Ireland since 1939: the persistence of conflict

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

Ireland since 1939 the persistence of conflict 1Ireland since 1939: the persistence of conflict
Henry Patterson
(Penguin Ireland, ?37)
ISBN 9781844881031
In this book Henry Patterson outlines the political and social developments of both states on the island of Ireland from the start of the Second World War to 2005. Over the past couple of decades numerous works of general Irish history, on both North and South, have been published, some of which are scholarly and judicious tomes while others are highly subjective and little more than propaganda. Patterson’s narrative falls under the former category and his study is an invaluable contribution to this genre.
Patterson’s choice of period is intriguing, allowing the reader to draw contrasts between the unpromising economic circumstances in 1939 that beset both North and South and the changes realised in both states by the start of the twenty-first century. As Patterson notes, ‘the Republic in the 1960s under Sean Lemass and Northern Ireland under Terence O’Neill bore a closer resemblance to the Free State of William Cosgrave and the North of Sir James Craig than they do to Ireland, North and South, in the early years of the new millennium’. This is certainly true in respect of the Republic, which has been radically transformed, economically and socially, in the latter decades of the twentieth century, although the almost simultaneous downward spiral suffered by Northern Ireland during ‘the troubles’ may qualify the Northern aspects of this statement, with the province still dependent on a bloated public sector for employment and sectarian tensions in inner-city Belfast and elsewhere not far from the surface.
The process of raising the Republic’s economic game began in the late 1950s once the commercially minded Lemass succeeded de Valera. Stagnation is how Patterson perceives the preceding period. Then, the southern polity, under the administrations of de Valera and Costello, was in danger of becoming a theocratic backwater, evidenced by the furore over the ‘Mother and Child’ débâcle and the explicit alignment of the country’s main political figures with the Catholic Church and its teachings. De Valera, in his 1943 St Patrick’s Day radio broadcast, articulated his desire for a Gaelic idyll, replete with images of a countryside ‘bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sound of industry’ and ‘the laughter of comely maidens, whose firesides would be the forums for serene old age’, as a utopian rural paradise. Economic protectionism was dogmatically advocated and any prospect of imitating the Beveridge Report quashed owing to cost and the influence of the Catholic hierarchy. No wonder Ulster unionists could make smug comparisons between the relatively generous benefits that less fortunate citizens in Northern Ireland received, albeit from the largesse of Whitehall, and the parsimony imposed on their Southern counterparts by Leinster House.
Such feelings of Northern superiority would prove finite, and Patterson adeptly portrays the tensions and contradictions within Northern Ireland as a consequence of one-party rule. Inequitable practices such as retaining the householder franchise and the business vote after it had been abandoned in Great Britain, in order to preserve unionist control of local government in Londonderry and the western counties, and discrimination in the allocation of housing and jobs in areas where the two communities were evenly balanced or Protestants in a minority later became major grievances of the civil rights movement. Derry City unionists were so blinded by sectarian considerations and by the desire to protect their artificial majority that they lobbied Stormont to prevent industries locating to the area for fear of a mass migration of the unemployed, who would invariably be from Donegal and therefore Catholic. The same argument was utilised to site a new university at Protestant Coleraine rather than in Northern Ireland’s second city. Clearly the ‘reformist’ O’Neill empathised with his brethren in this matter, as he wondered how it would be ‘possible to insure against a radical increase in RC Papes’.
In politics, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was unreceptive to Catholics joining their ranks and made no effort to sell unionism to the minority community—it almost seemed better to leave it to the welfare state rather than proactively market the positive benefits of union with Great Britain. Lord Brookeborough’s refusal to face down Orange opposition to Catholics becoming UUP members was but one of many missed opportunities presented to the regime to create harmony within Northern Ireland and to bolster its own position. O’Neill fared no better in this respect, although Patterson surprisingly does not mention the former’s similar lack of backbone in supporting Catholic unionist candidates for Stormont. Owing to historic mistrust and an unwillingness to constructively engage with the minority, the unionist regime helped sow the seeds of its downfall and future civil unrest in Northern Ireland, although this was not exclusively one-way traffic. To his credit Patterson is even-handed, and whilst illustrating the frailties of unionist rule he also exposes the myths and canards that have been enunciated by its nationalist critics. Northern Ireland was no ‘Orange State’, as was evident in the generous funding of Catholic education by post-war legislation. As Patterson notes, ‘while Orange pressure almost always evoked a government response, it was not always one that satisfied Orange militants’.
Overall, this is an excellent book. The analysis of the stale and stagnant environment experienced by both states in the aftermath of the Second World War, followed by the relative modernity in outlook of the Lemass and O’Neill administrations and the build-up to the civil unrest in the North, is of high quality. The book is not without its drawbacks, however. The author notes in his introduction that ‘historians of twentieth-century Ireland, or at least those based on the island, have tended to focus on their “own” state’. Patterson overcomes this to an extent, but he devotes as much time to discussing Northern Ireland as the Republic. The North may have, for largely undesirable reasons, received the lion’s share of international news coverage over the past 35 years, but, for all its ailments, should the six counties be elevated to level pegging with their 26-county neighbour? This is notable in the later section on the Republic of Ireland from 1973 to 2005, which has a rushed feel and in which the discussions on general elections and the formation (and fall) of coalition governments pass by at great speed—two chapters would have been preferable. While subjects such as the decline in the influence of the Catholic Church in Southern society and the Irish reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 are separately analysed, these overviews would also have benefited from much greater expansion.
In respect of recent Northern Irish history, the author has bravely entered the minefield of the ‘peace process’ and taken the narrative to the emergence of the two extremes, Sinn Féin and the DUP, as the only entities capable of making a more durable (although not necessarily better) deal than that negotiated by Hume and Trimble. Given that the ‘peace process’ is an unpredictable beast, with participants and commentators attaching huge importance to current events or minuscule movements in the various combatants’ positions, which to future historians may be of fairly minor significance, then concluding with the Belfast Agreement might have been a better idea. This would have given the book’s final chapter a less contemporary feel as the conclusions may well be superseded by the outcome of negotiations at St Andrews, which seem to point in the direction of a new agreement. This should not, however, detract from what is an excellent work of history. Patterson is objective in his analysis and fair in his criticisms. His book is a tremendous achievement and should be considered a staple text on twentieth-century Irish history.

Mark Coalter is a writer and researcher based in London.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568