The Republic: a journal of contemporary and historical debate, nos. 1 & 2

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2002), Reviews, Volume 10

Finbar Cullen (ed.)
(The Ireland Institute, E7.50)
ISSSN 13939696

These two volumes make a sharp contrast. The first volume is a reasonably lively set of essays, most of them making a fairly conventional contemporary Irish radical republican argument. Some of these essays are lively and generous in tone but there are plenty of moments of conventional political cliché; cliché, moreover which shows no evidence of serious historical engagement. For example, Kevin McCorry writes: ‘Stripped down to bare essentials, the essence of Unionism means sectarian top doggery’. He refers to ‘David Trimble’s approach as classic old-style Northern politics’. There is no escaping the sectarianism dimension to Unionism, but what are we to say of a volume of this length, produced at this time, which nowhere comes to terms with the most striking fact about modern Irish Republicanism, which is that it recently engaged in a thirty-year-long war with profound sectarian dimensions, which markedly reduced Northern Protestant identification with Ireland? A conflict, moreover, in which Northern Republicans inflicted 60 per cent of the casualities while suffering only 13 per cent themselves. In short, a little more self-awareness would have been welcome.
The second volume is a different kettle of fish. In the first place, the scholarly culture of the authors employed is, in most instances, in a different league. The result is a lengthy, stimulating collection. The essays are of a generally high standard, though Peter Linebaugh might have noted that the Indian chief Joseph Brant—whose influence on Lord Edward Fitzgerald he notes—later became an Orangeman. That fact alone suggests a complexity, which he is anxious to avoid, in favour of a discourse heavily influenced by the Rousseanan noble savage model.
These articles in general hang together very well; most share a central theme of the republican creed of active citizenship as counterweight to the revival of neo-liberal emphasis on self-interest. Tom Bartlett elegantly summarises his case for Wolfe Tone as a conscious pioneer of Irish republicanism, though as he acknowledges, the very broad conception of ‘republicanism’ prevalent in the early 1790s makes this a complex project. Dorothy Thompson gives a clear-sighted and somewhat rueful account of the limitations of British republican sentiment and the gap between criticisms of individual royals and hostility to monarchy as an institution.
The central drawback of these articles is their tendency to gloss over many criticisms of republicanism. Jim Livesey’s clear-sighted account of the historical roots, achievement and operation of French republican tradition takes due account of the Frankfurt critique of the Enlightenment project—that it aspires to a total rationality which is not in fact attainable, and which can end in violence and despair. Livesey might well have addressed how this influences some features of French republicanism: the equation of the state with the general interest; the equation of French culture with universal civilisation; the refusal to recognise minority ethnic identities as legitimate; suspicion of the intermediate institutions advocated by ‘civil society’ theorists (including other contributors to this volume) on the grounds that sectional interests are necessarily divisive—which have led to occasional suggestions that the French Republic is heir to the centralising absolutist monarch. These are problems which Etienne Balibar has addressed in a very interesting fashion in recent years.
Priscilla Metscher provides an useful account of the Young Ireland and Fenian movements, thought it could have done with greater theoretical depth. At least in Metscher’s articles and other recent efforts, we are beginning to end the neglect of Young Ireland which is one of the great weaknesses of modern Irish historiography.
Patrick Maume’s article on the anti-deferential strain in late nineteenth-century nationalism, which he suggests enables constitutional nationalists as well as separatists to be viewed as ‘republican’, is exceptionally valuable but a little one-sided. It ignores the conservative, moderated, even deferential elements within the nationalist community and the question of whether some of these have played useful functions. I have tried to reconstruct elements of this tradition in my ‘Moderate Nationalism and the Irish Revolution 1916-23’ in the Historical Journal (September 1997). Wasn’t there something, after all, in the complaints of the ‘court’ party that the ‘country’ party irresponsibly ignored the requirements of government? Is it not the case that the relative success of the post-independence Irish state in maintaining democracy owes something to the traditions of professional administration inculcated in the last decades of the Union as well as to nationalist political campaigns? Isn’t much of the history of twentieth-century Ireland, as currently written, devoted to celebrating a civil service which (despite its own limitations) maintained standards of bureaucratic rationality despite the provincialism and populism of many of their political masters? Conservative nationalism had its faults (including insufferable arrogance and complacency about the poverty of so much of the Irish population and the plight of so many outcasts whose institutional maltreatment is still being exposed) but it is necessary to address such statements of its case as James Hogan’s Election and Representation or Tom Garvin’s 1922: Birth of Irish Democracy which argue, with a cogency which only those who have studied the Civil War can fully appreciate, that an emphasis on ‘active citizenship’ at the expense of the need to accept the authority of the ‘unrighteous majority’ and the dictates of bureaucratic rationality, almost reduced Ireland to rule by bandits. It is worth adding too that Republican relend was equally complicit a member of this institutional maltreatment.
Brian Hanley gives a valuable foretaste of his forthcoming study of the post-independence IRA, arguing that its changing attitudes reflected contextual adaptation and selective remembrance rather than a single enduring essence. He touches on such embarrassing details as the willingness of the late 1930s and early 1940s IRA to echo Nazi propaganda and the complaints of 1950s republicans that there was too little economic protectionism and literary censorship. It is, however, questionable whether the Saor Éire of the 1930s was really more left-wing than any of the explicitly Marxist republican groups which have appeared since the 1960s (as Hanley apparently believes) and a bit more attention to the alleged role of the official anti-partition campaign in legitimising the postwar IRA would not have gone amiss.

Paul Bew

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