Rethinking Irish History: Nationalism, Identity and Ideology Patrick O’Mahony and Gerard Delanty (Macmillan Press, £45) ISBN0333627970 The Geopolitics of Anglo-Irish Relations in the 20th Century, G.R. Sloan. (Leicester University Press, £45)

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 1999), Reviews, Volume 7

Both these books contain stern critiques of twentieth-century Irish nationalism, which has underpinned the creation of a sovereign twenty-six-county Republic. They represent interdisciplinary forays into history by on the one hand two sociologists from Cork and Belfast and on the other by a British defence specialist with rather mixed results.
Rethinking Irish History represents the application of analytical techniques of sociology to selected readings from some of the principal twentieth century historians. Its theme is ‘the central issue of the responsibility of nationalism for the establishment of a Catholic-conservative social order in twentieth century Ireland’. The authors are critical of the older nationalism, of revisionism for being insufficiently critical of ‘the national movement’, and also of what they call the new nationalism. They do not go quite as far as to say that nationalism, and especially Irish nationalism, is an ideological false consciousness, but one could certainly read that implication.
Passages extracted from authors like Lyons, Foster and Lee are used to construct a heavy-going, bleak, condemnatory and largely monochromatic account of twentieth-century Ireland. It would be only slightly over-schematic to read their thesis as a series of linked equations; Irish nationalism equals Catholicism, which equals extreme social conservatism and lack of innovation. There is a marked absence of historical imagination or sympathy with the efforts, trials and ambitions of earlier generations. The book gives no sense of the excitement and intellectual fervour of early twentieth-century Ireland. There is little explanation as to how a small country supposedly so conservative at that time became on a world scale one of the leading models of anti-imperialist struggle. There is no understanding of the pioneering spirit of the post-independence years, and only a negative assessment of the achievements. To see the political and economic culture of the State as anti-modern is an all too clichéd but superficial reading. Irish democracy is represented in the middle years of the century, as if it were no better than a sullen conformist dictatorship under the equivalent of a Salazar or Franco. The thought is never entertained by the authors that there could be anything creative, progressive or humane or even radical about aspects of Catholic social philosophy, some of whose principles underlie the European Union, while any Protestant influence is treated as having disappeared.
It is doubtful, if the authors could even comprehend how Dr James Deeny coming as Chief Medical Officer to Dublin from Lurgan in 1944 could write in his autobiography To Cure and to Care:

Coming to Dublin was wonderful. For the first time I discovered my country. I suddenly felt a free citizen of a free country and began the process of getting the repossession and bitterness of the North out of my system. Everybody had opinions and expressed them. You were not the recipients of the odd quiet warning to watch what you said…I also had to learn and understand the interactions and tensions between political parties, personalities, trade unions, churches, civil service, the Anglo-Irish and between institutional, professional and other factional interests. I had to realise that I was witnessing a national democracy.

If the role of history is to bring back to life past times and societies, the authors have dismally failed, because the Irish society that they portray is totally listless and unreal. Arguably, people who are totally out of sympathy with the past (in the sense of trying to get inside it and understand it) should not try to write about it. Nor is it correct to maintain that everything British was rejected. Lemass was a student of Beveridge and Keynes, but we have been more adept than Britain since the 1960s and 1970s in handling social partnership and making it work.
Ireland is ending the twentieth century on a high note. Of course, national self-understanding is constantly evolving, maturing and developing, but broadly the national project has been successful. There have been difficulties and serious failures along the way, leading to major course corrections, all well documented, but there has also been a lot of positive progress at many points. We have gradually carved out a path of our own, that does not fall too easily into conventional political, economic or sociological categories. There is no sense of helplessness vis-à-vis the serious problems we still have to overcome. Whilst appreciating the no doubt considerable effort put into the book, I did not find the sociological angle illuminating.
The Geopolitics of Anglo-Irish Relations in the 20th Century is another book, written entirely from one point of view, that of British selfish strategic interest. Its recent renunciation is not approved of by the author, who sees it more as an attempt to appease Republicans, than an accurate description of the reality. Its conceptual framework is provided by Sir Halford MacKinder, apparently one of the founders of geo-political theory and also a Unionist MP in the early years of the century, and by M.W. Heslinga, a Dutch political geographer, who provided some intellectual underpinnings for partition in the 1940s in his book The Irish Border as a Cultural Divide. In Colonel Blimp style, Sloan questions the ‘destructive’ notion that Ireland has been ‘a nation throughout the centuries’ as one invented to provide a retrospective justification for Irish independence. It is a misplaced grievance with him that, whereas Northern Ireland is allowed to secede from the UK, Scotland is not, but his assumption in that regard is completely erroneous.
In spite of the reactionary attitudes of the author, who treats strategic and geopolitical interests as superior to national democracy or self determination, the book provides some interesting insights into the strategic interests of Britain in relation to Ireland. Apart from vulnerability to backdoor attack, Ireland was part of the key to Britain’s maritime communications with its overseas empire. To quote Sloan: ‘Ireland was an integral part of Britain’s attempt to maintain a favourable geographical field in which it could exercise its power’. Ireland, and in particular Queenstown, is seen as having very considerable strategic value from a maritime point of view in the 1914-18 war in dealing with U-boats.
The Treaty is seen as separating the concept of the political unity of the United Kingdom, which was largely abandoned, from the geopolitical unity of the islands (e.g. retention of the ports). Credit is given to doubtful tales, one of whose sources was a political opponent, General MacEoin, about de Valera’s close relations in 1918 and 1920 with the Bolsheviks. The author is highly critical of Chamberlain’s surrender of the ports in 1938 with no guarantee that Ireland would enter the war.
The Second World War is read, first as an attempt from 1939-41 by Britain to recover use of the ports to prevent high losses at sea from submarine attacks, which are blamed on Irish neutrality, and then the use of Northern Ireland after US entry into the war as a substitute. Given the failure ‘to recreate the geopolitical unity of the British Isles, Northern Ireland was by 1943 the most important geopolitical bulwark on Britain’s western flank’, so that one was talking at this stage of the geopolitical unity of the United Kingdom rather than the British Isles, to use his terminology. Northern Ireland, according to the author, continued to be vital for some time after the war.
It appears that it was agreed between Britain and the US in 1948 that the US on its own would approach Ireland about joining NATO, an approach which was rejected because of the continuation of partition. A minute in 1954 argued that even a united Ireland’s membership of NATO would not be an adequate substitute militarily for Northern Ireland’s withdrawal from the UK. The start of the Troubles accelerated the termination of Northern Ireland’s use as a NATO base. The author links the Brooke renunciation of any selfish British strategic interest with the closure of the last NATO installation in Northern Ireland a month later, an RAF radar station at Bishopscourt. Following the cold war, his only argument is that Northern Ireland could again become important in the event of a resurgent Russia, an unlikely tale given its economic collapse and its lack of influence in relation to the situation in Iraq. On neutrality and a European defence policy Ireland is seen in a jaundiced way as playing the White Queen to the European Union’s Alice—’jam tomorrow, but never jam today’.
It would be possible to construct a completely different and equally interesting geo-political account written from an Irish perspective. Our acute strategic importance has tended to diminish as Britain’s principal enemies shifted steadily eastwards, from Spain to France to Germany to the Soviet Union (though in 1940 Germany occupied France as far west as Brest). The ally that made the difference to Ireland, as some of the more perceptive United Irishmen foresaw, was to be the United States, which also had a strategically vital relationship with Britain, upon which it was to become increasingly dependent. De Valera was one of the first to recognise in 1920 that a military alliance with Britain’s enemies in Europe was a hindrance rather than a help to the achievement of independence.
Shared political and economic partnership with Europe from 1973 by both Britain and Ireland, with far more enthusiasm shown by the smaller country, has after a few shocks during the early years of transition helped to enhance Ireland’s economic viability and freedom from over-dependence on Britain. From a military-strategic point of view, Ireland has become virtually irrelevant to Britain, which means that strategic considerations can no longer be argued to be a significant factor in determining Northern Ireland’s future. While disliking and even disputing this situation, Sloan is not able to argue convincingly that it does not obtain. The book does contain some interesting material, and is easy to read at one sitting, but taken as a whole it is far too tendentious to be regarded as authoritative.

Martin Mansergh


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