The Irish Border: History, Politics, Culture, Malcolm Anderson and Eberhard Bort (eds.). (Liverpool University Press, £15) IBSN 0853239517

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 1999), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Reviews, Volume 7

This book represents Anderson and Bort’s fourth collaboration in four years. Having jointly edited two volumes on the eastern frontier of the European Union, they published The Frontiers of Europe in 1998 before bringing out this book, based on papers presented at a conference on the Irish border held at the International Social Sciences Institute of the University of Edinburgh. In their introduction, they promise us a collection of ‘political, historical, cultural and literary perspectives’. The latter comes first in the form of pieces by Eugene McCabe and Shane Connaughton. Both are good at evoking the relationship between landscape and popular memory but they are brief and the volume does not make any real impression until Paul Arthur offers its first academic contribution.
Arthur seeks to explain how, in the period 1972-1995, the Northern Ireland problem changed from its status as a domestic matter to a problem which would be addressed in an Anglo-Irish and international context with the United States in particular becoming a major player. He argues that the declining importance of Britain in the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ led her to turn towards the EEC experiment in the hope of gaining political influence and economic growth. In conjunction with other local and international factors, this collapse of Britain’s ‘external support system’ had implications for the Northern Ireland question. Northern Ireland’s own external support system collapsed in the 1970’s when the authorities in London began to spread increasing responsibility for Northern Ireland to the Dublin government. This introduction of an ‘Irish dimension’ reminded Unionists of their potential weakness but it also explored a realistic model of interdependency which reduced the importance of shibboleths about state sovereignty and allowed the antagonists to examine the conflict anew.
Ged Martin brings us back to the ‘Origins of Partition’, arguing that various structural changes between 1845 and 1920 (for example, the industrial rise of Belfast and the Lagan valley) ‘were partitionist in their drift if not necessarily in their intention’. He also outlines the various guises of the idea of partition from a nineteenth century ‘debating point used to undermine the case for devolution in Ireland’ to a reality whose final shape was decided ‘within a specific historical moment, the decade 1912-22, of Irish crisis and European war’. Largely a synthesis of previously published studies, Martin’s article is strongest towards the end, however, when he leaves the research of other historians aside and focuses directly on some of the details of the report of the Boundary Commission.
Following Ian S. Wood’s account of ‘The IRA’s Border Campaign, 1956-1962’, we are thrust forward into the present day by Steve Bruce’s article on ‘Unionists and the Border’ which is interesting in its emphasis on the geographical aspect of Unionist diversity. For example, he argues that the contempt that some ‘progressive’ Belfast Loyalists have for what they see as the irrational siege mentality of border Unionists is partly explainable by ‘the almost universal disdain that city people have for their country cousins’. However, Arthur Aughey’s criticism of Bruce’s focus on Protestant evangelicals and paramilitaries has been borne out. Apparently writing c.1995, the latter underestimated the potential of ‘civic’ Unionism which emerged decisively in 1997/98 in the form of UUP and PUP initiatives to become the most dynamic force in pro-union politics. Thus, while Bruce argues that confidence in ‘civic’ Unionism may be wishful thinking, Etain Tannam, in the following chapter, notices a constructive change in the UUP’s European Election strategy. While in 1989, the focus was on  ‘partisan issue linkage politics’ centred around the protection of national sovereignty, the 1994 election campaign emphasised European issues like EU regional aid and agriculture. Tannam is quite perceptive in identifying some of the background to the more obvious changes in Unionism that came after he wrote his article. Bruce is less observant in this regard. Assessing the impact of the Single European Market on cross border co-operation in the period 1988-94, Tannam reports an increase in business links and co-operation. However, civil service policy neglected long-term efficiency during the period because short term profit and loss considerations meant that Northern Ireland and the Republic were rivals in certain areas (ports, for example) while only limited economic co-operation took place.
Just when the volume seemed to getting somewhere, it heads down a cul de sac, in this writer’s opinion, when Ulrich Kockel takes us on a ‘conceptual journey back in time’ to resolve some of the ambiguities in Ulster Unionist/Loyalist identity. Sailing through 1,500 years of history in three pages, Kockel sees in the Ulster-Scottish connection a northern people distinct from the Anglo-Normans who established their cultural hegemony over the southern parts of both islands. Thus, the Irish Border is a crucial part of the North-South divide which cuts across both islands and Ulster Unionists are not under threat from Gaelic Ireland; they are defending the interests of Gaelic Ireland. They are ‘holding out against the completion of the Anglo-Norman conquest of the island of Ireland, which is the ultimate hidden agenda of the Nationalist movement’. Historians may feel a bit queasy but this formulation is meant to resolve the contradictions in Unionist identity and ‘develop an understanding of their everyday historicity’. Kockel speaks of unravelling the ‘origins and ambiguities of an apparently split identity’ but surely it is more realistic and rewarding to acknowledge that ambiguous identities are the legacy of a complex history which we should seek to understand rather than simplify. The Nationalist ‘Story of Ireland’ was bad enough. It does not need a mythological rival from the Unionist camp.
The book finds surer ground again in the next chapter as Mairead Nic Craith gives a good overview of the fortunes of the Irish language through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries up to the present day. Citing examples of Unionists using the language and its importance in the Presbyterian tradition, one of her conclusions is that the Irish language crosses rather than reinforces the sectarian divide in many cases. However, this is a somewhat optimistic emphasis given her acknowledgement that the tenacity of the Irish language in Northern Ireland is related to the re-assertion in recent decades of nationalism, ethnic identity and political violence. Indeed, recent debates in the Northern Ireland Assembly indicate that some Unionists associate the Irish language with Sinn Féin and have responded by calling for parity of esteem for the Ulster-Scots language. It could be argued that sections of both traditions use language as a political weapon and that their message is: ‘If you have your language, we’ll have ours’.
The volume concludes with two surveys of border-related literature. Owen Dudley Edwards takes us on an engaging jaunt through the works of nineteenth century writers who lived in what would become the Borderlands. He finds many of them crossing the sectarian frontier in their sympathies and interests, in search of ‘the Other’. Eberhard Bort touches on this theme in his examination of the border-related literature and drama of this century. His survey of the ‘Irish Border Play’ ranges from farcical ‘skits’ about smuggling or the ludicrous aspects of drawing a borderline to the dark pessimism of more recent plays which reflect the violence and bloodshed of the last thirty years.
Thought-provoking arguments and insights do emerge in the course of the volume but these individual contributions do not add up to make the book a coherent whole. Perhaps the nub of this matter is that interdisciplinary studies are at their strongest when two or three perspectives inform an individual research effort. Thus, the problem with this book is that we have a volume of history, social research, political science, literature and literary history but the various approaches do not intersect. Instead, we have an all too brief glance from each perspective before moving on. Insufficient regard for chronology does not help matters either. Beginning with an analysis of Anglo-Irish relations in recent decades, the next chapter jumps back to the turn of the century. Just as soon as one gets a feel for border history, the book shifts up to social and political research into contemporary trends and before long, it jumps back to a study of nineteenth century literature. Their are sufficient essays of interest to make this book a worthwhile read but the tiresome task of jumping back and forth across the intellectual map so frequently leaves one more frustrated than enlightened by the end of the volume.

Frank Foley


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