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The Go-Betweens

Owen Bennett-Jones develops some intriguing new thoughts on the foundations of the Northern Irish Peace Process in his review of Jonathan Powell’s Talking to Terrorists (LRB, 22 January). I worked with Brendan Duddy between 2006 and 2010 to arrange the deposit and cataloguing of the private papers on which the review draws and carried out extensive interviews with him which are cited in the review. The ‘conflict is over’ text on which the review focuses certainly intensified communication between the British government and Sinn Féin but treating this exchange as the starting point obscures the deeper roots of the process. This text was first identified as the genesis of the process by Sir Patrick Mayhew in the House of Commons in his defence of secret contacts with Sinn Féin when they were leaked in 1993. Dating the process to this text presented the contact as very recent and shallow and painted a picture of the British government as responding to a kind of plea from the IRA.

The engagement had much deeper roots than that, however. Sinn Féin had already been engaged directly with the SDLP’s John Hume after the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, and through Dr Martin Mansergh ‘feelers’ were also put out by the governing Fianna Fáil Party in Dublin and Sinn Féin. In an article published in Political Studies I have shown that there was a clear and calculated shift in British policy under the Northern Ireland secretary of state Peter Brooke in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was based on the hard-headed and reasonable calculation that it was not possible to build a robust political settlement on the exclusion and marginalisation of the Republicans. This new policy thrust enjoyed support at the highest levels of the military as well as within the civil service. Comments and speeches by Brooke in 1989 and 1990 provided a public indication of the British government’s new openness to engagement and an inclusive negotiated settlement, conditional on an end to violence.

The appointment of Robert McLarnon (or ‘Fred’) as a back-channel interlocutor in 1991 sent a powerful message to the Provisionals about the new British approach. For Brendan Duddy this, not the 1993 ‘conflict is over’ message, was the pivotal moment. Although progress slowed after Brooke was succeeded in 1992 by Mayhew, the continuing engagement through this channel reflected the new policy and strategy, supported by key London-based NIO officials. In the ‘conflict is over’ text, McLarnon may have over-egged the pudding to break a logjam, but he was working with the deep grain of the new policy rather than as a ‘rogue’ agent. That the British government reacted rapidly and generally positively to the ‘conflict is over’ text and engaged intensively with the Provisional leadership over the following months indicates they were primed and ready for direct negotiation, though that would later slow when the Conservatives became dependent on the Ulster Unionists for key votes.

The second misconception in many existing accounts is the understanding of ‘the link’ as a group of three people engaged in contact with the British over the span of the conflict. The term was given prominence in the 2001 Endgame in Ireland documentary and the associated book, but the term is not used in any of the British archives released to date. The point is important because it relates to the structure of this channel of communication. As the British archives make clear, secret communication with the Provisionals was channelled not through a group but through a single individual. Former Sinn Féin president Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, the Republican end of the channel for many years, emphasised the importance of this point in an interview with me a few years before his death. The intermediary role was carried out by a single individual because working through more than one person could have caused confusion and interfered with the clarity of communication. While others were involved in various capacities it was Duddy who acted as the contact between the British government and the Republican movement.

The review mentions Brendan Duddy’s comment that he would listen sometimes for four hours just to identify a single sentence or half sentence that might generate progress, and associates this suggestion with a deliberately ‘loose use of language’ by those involved in the channel. Duddy made this comment in one of the interviews I conducted with him but with quite the opposite import. He was emphasising that the engagement was characterised by immense care and attention and sensitivity to language.

Niall Ó Dochartaigh
National University of Ireland, Galway

Why I Quit

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín quotes with admiration a letter from 1965 by Arnaldo Momigliano mocking Alfred Cobban’s request that he account for his use of time (Letters, 22 January). He does not note that from 1964 onwards Momigliano had added the chair in ancient history at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa to the one he continued to hold at UCL. In Cobban’s position I too would have felt justified in asking Momigliano to explain how this was compatible with the fulfilment of his professional responsibilities.

Matthew Leigh
St Anne’s College, Oxford

Let Fischer go

David Elstein writes as if there were only two positions to take on the matter of whether Germany was to blame for starting the First World War (Letters, 22 January). Either the growth of German power and hubris was the driver and trigger of the war; or the responsibility was shared equally among all the great powers, which would repudiate the idea of German war guilt enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles. But there is a third way to consider, which is Niall Ferguson’s thesis that Germany, though the weakest of the major powers, nonetheless bore the primary responsibility.

Germany’s main fear wasn’t so much Franco-Russian encirclement as Russia’s industrial prowess and its plan to build strategic railways terminating in Poland; these would be completed by 1916 and would pose a grave threat to German security. The solution was a pre-emptive war against Russia, but one in which the onus for its outbreak would be made to fall on Russia. Elstein writes, citing the revisionist historian Sean McMeekin, that ‘a full-scale European war became inevitable, with Tsar Nicholas approving general mobilisation against Austria and Germany.’ In fact Russian mobilisation occurred in stages, and this critically affected the actual outbreak of the fighting.

Russia began with a partial mobilisation that it intended only as a feint to warn Austria not to proceed to the occupation of Belgrade. Russia notified Germany of its intentions, and received assurances from the Kaiser that Germany would not regard this move as a reason to declare war under the terms of its Austrian alliance. But as the Russians mobilised, Germany did declare war, catching Russia flat-footed. It was no easy matter logistically for the Russians to pivot from a partial to a full mobilisation at such short notice, and the Germans knew this. Germany hoped to keep the conflict local by securing British neutrality and warning France to back off, without any real expectation that France actually would. If France did get involved, Germany had the Schlieffen Plan, which had been updated from its original formulation in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War and was intended as a defensive measure.

Elstein and other revisionists act as if the Kaiser was in control of the decision to go to war. He was in fact a notorious vacillator, having backed down twice before in the two Morocco crises (1905, 1911), much to the chagrin of his generals, who found such behaviour dishonourable. The generals were determined this time to hold the Kaiser’s feet to the fire. ‘It was not they [the generals] who had stumbled into war in August 1914,’ Elstein writes, but in fact they were the ones determined that war would break out when they disingenuously told the Kaiser, in response to his panicky entreaty to pull back, that the timetables governing mobilisation had taken on a life of their own and could not be reversed.

Fischer may have mischaracterised the growth of German power as the long-term driver of war and underestimated the responsibility of other powers in this regard, but clearly Germany did trigger the outbreak of war, which makes it the prime guilty party. Why was it that this crisis, unlike previous ones, could not be settled among the great powers? Because this time, Germany, its general staff in particular, was keen to have the issue finally joined.

Albion Urdank
University of California, Los Angeles


Emma Tristram asks how Alan Bennett could have dismissed her grandfather, Geoffrey Fisher, with the single word ‘dreadful’ (Letters, 22 January). Many of Fisher’s pupils at Repton would have agreed with Bennett. In his autobiographical fragment, Boy, Roald Dahl remembered his headmaster as ‘a rather shoddy bandy-legged little fellow with a big bald head and lots of energy but not much charm’. He suggests that Fisher flogged pupils with such sadistic pleasure that he lost his faith in God when Fisher was promoted to a bishopric and then to archbishop of Canterbury. (Others have suggested that the flogging described by Dahl was administered by Fisher’s successor, John Traill Christie, but he was described by Richard Wollheim, one of his Westminster pupils, as ‘very tall, very thin, with a tiny head, pale hair kept very short, slightly protuberant pale blue eyes and thin lips.’)

Fisher is also remembered for his defence of nuclear weapons and his conviction that it is never right to settle any policy simply out of fear of the consequences. He is recorded as saying that ‘for all I know it is within the providence of God that the human race should destroy itself in this manner.’ He is also reputed to have said: ‘The very worst the Bomb can do is to sweep a vast number of people from this world into the next into which they must all go anyway.’

On his retirement Fisher advised Harold Macmillan against appointing Michael Ramsey as his successor. The conversation, as reconstructed by Ramsey, went as follows:

Fisher: I have come to give you some advice about my successor. Whomever you choose, under no account must it be Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of York. Dr Ramsey is a theologian, a scholar and a man of prayer. Therefore, he is entirely unsuitable as archbishop of Canterbury. I have known him all his life. I was his headmaster at Repton.

Macmillan: Thank you, Your Grace, for your kind advice. You may have been Dr Ramsey’s headmaster, but you were not mine.

Macmillan duly appointed Ramsey, who was a reforming archbishop, making his mark as a supporter of the liberation of homosexuality, as a strong opponent of apartheid and of the Smith regime in Rhodesia, and as an influential voice opposing curbs on immigration for Kenyan Asians.

Mary Bennett

Golden Dawn

Alexander Clapp makes much of Golden Dawn’s family connections with the Mani peninsula and the influence of the region’s ‘unique’ character on their politics (LRB, 4 December 2014). But in what region of Greece do coffee-shop politicians not claim to be the only true Greeks, the fiercest opponents of the Turks, the only ones never to have been enslaved? Clapp claims the Maniots’ culture was ‘nonconformist’. It was on the contrary deeply conformist, informed by inflexible and harsh codes of honour, whose infringement gave rise to their age-old practice of the blood feud. But this was true of many primitive Mediterranean peasant cultures: Crete, Albania, Corsica (where some three hundred Maniot families settled around 1670).

Clapp correctly traces Golden Dawn’s roots back to the openly fascist Metaxas dictatorship of 1936, the split in the Second World War between the mainly communist resistance movement and the discredited prewar politicians in exile in Egypt, and the post-liberation civil war. But he claims the people who came to power during the civil war ‘were funded and rearmed by the British and Americans to finish off what the Germans had started: hunting down the communist andartes, the Elas bands who did the lion’s share of the resistance’.

That is a bit of a calumny. British troops arrived in Athens as liberators in October 1944. By December they were engaged in a hard-fought battle, street by street, with the communist-led Elas resistance, supposedly their allies, for control of the city. The British general in command had ordered them to disarm and stay out of Athens. They ignored him. Clapp tells us that many of the Dawners’ fathers were present at these events, though it isn’t clear in what capacity or what he thinks this shows.

Greece was totally bankrupt, its infrastructure in ruins, its institutions dissolved, its political class absent and tainted by prewar failures. Elements in the Communist Party were clearly tempted to use the armed strength of Elas to seize power. Britain could not afford to run the show any longer and handed over to the Americans. Elections were held at the beginning of 1946. The Communist Party refused to take part, with the inevitable result that an overwhelmingly right-wing government was returned. Elements of Elas took to the hills once more.

Thanks to massive American aid the communist insurgents were finally defeated in August 1949 and driven from Greece. Although Greek leftists are still nostalgic about the defeat of the ‘mountain’, Greece would have been a wretched mess, like neighbouring Bulgaria and Romania, if the andartes had won, and a lot of people would have ended up with their throats cut.

Because the right won and remained in unchallenged control of the country until 1963, the weight of atrocity and lawless behaviour lies heavily on their side – the ideological ancestors of Golden Dawn. But to claim that the whole point of British and American intervention was to sponsor such behaviour is wrong. I hardly think it was Attlee’s intention to ‘finish off what the Germans had started’.

Tim Salmon
London NW3


Whatever construction one places on Michael Hofmann’s review of Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, it is obvious that it was written on a bad haemorrhoid day (LRB, 18 December 2014). As to the construction: either Hofmann cannot read, or he has such a narrow and fantastical notion of what a novel should be that he is unable to see quality when it hits him in the face. I plump for the former, as witness the very passages he cites in attempted condemnation: one would fail a first-year for missing the point so comprehensively. I suggest that your readers read the novel for themselves, in order to check (in both senses) Hofmann’s pretensions as a critic.

Anthony Grayling
Chair, 2014 Man Booker Prize, London WC1

Low-Hanging Fruit

I would like to add two footnotes to Francis FitzGibbon’s account of the shameful trials and subsequent imprisonment of the Holy Land Foundation leaders (LRB, 22 January). At the pre-trial brief, 246 unindicted co-conspirators were named along with the HLF leadership, in what the American Civil Liberties Union called ‘an extraordinary step’. The ACLU estimated that ‘it unfairly and irreparably damaged the reputation of mainstream Muslim organisations and many of the named individuals.’

Ghassan Elashi, the chair of HLF, is now serving his sentence 650 miles from his home in Texas in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at Marion, Illinois. Elashi’s family have only seen him through plexiglass on their rare visits in the last five years. New York’s Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) has called the CMUs ‘the federal prison system’s experiment in social isolation’ and has challenged them in court. CCR reports that

prisoners are forbidden from any physical contact with their children, spouses, family members and other loved ones that visit them. They are not even allowed a brief embrace upon greeting or saying goodbye. While the Bureau of Prisons claims these units were created to more effectively monitor communications, there is no security explanation for banning physical contact during visits as visitors are comprehensively searched before visits, and prisoners are strip-searched before and after visits.

Victoria Brittain
London NW3

Slavery in English Law

The ‘legal folklore’ surrounding the case of James Somersett in 1772, described so trenchantly by Stephen Sedley, is more extensive than is commonly assumed (LRB, 22 January). It is time to put this old chestnut to bed. Somersett’s case is standard reading on constitutional law courses in the US, with its alleged affirmation of the right to liberty. William Holdsworth’s History of English Law (1977) described it as ‘a case connected with colonial institutions which gave rise to what is perhaps the earliest direct judicial decision that English law does not recognise slavery’.

The truth is more prosaic. In the 18th century, some English judges upheld the rights of slave owners to claim property in their Negroes either on grounds that they were not Christians, or by appealing to the practice of the merchants, whose trade in slaves was presumed to be sanctioned by the jus gentium. Others were less sure. They took the view that a slave setting foot in England became free immediately. Not quite then the tradition of liberty in the common law that one might assume. Writing in the Law Quarterly Review in 1934, Edward Fiddes explains how, ‘by the end of the 17th century, the long series of decisions had begun in which judges freely contradicted each other and occasionally themselves. For nearly a century, there was a rhythmical seesaw of judicial opinion, now for slavery, now against.’

The real hero of the times is Granville Sharp, who challenged the ‘Yorke and Talbot Opinion’. One evening in 1729, in Lincoln’s Inn, a deputation representing the powerful West India interest approached the law officers of the crown, attorney-general Philip Yorke and Charles Talbot, the solicitor-general, in order to seek a clarification of the matter. ‘We are of the opinion,’ they stated, ‘that a slave, by coming from the West Indies to Great Britain, doth not become free, and that his Master’s Property or Right in him is not thereby determined or varied: And that Baptism doth not bestow freedom on him.’

The Yorke and Talbot Opinion was very popular with the West India interest, becoming, in the words of Folarin Shyllon, a ‘slave-hunter’s charter’, which made every black man, woman or child unsafe and under imminent threat of removal by force into slavery.’ In the case of James Somersett, Mansfield observed irascibly that the case was a petition in Lincoln’s Inn hall, after dinner, and therefore might not be taken seriously, but the fact is that it was.

Sharp was the great abolitionist of the period, and it is said that in the solitude of his chamber, he attempted to overthrow the Yorke and Talbot Opinion. He set out to explore the original sources of the laws of England. In 1769, he published A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery, or of Admitting the least claim of Private Property in the Persons of Men, in England. In his introduction he referred to the Habeas Corpus Act (1679): ‘No subject of this realm that now is, or hereafter shall be an inhabitant or resident of this kingdomshall or may be sent prisoner into places beyond the seas; and that every such imprisonment is hereby enacted and adjudged to be illegal; and that if any of the said subjects shall be so imprisoned, every such person so imprisoned may maintain by virtue of this Act, an action or actions of false imprisonment, in any of His Majesty’s Courts of Record.’

Sharp argued the claim of private property could be maintained only if ‘the pretended proprietors could prove that a slave was neither man, woman or child: and if they are not able to do this, how can they consider a person as a mere “chose in action”?’ A slave, by coming to England, owed allegiance to the king and to the laws of England, and became the king’s property. Sharp concluded that because the slave was the king’s property in this relative sense he could not be out of the king’s protection. For Sharp the terms ‘subject’ and ‘persons’ in the Acts of England incontrovertibly included black people. For ‘if this were not the case would it not be esteemed a great injustice, if anyone was to allege that a Hungarian, Pole, Muscovite or alien of any other European nation, is not protected by our laws when in England, because there was a possibility that his countrymen might not have been had in consideration or contemplation at the time of making these laws?’ Sharp sent his manuscript to eminent members of the legal profession. He sent it to Blackstone, who told him that it would be ‘uphill work in the Court of the King’s Bench’. And so it turned out to be.

When the case of James Somersett was heard in 1772, ‘the public had looked on the trial as a struggle between freedom and slavery.’ But Somersett’s case did not lead to an emancipation of slaves. While Mansfield considered the ‘state of slavery’ to be ‘incapable of being introduced on any reason, moral or political’, he also stated that a ‘contract for sale of a slave is good here: the sale is a matter to which the law readily and properly attaches … But here the person of the slave himself is immediately the object of enquiry; which makes a very material difference.’ At one point, he seemed unperturbed by ‘whatever inconveniences … may follow from the decision’, but at another he expressed concern that, ‘the setting of 14,000 or 15,000 men at once loose by a solemn opinion is very disagreeable in the effects it threatens.’ A measure of the illiberality of the decision can be gleaned from the far earlier decision in the century of Lord Chief Justice Holt, who in Smith v. Gould in 1706 decided that trover would not lie for a black man because the law took no notice that he was different from other men.

Thirteen years after Somersett in R v. The Inhabitants of Thames Ditton, Mansfield found that an African who had been bought in America and brought to England by her master was not a hired servant, as contended. Settlement for a year in a parish entitled such a hired servant to pauper relief in that parish. It was argued for her that ‘the legislature could not mean to exclude the particular case of this Negro … and the pauper had lived as a servant from year to year, and therefore, is to be considered as a servant as far as the laws of England will permit.’ ‘The statutes do not relate to them [slaves],’ Mansfield decided, ‘nor had they them in contemplation.’

It was not until 1833 that Parliament in England finally abolished slavery. But even then, as Lester and Bindman record in Race & Law (1972), a contract by a British subject to sell slaves in Brazil was considered valid by a British court some thirty years after that date, on grounds that possession of slaves was lawful in that other country.

Satvinder Juss
King’s College London

On ‘Charlie Hebdo’

As a devoted reader of the LRB I am deeply disappointed by your immediate response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. No message of solidarity, no support for freedom of expression. I would have thought that the execution of the editorial staff of a magazine a few hours’ journey from your own office would provoke a more heartfelt response.

Simon Hammond
London E1

Mary-Kay Wilmers writes: I believe in the right not to be killed for something I say, but I don’t believe I have a right to insult whomever I please. Those – and there are many – who insist that the only acceptable response to the events in Paris is to stand up for ‘freedom of expression’ are allowing people the freedom to say ‘Je suis Charlie’ but nothing else. There are many other things to be said about the attacks and their aftermath: for some of them, see Tariq Ali in this issue, and the contributions online at