Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2019), Reviews, Volume 27

Manchester University Press
ISBN 9781526132956

Reviewed by Seán Donlon

Seán Donlon is a former diplomat, participating in the 1973 Sunningdale conference and in the negotiation of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, and was Irish ambassador to the United States, 1978–81.

When in 1949 Germany was partitioned and the Federal (West) German government was established in Bonn, it included a ‘Ministry of All-German Affairs’. It had no power over the territory administered by the  (East) German Democratic Republic. Its only task was to keep the idea of German unity alive, and it did so by disseminating negative information about the situation in the east and by inviting foreign journalists, politicians and others to come and see the evils of partition for themselves. As a diplomat stationed in the Irish embassy in Bonn from 1964 to 1969, I was, together with other diplomats, regularly invited by the ministry to visit the divided Berlin, where the gap between the prosperous free West and the impoverished communist East was highlighted.

The contrast between what the Germans did following partition in the ’40s and what the Irish did following partition in the ’20s could hardly be greater. In the early years of the Free State, the Irish government focused on asserting its control over the 26 counties and creating the institutions necessary to govern. There was little or no focus on unity or on the plight of the northern nationalists. The hopes placed in the Boundary Commission and the Council of Ireland came to nothing. Northern nationalists placed some hope in a change of approach when de Valera took office in 1932, but by 1936, as Ó Beacháin points out, ‘Fianna Fáil had been four years in power and, much to the disappointment of northern nationalists … no major reunification initiative had been undertaken’.

This book sets out to describe the relationship between successive Irish governments and Northern Ireland from partition in 1921 to the present. It is, in effect, a book of two halves. The first half deals with the years 1921–69, a period distinguished by the fact that Irish governments took little interest in the plight of northern nationalists and failed to develop any effective policies to achieve unity.

Ó Beacháin has unearthed many interesting nuggets from the available material about this era but his approach lacks coherence and the overall picture is not always clear. In fairness to him, there is much material that has not yet been fully interrogated by historians.

What is clear is that a ‘psychological detachment’ between Irish governments and northern nationalists emerged and developed to the point where nationalists felt, with justification, from the ’30s that they had been orphaned and abandoned. Their elected representatives were denied any recognition in Dublin and their grievances appear not to have been raised, for example, during de Valera’s many Anglo-Irish discussions in the ’30s.

As recently as the ’60s, Frank Aiken, himself a northerner and then the Minister for External Affairs, was not prepared to authorise Irish embassies to distribute pamphlets about housing and employment discrimination in Northern Ireland, which had been published by groups such as the Dungannon-based Campaign for Social Justice. His rationale, no doubt devised by de Valera, was that the real problem was partition and that all other problems were secondary and would be dealt with in the context of resolving partition.

The second half of the book covers the post-1969 period and draws on the very high number of books and articles now available on the Troubles and the Peace Process. Ó Beacháin points out that ‘partition deprived governments of first-hand knowledge of Northern Ireland at ministerial or even parliamentary party level’. It was equally true at civil service level. Unlike the German experience, no Irish government department or civil servant was assigned responsibility for Northern Ireland until 1969. There had been very occasional visits to Northern Ireland by officials from the Department of External Affairs in the ’50s, ‘if only to show the six-county people that we are still with them’. Such necessary co-operation between Dublin and Belfast as did exist on matters such as cross-border transport and the Foyle fisheries was conducted informally by officials from the relevant departments, north and south. It was not unusual for the informality to extend to meeting under the stand at Lansdowne Road on big rugby days!

The O’Neill/Lemass meetings in 1965 were ground-breaking but did not lead to new north–south structures at political or civil service levels. When the Troubles broke out in 1968, the scale of the crisis forced change. Northern Ireland policy formulation was reaffirmed as a function of the Department of the Taoiseach and the necessary inputs and outputs were assigned to the Department of Foreign (previously External) Affairs. Officials from that department began to travel widely in Northern Ireland and to build up extensive contacts, initially only with nationalists but from mid-1983 on also with unionists. John Hume and the SDLP came to be recognised as the authentic voice of northern nationalism and co-operation between Dublin and northern nationalism on strategy and tactics became close.

Inevitably in a book of this scope there are omissions. The human rights case that the Irish government initiated after the introduction of internment in 1971 deserves wider treatment. It was the first time that Dublin took international action on the basis of extensive information assembled in co-operation with northern nationalists.

Perhaps the most significant omission, however, is that relating to the role of the US, beginning with President’s Carter 1977 ground-breaking interventionist statement. For almost a century Irish nationalism had sought and failed to achieve US involvement. Carter broke the barrier. President Reagan continued active US interest and discussed Northern Ireland with Prime Minister Thatcher at every meeting they held over an eight-year period. Those ground-breaking US activities, in all of which the powerful influence of Speaker Tip O’Neill was a factor, made an important contribution to the subsequent involvement in the Peace Process of President Clinton and Senator Mitchell. None of that, however, is to detract from the achievement of this book. Ó Beacháin has broken new ground and provided a useful map for a generation of political scientists and historians.


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