Ireland: the politics of enmity 1789–2006

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2007), Reviews, The Act of Union, Volume 15

Ireland: the politics of enmity 1789–2006
Paul Bew
(Oxford University Press, £35)
ISBN 9780198205555

According to the preface, this book ‘is about the conflict between the Protestant British—both on the British “mainland” and in Ireland itself—and the Catholic Irish’, from the 1800 Act of Union to the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. The various attempts by the British state to solve its ‘Irish problem’—Home Rule, partition etc.—are discussed in detail. Bew both recreates the political world of the ruling classes in London, Dublin and Belfast and conveys the mood of popular politics through a particular emphasis on the press. The book is meticulously researched, thoroughly argued and often original in its insights. The author writes from a perspective sympathetic to liberal unionism and ‘conciliatory nationalism’. While Bew defends ‘conciliatory nationalism’, he is critical of republicanism for failing to either convince or conciliate unionism. In fact, republicanism does not ignore the issue of unionist consent to political arrangements but, unlike constitutional nationalism, it does not accept that unionist consent is a prerequisite for constitutional change. While arguing that it is undesirable to coerce a ‘minority’, republicanism contends that to give a guarantee to a ‘minority’ in advance against all coercion is to put a premium on unreasonableness and to make a settlement impossible. Unionism will have no incentive to consider other political options so long as the British government gives it unconditional guarantees. The consent of a minority becomes transformed into a veto over the majority—unity by consent of a minority, partition by coercion of the majority. Bew’s stress on the importance of conciliation is partially based on the assumption that it is impossible to coerce Ulster. But the fact that Ian Paisley could admit in a recent interview, when asked why he came to endorse the St Andrews Agreement, that ‘The British government threatened me. I was frightened. I was frightened for my country’ suggests otherwise.
The emphasis on conciliation and coercion is one of the strongest points of the book. But the author’s defence of conciliatory nationalism against a republicanism that exacerbates enmity with unionism is sometimes problematical. Pearse, for example, was a constitutional Home Ruler who became a revolutionary after the Tory and Unionist subversion of the democratic request for Home Rule. Bonar Law’s ‘There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities’, the Curragh mutiny, the Larne gun-running—events dismissed by Bew as ‘an extreme form of the politics of theatre’ and as threats ‘more apparent than real’—convinced some conciliatory nationalists that the constitutional process was not effective and that the threat of force was. In his reading of the 1916 Rising, reduced to the more than questionable notion of a ‘blood sacrifice’, Bew underestimates the degree to which the actions of the Tories and the Unionists had a central role in driving figures of proven constitutional instincts such as Pearse away from the constitutional path and towards insurrection. The author also underestimates the extent to which the development of unionism and partition were due to British policy rather than to factors internal to Ireland. Edward Carson himself later admitted as much. ‘What a fool I was!’ he exclaimed. ‘I was only a puppet and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.’ Bew believes that there was nothing ‘artificial’ about the creation of Northern Ireland and that partition was inevitable. It was the British government, however, that chose the way in which Ireland was divided and imposed this by force. It is inconceivable that face-to-face negotiations between Republicans, Nationalists and Unionists would have produced the same settlement.
The book contains some fine analyses on how strategic considerations shaped the nature of British state policy towards Ireland, for example with the Act of Union or during the Second World War. Bew agrees with Peter Brooke’s statement that the British state has no selfish strategic interest in Ireland today, and even evokes ‘unselfish strategic interests’. One can infer, however, from an interview that Brooke gave to Spanish academic Rogelio Alonso that this was intended to strengthen the hand of those within the Provos who were pushing for a ceasefire and to embrace the peace process rather than being a statement of fact. Has the end of the Cold War made the British state’s strategic interests in Ireland redundant? In The geopolitics of Anglo-Irish relations in the twentieth century (Leicester University Press, 1997) G. R. Sloan, deputy head of Strategic Studies at the Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth, argued that the end of the Cold War had not diminished Ireland’s strategic importance, compelling the British state to pursue a strategic policy of ‘geopolitical dualism’: on the one hand ensuring that part of Ireland remains within NATO, while on the other claiming ‘no selfish strategic interests’ to further the peace process. This is not to argue that strategic interests are the prime factor in shaping British state policy towards Ireland but to emphasise that Bew is wrong to take it as axiomatic that the British state has no longer any strategic interests in Ireland today. This book can be difficult and heavy going in some places if one is not familiar with some of the issues discussed. It will be especially of interest to people concerned with ideas and arguments.

Liam Ó Ruairc is a writer based in Belfast.

Ireland: the politics of enmity 1789–2006


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