Ireland and Empire: colonial legacies in Irish history and culture, Stephen Howe. (Oxford University Press, £25) ISBN 0198208251

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

Stephen Howe calls his Ireland and the Empire ‘a discourse about discourses’. It is actually a cut-and-paste polemic against nationalist historiography, post-colonial discourses, interdisciplinary literary criticism, Field Day, and Edward Said. Howe doesn’t like the comparisons the Irish make between themselves and others. Managerial rather than discursive, the book strings together obiter dicta, ceremonial academic gestures, and opinions in a wordy concatenation of paragraphs and pages that do not themselves amount to a discourse. While Howe certainly deploys and arranges knowledge in the interests of power (and how!), he does not produce any himself. Instead, he works over the usual suspects under the dim bulb of a sort of ‘Enlightenment’ Inquisition. This is the vague and facile ideology of Global Plutocratic Managerial Menshevism. It is a politically correct sort of neo-conservatism that is most impressive, as well as ubiquitous, in visual rather than discursive media; it’s what you see on TV: the Anglo-American World War II liturgy on CNN. Perpetual war for perpetual peace: it’s very Orwellian, very self-righteous, and it’s a much bigger deal than Irish nationalism. In fact, it’s an empire.
The premise of the book is simple: Ireland was not juridically a British colony at least since the Union: and arguably has never formally been one at all. Howe invokes Pocock’s ‘Atlantic archipelago’, both as an apologia for Ulster Unionism and a sort of talisman for post-political geographic revirgination with which to disarm proto-fascist nationalism. Howe is not impressed by Irish efforts at Irish history:

There has been no Irish Braudel or Foucault, no Edward Thompson or Hayden White, no equivalent to Subaltern Studies or Past and Present…One will search in vain the literatures of historical ‘revisionism’ in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict or the German ‘Historikersteit’, for example, for reference to Irish historiography.

Which would suggest that Howe’s undertaking has an oddly gratuitous character. Why does he bother? Well, as readers may already know (TV viewers certainly will), Global Plutocratic Managerial Menshevism is a jealous, censorious, and capricious ideological deity that straddles the end of history with a hawk eye for recalcitrants and recidivists. Fear is good but love is better. Richard Kearney is a case in point. Howe selects an odd sentence from Kearney’s Postnationalist Ireland to sum up its thesis: ‘The shibboleths of both Irish and British nationalism begin to come undone when exposed to the razor of contemporary change’. Howe likes this. He pounces on it as license for geopolitical hegemony and he sums up this beneficent effect with prim triumph: ‘The breakdown of traditional conceptions of sovereignty, the coming of a new European order both transnational, federal, and regional, is both fated and felicitous’. So far, so good?—not quite. It’s just the thin edge of the wedge for Howe’s passive-aggressive inquisition. Howe wants much more. He proceeds to hector Kearney for the imperfect resolution of his act of contrition:

Yet Kearney continues to insist, repeatedly, that this vision does not involve him in blanket hostility to nationalism: he can maintain the belief that ‘the history of Irish nationalism was itself a relatively noble one—with the exception of the IRA campaign after the 1960s, as if there were no moral ambiguities in the earlier history, and no connections between it and the modern IRA. And he can repeat the historically very dubious claim that religious sectarianism in the nationalist tradition was ‘not so much a product of republican nationalism in Ireland as a product of British hostility to it’.

Well! Did you ever!? The triumphant totalitarian determinism of ‘fated and felicitous’ is nowhere further specified. What flavour of linear teleology is this? Is it from Hegel? Marx? Kojeve? Fukuyama? Thomas Friedman? NATO? Howe is like O’Brien working over Winston Smith at the end of 1984.
Nationalists are also commanded to abjure Heidegger, Nietzsche, Fanon, Said, Ngugi wa Thiongo, North American academic fashions, traditional Catholic social thought, Afro-Asian cultural nationalisms, essentialisms and sectarianisms. They are enjoined to enjoy Social Democratic modernity as individuals: random and elementary particles. There is one backhanded appreciation of the Catholic Church in the entire book when Howe says that Catholicism may have pre-empted ‘the political space within which fascist-type movements might have emerged in strength’. ‘Might have’? Or is he wistful for the lost opportunity for a CNN special?
An illuminating contrast occurs at the end of the book with a brief account of Donald Harmon Akenson’s God’s Peoples, a comparative study of Afrikaaners, Israeli Jews, and Ulster Protestants. Howe explains that ‘Akenson’s view, which as will be seen has a certain congruence with that of his hero Conor Cruise O’Brien, is by no means wholly hostile to the group he analyses’. A considerable understatement, we learn, as Akenson proceeds to gush with the ‘directness of expression’ he admires and trusts in the Chosen, over ‘ancient imperatives, holy seeds and families, the impure and the profane. Akenson sees the Covenant on the wane in the North, but on the rise in Israel. He warns us with respect to the Hyperborean Elect, that if provoked, ‘an implosion of fierce proportions could occur, as in the process of nuclear fission.’ (The Orange Bomb!) Howe takes the enraptured Akenson mildly to task on two minor points: ‘that the model…with its stress on the role of an inherited, rigid, and essentially unchanging religio-political ideology…is ill-equipped to explain patterns of change’. We can’t imagine Akenson or his fissionable Covenanters much chastened by the missed opportunity ‘to explain patterns of change’—no late scholastic Marxists these! Nor are we persuaded by Howe’s false assertion that ‘the Israeli religious right appeared weaker, and less hegemonic in the culture as a whole than he (Akenson) suggested—and his model could not account for the growing, often bitter rift between the religiously Orthodox and the secular majority in Israel’. On that issue I would refer him to Israel Shahak’s Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel.
After his mild rebuke of Akenson, Howe goes ballistic on Michael MacDonald whose Children of Wrath: political violence in Northern Ireland dares to view Akenson’s thesis from an Irish Canaanite perspective:

MacDonald’s central claim is that ‘the imperative to exclude and antagonise the native population is rooted in the structure of settler colonialism’…The very meaning of being a Protestant in Northern Ireland is constructed on being superior to, ruling over, and excluding Catholics. Thus they have never actually wanted legitimacy, or for the Catholic community to accept the Union, because for that to happen would undermine their own sense of identity, which is premised on irreducible difference, superiority, and embattledness.

This is a self-evidently accurate description of how a covenant works, i.e. it excludes others. In rebuttal, Howe resorts to a contrafactual condition of vertiginous inanity: ‘had it not been for the confessional divide, intermarriage would have long since have been sufficiently widespread as to blur if not wholly remove the communal boundaries’.
In a revealing footnote, Howe even endorses Ian Adamson, and genetic identity, no less, as an opportune instrument to wield against the common foe:

…it is extremely likely (so far as one can judge on the patchy evidence available) that, for instance, a very high proportion of Catholic Nationalists in Northern Ireland today can trace their ancestry partly back to Scots or English ‘planters’, whilst at least as many Protestant Unionists have some ‘Gaelic Irish’ ancestry; and that—to go further back—there is at least a grain of probable truth in Ian Adamson’s claims that many of the seventeenth-century Lowland Scots migrants to Ulster had distant Irish family origins. Within the next decade, the Human Genome Diversity Project may shed some new light on these questions—but one may safely predict that it will not offer much support to anyone’s nationalist claims.

Such a discovery might be another fated felicity for Howe but it has no bearing on nationalist, much less republican claims, neither of which are based on the pseudo-speciation of a genotype.
In the most recent issue of Past and Present Howe exhibits his own comparative skills in ‘The Politics of Historical “Revisionism”: comparing Ireland and Israel/Palestine’. Here he refers with apparent irony to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Palestinians and cites an Irish analogy with West Cork. No numbers are provided. (800,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed after massacres in 1948). He never cites Israel Shahak’s Jewish History, Jewish Religion even as he notes that Israeli revisionists have overlooked ‘how far and in what ways Zionism and the Israeli state arise from some much longer history of Jewish [his emphasis] continuity. He entertains the possibility of the land as a geographical rather than a national cultural concept (this he derives from a more beneficent pre-nationalist Loyalist conception of Irish identity!), although he never mentions Edward Said’s proposal for a binational, pluralist, and secular state.

Dan Scanlon

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