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States and Nations

Bill Kissane

Northern Ireland: What is It? Professor Mansergh Changes His Mind, by Brendan Clifford, (A Belfast Magazine; Belfast July 2011.

A Political History of the Two Irelands: From Partition to Peace, by Brian M Walker, Palgrave MacMillan, 272 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0230361478

Towards the end of Saul Bellow’s classic novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet his jaded anti-hero, Mr Sammler, travels along New York’s ninety-sixth street and laments the modern preference for explanation in place of understanding. Nostalgia for the Europe of his youth leads him to conclude that when there is only question and answer there is no charm, and when there is no charm there is only question and answer: “the thing works both ways”. Bellow himself, although a member of the prestigious Chicago Committee on Social Thought, later declared “knowing the unknowable” the novelist’s truest avocation. This review compares two books, one of which assumes we know what Northern Ireland is, and another which doesn’t.

The Northern Ireland conflict has certainly led to a standard repertoire of questions and answers. Why did the Troubles break out? Why did they last so long? Why in this part of Ireland, not south of the border? Yet these questions and answers, indeed the question of origins (when did it all begin?) also raise that of what it is. Brendan Clifford thinks this question needs resolution before explanations of conflict or of peace can convince. Some scholars, focusing on institutions and political systems, have argued that the inbuilt demographic majority of Unionists combined with Westminster style practices created an inherently exclusive system which can be compared to polities such as Israel or South Africa. Yet these are states, unlike Northern Ireland. Alternative spatial concepts; a cultural “corridor”, an ethnic “frontier”, a “zone” of settler colonialism, rely on long-term non-institutional factors to explain what made Northern Ireland different. Yet partition clearly created the context where control over institutions and over others proved explosive. Clifford’s perspective on the troubles stresses the importance of this singular context. The book I compare it to, Brian Walker’s history of “The Two Irelands” thinks ethnic and religious factors sufficiently important on their own to compare two entities that were not equivalent units.

Clifford’s Northern Ireland:What is it? is a series of articles, not a book. What it lacks in organisation and primary research, however, it makes up for in intellectual penetration. The subtitle, “Professor Mansergh Changes his Mind” blames Nicholas Mansergh – “Irish historian” and “British administrator” ‑ for the growing tendency among historians to treat Northern Ireland as a state. Mansergh stands accused (not just for working against Irish neutrality between 1939 and 1945, but for being the intellectual grandfather of many historians in Britain who work on Northern Ireland but absolve Britain of responsibility for its troubles). They locate the origins of the troubles not in British policy disasters between 1919 and 1925 but in relations within Ireland. Clifford’s own explanation for why British democracy did not work in Northern Ireland stresses its very specific nature, not the product of political ambition, but the orphan of British statecraft. For Clifford it was precisely because Northern Ireland was neither a state, nor included in the workings of British democracy (due to an act of “supreme sacrifice” by Ulster unionists in 1920), that the Troubles happened. The British state’s generally successful combination of traditional legitimacy (through the unifying symbol of the Crown) and effectiveness (the workings of responsible government) was short-circuited in Northern Ireland. The “theatrical” show of British sovereignty could only be accepted by the minority if the “efficient” part of its constitution involved them in some meaningful way. Instead the political system froze on one line of division.

In the 1980s, Clifford publicly campaigned for the integration of Northern Ireland into British party politics, suggesting that one consequence would have been Catholics participating in Labour politics as Irish emigrant communities did in Glasgow and Liverpool. This unsuccessful plan could have been a way of “normalising” Northern politics. Since this assumes its politics to be exceptional, it may be useful to compare Clifford’s book with Brian Walker’s, which makes the opposite case. Here the comparison is with independent Ireland, whose ethnic and religious divisions were similarly characteristic of many European states created after 1918. Hence Walker employs a dual comparative perspective to normalise Northern Ireland’s experience. The book is the culmination of a variety of works that compare southern and northern experiences after 1920; whether in terms of formative violence and repression, the struggle for legitimacy, ailing economic fortunes, legal developments, the use of commemorative rituals and symbols, or social attitudes. This body of work has merits, but assumes that the question of what Northern Ireland was can be answered by looking south. Comparative history becomes cross-border history.

Walker begins in 1921 (when the Free State was established) not in 1920, an odd choice since so much violence immediately followed partition, especially in Belfast. He suggests that two post-partition “states”, with diametrically opposed relationships to London, actually developed similarly. North-south not east-west dynamics were decisive. Britain is given no major role in the history of either entity. Indeed the Troubles are blamed on the mutually hostile way identities developed North and South after 1920, and not on the demands placed on Northern Ireland as a consequence of the 1960s and the development of the welfare state in Britain. These demands had the inconvenient quality of posing the question of what Northern Ireland was. Rather than accepting that Northern Ireland fell short of British standards of democracy, blame spreads south. This is no more convincing than explaining the Irish civil war in 1922-23 on events in Belfast at that time. Nonetheless, Walker believes that Northern and Southern Ireland’s ethnic and religious divisions can both be compared to those of the European successor states which emerged after the collapse of empires in World War One. Yet as Clifford suggests, if Ulster Unionists did not really want the unit they controlled, neither its origins or status can compared to states that were the product of independence movements, such as Sinn Féin. Since the Irish Free State gradually became a state, it makes sense to see its political development through the prism of “state-building”, focusing on themes of democratisation, institutional reform, foreign policy, economic development, and constitution-making. Northern Ireland had much less scope in these respects. Rather we need to ask, as Clifford does; what Northern Ireland was for?

In fairness, Walker’s focus is on an area where parallels are strong: studying commemoration is a good means of tracing shifts in identity over time and these shifts have been shaped by cross-border pressures. He documents the evolution of exclusive identities on both sides of the border, showing the extent to which each was steadily reduced to its majority ethno-religious core, and compares how minorities fared along a number of indicators. His research challenges the claim made by former taoiseach Charles J Haughey at Queen’s University Belfast in 1962 that there was no unfair treatment of minorities in the Irish state and never could have been. The counter-evidence is the demographic decline of Protestants since 1921, and the role in this of Catholic laws such as the Ne Temere decree. Here detailed knowledge about both societies and their histories is shown. Given the current enthusiasm for political reform (including decentralisation), it is noteworthy that local power was more likely to be exercised in a discriminatory way in both entities. Yet differences also stand out. In Northern Ireland Catholic political disaffection was reinforced by material inequality. Protestant alienation from the southern state’s Catholic ethos was mitigated by a relatively strong position in commercial and professional life. Their grievances were not those voiced by the civil rights movement in the North in 1969 and did not extend to such issues as policing and the administration of justice.

Originally however, under the 1922 constitution, minority rights also meant institutional safeguards. It is ironic that the abolition of the Seanad is now sometimes opposed by Northern republicans who want a reformed second house for representation in the Oireachtas. It was designed in 1922 to provide for Unionist representation. The house was abolished in 1936 by de Valera’s government and reconstituted in 1937 with much less scope for minority representation. Westminster roots were not a firm foundation for minority rights, and their legacy in both “Irelands” seems to vindicate one theme of comparative research: the path-dependent quality of state institutions, especially British ones. Here there are grounds for comparison but Walker’s book is not really “political history” but a comparative study of the relationship between official identities and minority responses.

The book forms part of an established tradition of research on Ireland’s “double minority problem”. Part one, which compares attitudes to commemoration (such as that of St Patrick's Day or Remembrance Sunday), suggests that both political units were exclusive in their ethos, (even if “broadly democratic and tolerant”). Part two, with three chapters on developments since 1960, makes the case that the current peace has followed substantial modification of identities on both sides of the border. The approach is ultimately informed by the “cultural traditions” approach to the Irish question. Yet the nature of the units matters, for states can be inclusive, while identities are less so. While some scholars think ethnic differences primordial, the current dominance of ethnic conflicts is hard to explain outside an institutional and legal context in which different ethnic groups make their claims or feel unjustly treated.

Early cross-border histories, such as David Fitzpatrick’s The Two Irelands, focused on the challenges posed by the IRA to both jurisdictions after 1920. Does this suggest that state formation, with similar “birth pangs”, was comparable? This is certainly raised by the current controversies over the killing of Protestants in Cork in 1922. The problem is that anti-treaty republicans were also victims of the Free “State” and the Treaty division dictated its pattern of development. Walker’s comparison assumes that the division within Northern Ireland was also the most important cleavage in the independent state. Yet during its formative phase, the Protestant elite was on one side of the intra-nationalist cleavage and thus against the completion of the independence project by de Valera (the villain of this book). When that project found a resting point acceptable to both treaty sides, the Protestant identity became that more of a religious than a political minority, alienated by the state’s religious ethos but increasingly acquiescent in its statehood. In Northern Ireland politics and religion were never decoupled in this way. The challenge posed by minority alienation between 1920 and 1925 was foundational, and has remained so. That posed by the anti-treaty IRA was also foundational, but soon to be “corralled” within a framework of democratic politics. It is significant that the term “state” is used south of the border with a frequency comparable to societies with a strong state tradition, such as France or Turkey. The treaty split was also mainly about the status of the would-be state, and was overcome as part of a state-building process in which both sides shared. This option was not available to Northern Ireland. While Walker’s section on the Northern peace process use terms such as conciliation and compromise there is no discussion of this practice in the Free State, primarily because it was deployed to restore unity within nationalism.

A strong contrast between the formative years of both societies and post-1960s cultural developments is at the heart of Walker’s book. The modification of identities since 1960 is seen as a form of reconciliation, helping establish a shared future through a shared past. Yet while some commemorations show a shift to a more inclusive identity, those of 1916 and of the Battle of the Boyne don’t. Indeed it is hard to say whether changes in official (now cross-border) Ireland, really do indicate shifts on the ground. In his work on eastern Europe Tim Snyder distinguishes between mass historical memory and national memory, stressing that politicians and states usually try to appropriate the former for the latter. The result may radicalise or ameliorate, but the two are different, even when promoted by all sides as “national traditions” as in today’s Ireland. Clifford in contrast, sees the 1998 compromise not as product of shared histories but of a violent struggle which resulted in parity between Nationalism and Unionism as two distinct body politics in a transitional arrangement. “Parity of esteem” is thus a reflection not of a sense of shared history, but of a bifurcated society with two equal but separate communities. One can speculate as to whether culture or institutions mattered most. If institutions are primary, Walker asks why Sunningdale collapsed and the Belfast Agreement succeeded? Did Sunningdale simply come too soon? On the other hand, would there be a more inclusive culture of commemoration now had the Belfast Agreement not accommodated a minority which had acquired “self respect in Republican form” (Clifford’s phrase) by 1998.

Clifford is ultimately right to argue that explanations of conflict and of peace require an answer to the question Northern Ireland: What is It? Ethnic conflicts in their modern forms have become prevalent in a specific historical context, and democratic states are increasingly forced to accommodate the demands of their ethnic minorities. Walker sees exclusive identities as the source of conflicts and suggests that both entities were equally contaminated by them, even if “broadly” democratic. Clifford suggests that the Northern political unit itself created a logic for sectarianism unmediated by absorption into the workings of a wider democratic system. The fact that Northern Ireland was not a state makes such North-South comparisons problematic. Yet it is also important to stress that there is no general consensus in social science on what a state is. The issue is addressed in Gershom Gorenberg’s The Unmaking of Israel. He argues that as with human beings, contradictions not typologies ‑ such as whether Israel is a democratic or a Jewish state ‑ often determine historical development. Yet Gorenberg’s approach could exclude the Palestinian issue as a defining attribute of Israel, and it took this issue to really problematise the connection between Jewishness and the Israeli state. In Ireland the civil rights movement affected not just the North, but also problematised the connection between Catholicism and national identity, with enduring consequences south of the border. East-west relations were first central: North-South ones increasingly so. In this sense Walker’s book is of its time. This is not to compare the fates of minorities (Northern Catholics with Southern Protestants or Ulster Unionists with Palestinians) but to show that cross-border pressures have mattered. The danger is in exaggeration. The question now is not simply what type of political unit Northern Ireland is, but whether it can develop beyond foundational politics. The question the Republic faces is not just the erosion of its sovereignty, but what is it for. That in itself might be a spur to comparative history.