The Fenian problem: insurgency and terrorism in a liberal state

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, General, Irish Republican Brotherhood / Fenians, Issue 5 (Sep/Oct 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

The Fenian problem: insurgency and terrorism in a liberal state
Brian Jenkins
(Liverpool University Press, £65)
ISBN 9781846311758


73_small_1252855852Some contemporary writers on terrorism argue that the British government’s response to Fenianism set a pattern of moral panic and the repression of civil liberties that has characterised state responses to such challenges down to the present-day ‘war on terror’. Brian Jenkins concurs that mid-Victorian Fenians can legitimately be described as terrorists, since much of their rhetoric (and actions such as the Clerkenwell bombing, where numerous civilians were killed and injured by a bomb intended to demolish the prison wall confining Fenian leader Ricard O’Sullivan Burke) betrays a desire to spread alarm among the British population as a whole. He argues that the mid-Victorian British state was as effective in cultivating intelligence and conducting political propaganda as its successors, while being considerably more reluctant to restrict civil liberties. The acquittal of a warder accused of assisting James Stephens’s escape on the grounds that possession of Fenian literature did not prove complicity and the consistent refusal of British cabinets to suspend habeas corpus (eviscerated by twentieth-century security legislation) in Britain, though not in Ireland, contrast with the response of the twentieth-century British—and Irish—state to IRA attacks.
Jenkins’s depiction of the difficulties of a government trying to track armed radicals within an immigrant ethnic group comprising professionals as well as labourers, concentrated in urban centres, defined by religious beliefs whose political implications and rumoured sexual immorality encourage nativist hostility and polemical exchanges, and inculcating a self-image as exiles awaiting return (muhajiroun) and veneration for political and religious martyrdom, may imply another analogy (made by Roy Johnston in his Books Ireland review [Summer 2009])—with contemporary Islamism. Should the anti-Catholic provocateur William Murphy (giving semi-pornographic lectures on The Confessional Unmasked; provoking sectarian riots, regarded by the government as abusing free speech; and killed by Catholic rioters) be seen as an earlier Theo van Gogh? This analogy should not be pressed too far. While Catholicism and Irish nationalism overlapped in creating a sense of collective identity, and some priests endorsed Fenianism in the name of Faith and Fatherland, the tightly controlled hierarchical structures of Catholicism (unlike the looser networks of Islamic jurists) allowed unsympathetic bishops such as Cardinal Cullen to insist on separating the two—reinforcing Fenians’ own insistence that nationality was not dependent on religion; the prominence of Protestants such as John Martin at pro-Fenian demonstrations would be inconceivable in an Islamist milieu.
Does Jenkins make his case? In discussing the debates within the Liberal and Conservative administrations, and the limitations that the government apparatus imposed on itself, Jenkins adds nuance to our understanding of what is often seen as mere blind repression—as it was judged by many contemporary observers guided by contemporary, rather than twentieth-century, standards. (His discussion of extensive debates within the administration over the possible authenticity of alibi evidence for Michael Barrett—eventually hung for the Clerkenwell bombing—contrasts interestingly with Ó Catháin’s Republicanism in Scotland, which assumes Barrett’s innocence; Jenkins argues that the government suppressed evidence against Barrett to preserve intelligence sources.)
Jenkins does show that some Fenian activists of the 1860s engaged in acts that could be called terrorist and anticipate the neo-Fenian dynamiters of the 1880s (to whom the term is more routinely applied). The shadowy ‘Committee of Safety’ within the Dublin organisation did not merely kill informers (as is usually believed) but planned to assassinate judges, jurors, policemen and politicians in a manner reminiscent of the Invincibles of the early 1880s (or Michael Collins’s ‘squad’). He draws illuminating comparisons between prison protest and amnesty campaigns in the 1860s and 1870s and the ‘dirty protests’ and campaigns for political status of recent decades in Northern Ireland, and argues that Gladstone’s attempts to push reforms through his reluctant cabinet to drain the wider pool of sympathy for Fenianism resemble later deployments of social reform as part of counterterrorist strategy, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
Nonetheless, Jenkins assumes too readily that the tactics of cliques and individuals within a movement disintegrating under pressure can be ascribed to the whole movement. His view that O’Sullivan Burke as a trained engineer ‘must have’ anticipated the full impact of the Clerkenwell bomb begs many questions. He also discounts the early Fenian self-image as soldiers expecting to take the field in open warfare.
The mid-Victorian British state may have been liberal but it was not fully democratic, and one reason why the twentieth-century British and Irish states have been harsher towards armed opposition is that they perceive their own legitimacy to be more deeply rooted, and challengers as correspondingly less legitimate. This claim can be disputed but should not be lightly dismissed, and underlies the refusal of most writers on mid-Victorian Fenianism to call it terrorist.  HI

Patrick Maume is an editorial assistant with the Dictionary of Irish Biography.


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