelligence (he excelled at mathematics), a capacity for hard work and a relentless ambition to succeed. He became a pupil at Blackrock and went on to become a teacher.

During this time the Irish parliamentary party was inching towards its long-time objective of wresting Home Rule from Westminster. In the North, Unionist politicians were busy organising the sectarian opposition to Home Rule. There is no sign that any of this impinged greatly on de Valera. In 1908 he joined the Gaelic League and began to learn Irish, marrying, in 1910, his teacher, Sinead Flannagan. Though the League had a political as well as cultural dimension, de Valera gave no sign of interest in militant Irish nationalism. Indeed, he was initially resentful of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the secret organisation plotting for the nationalist revolution; when he later joined the IRB, he did so reluctantly and never played an active role in the organisation. He did join the Irish Volunteers, set up to counter the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force in the North, but then so did many moderate men; his career and political life before Easter 1916 hardly suggest that Eamon de Valera, odd ball and schoolteacher, would receive his apotheosis as Dev, the Long Fellow and revolutionary symbol of the Irish Republic.

The transformation occurred partly thanks to de Valera’s relative unimportance in the leadership of the Rising. Coogan shows that it was his obscurity rather than his American birth that saved him from execution. In the next three years ‘Dev’ emerged. To his status as commandant of the volunteers who seized Boland’s Mill during the Easter Rising was added, courtesy of Michael Collins, a daring reputation as a jail-breaker, and, courtesy of Arthur Griffith, the presidency of Sinn Fein. Both Collins and Griffith, recognising the need to have a powerful figure to represent the national movement, selected Dev: but while they were gratified that Dev took the role seriously, they had reason for second thoughts when he began to take himself even more seriously. Like de Gaulle, Dev came to see himself and his country as one and the same. He was to say that he only needed to look into his own heart to discover what the Irish people wanted.

Dev’s status was further enhanced during his American tour of 1919-20. (He was absent from Ireland for most of the War of Independence.) Here, in spite of quarrelling with sympathisers, he gained a devoted following and international status. More significantly, perhaps, he also gained, thanks to a comic mix-up, the title of President of the Irish Republic, conferred on him by American sympathisers who thought that President of the Dail – the Sinn Fein parliament – would not carry the same weight. Sadly, Dev took this elevation seriously too.

Some months after his return to Ireland, the British and the IRA declared a truce and entered into negotiations. Realising that the British were not ready to concede an Irish Republic, de Valera sent ‘scapegoats’ (his term) to London, knowing they would come back with something less. When they did, he denounced them and backed the dissident voices in the IRA. Civil war ensued. Coogan is right in saying that the treaty would have provoked a split, but that it took de Valera to make a civil war. There is little to admire in his actions or motives, which Coogan argues were largely prompted by jealousy of Michael Collins. The country was duly partitioned. Later de Valera, switching allies, dumped the IRA and came to power through the political party he founded, Fianna Fail. He achieved great success as a politician, dominating the Thirties; a fabled survivor, he was in and out of office as Taoiseach until 1959, when he became President; he was re-elected in 1966 and died in 1975, two years after completing his second term in office.

This is a conventional biography, over-long (as convention seems to demand) and sometimes lopsided: the 1918 elections, a critical moment in Ireland’s history, are barely mentioned, but the size and weight of the box de Valera took to Blackrock as a pupil are considered important enough to merit attention. Tim Pat Coogan’s writing is not elegant, but it is compelling and persuasive. With his books on the IRA, on the ‘dirty protest’ and hunger-strikes, and on Collins, he has created a body of work that illuminates the impact of the Republican tradition on Ireland’s recent past and troubled present. Readers trying to make sense of what is going on now between Major, Reynolds, Adams and Hume could do no better than turn to Coogan. Meanwhile Dev’s legacy, his ‘long shadow’, endures: a political system dominated by patronage and Mafia-like alliances, and a socially repressive constitution. And partition. Dev blew loudly about the Republic but did nothing to bring it an inch closer. When I think of the division of Ireland, I think of Lloyd George and Sir James Craig, but I also think of de Valera.