The Fateful Split: Catholics and the Royal Ulster Constabulary by Chris Ryder
The IRA at War 1916-1923 by Peter Hart
Peace in Ireland: The War of Ideas by Richard Bourke
|Reviewed By:||Paul Arthur|
|Reviewed in:||The Political Quarterly|
|Date accepted online:||24/03/2005|
|Published in print:||Volume 75, Issue 4, Pages 429-448|
Book Reviews: Ireland: Ideas of War and Thoughts of Peace
After more than thirty years of violence and with a kind of peace in place-on average only one conflict-related death per month in the period 2001-3 inclusive-it is not unreasonable to cry 'stop'. We are sated with books on the Northern Ireland conflict. Publishers must recognise that the law of diminishing returns must kick in sometime soon. So the keyword has to be relevance. In this instance all three pass the test because their backcloth is concerned with the 'Agreement Reached in the Multi-Party Negotiations' signed in Belfast on Good Friday 1998. I mention the official title, its place of birth and its religious date of birth in that order because all three titles-the 'Agreement', the 'Belfast Agreement' and the 'Good Friday Agreement'-are adopted as a form of ethnic shorthand. The present tense is concerned with the out-flow of that Agreement and, no matter how indirectly, the books under review address that outflow. All are well written although Bourke and Hart belong in the stellar division.
Yet, strangely, two of them are undersold in their very titles; and at first glance the third, at least in its subtitle, appears absurd and/or pretentious. To explain: Ryder's book is essentially a history of the security response to the conflict since the 1920s with its emphasis on the recent fundamental reforms in policing; and Hart's title belies its rich comparative sweep and its historiographic incisiveness. The problem lies with Bourke. Towards the very end he quotes one of the key players from the early 1970s, Ted Heath, who dismissed the problem as a form of atavism that had been discarded in most of Europe long ago-would that we could say that now! It is tempting to go for the simple nostrums and to reduce it all to the visceral, to pamphleteering and sloganeering. But in such simple epithets as 'What we have we hold' and in the sectarian football chant 'We are the people' resides a fundamental war of ideas. Bourke chronicles them forensically in what is a brilliant advocacy for the History of Political Ideas.
Ideas do matter, and often in a destructive manner. There has been no shortage of messianic leaders who have proclaimed the electricity of an idea whose time has come and who relied on Napoleon's dictum that the politics of the future would be the art of stirring the masses. The political establishment's response tends to be constricted. In the Northern Ireland context it was Heath's contemporary, the Tory journalist Peter Utley, who warned in 1975 that our political masters suffered from 'a blinkered empiricism, a philosophical and political narrowness of imagination about the passions that can move men in politics'. Further, he argued that the Ulster problem did not fit into the usual parameters of British political practice because 'in Ulster, the great permanent questions of political philosophy-the moral basis of authority, and of the right to resist authority, the relationship between law and force and that between nationality and political allegiance-were being debated'.
Utley serves as a precursor for Bourke and Bourke is the buckle that holds these three books together.
All three authors are conscious of the contemporaneity of the past in understanding the dynamics of conflict. Bourke quotes the signatories to the Good Friday Agreement that the 'tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering' as he sets out to view the 1998 accord 'as merely pointing to the possibility of a democratic settlement which could evolve in the course of operating the provisions of the Agreement' by locating the settlement in the wider context of political doctrines and their historical descent. That is not to succumb to the Irish propensity to plumb to historic depths but to recognise that the conflict was a 'product of a set of recent circumstances where the burgeoning of modern democratic expectations had collided with the absence of democracy' in Northern Ireland.
Hart's concern is with Irish revolutionaries as the inventors of modern revolutionary warfare in which the IRA's strength lay in its mobilisation of deep communal and personal loyalties through the primacy of localism and informal networks. In more recent times, as Bourke demonstrates, localism and informality were replaced by a cellular system and political technocracy. His is a series of ten essays, six of which have been published already, based on sixteen years of research. It would be tempting to dismiss this as bending the knee to the audit culture-just another damned publication to keep the RAE (or whatever is its Canadian equivalent) at bay-tempting but plainly wrong. These essays are of a piece and add to his considerable reputation built on an earlier brilliant book,
Both books could caricature Hart as a miniaturist. Certainly, he paints an incredibly detailed and intimate portrait of the structure and values of a revolutionary movement, but his real contribution is to enable us to understand why the IRA has endured and to explore the distance between violence and politics. Intimacy and generalities both count. In the former he rescues the marginalised-none more so than Irish-speaking drapers' assistants!-in terms of class, the cultural revival, gender and location. Their seizure of power marked in itself a political revolution. In the latter he recognises (quoting Richard English) that they had a 'complicated relationship to democracy'. Essentially they were ademocratic' rather than antidemocratic: indeed their tinkering in the democratic process has intriguing relevance to the present condition of Sinn Fein.
Further, he asserts, they perceived themselves to be martyrs rather than
Killing and dying was not the exclusive property of Irish revolutionaries. The security apparatus (particularly the police) have been in the front line since Northern Ireland was created. Chris Ryder, a journalist who has a specialist and practical knowledge of policing, sets out to trace the relationship between the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Catholic population of Northern Ireland. It was, of course, one of deep antipathy that underlined the absence of a democratic state. It is a story well told and is based on a careful reading of the relevant public archives. He is particularly good in setting policing in a dispassionate and (partially) comparative context. Like Bourke his motivation seems to have been sparked by the 1998 Agreement. His is a conventional piece of narrative history that traces the journey from being a police force to a police service-and again like Bourke he is tentatively optimistic.
Self-determination has been at the heart of the war of ideas. Basically, it means 'Let the people decide'. That is fine until we acknowledge that someone has to decide who are the people. At the very least, as Homi Bhabha has illustrated, there is a tension between 'the people' as both an object of political appeal and a subject of political authority, and that produces simultaneously assimilation and exclusion. In terms of the 'loyal' majority there has been the painful recognition that Northern Ireland post-1998, to quote Bourke, 'remained an integrated part of the United Kingdom, yet not an integral part of its politics'. Irish Republicans read the runes much earlier. In 1986 Gerry Adams spoke of 'republicanisation'. In short the constituency had to be stretched and broadened throughout the island. The outcome is plain to see.
Bourke asserts that the specific achievement of the Good Friday Agreement was 'the acknowledgement, or authorisation, of one supreme representative system of government by the various protagonists in Northern Ireland', namely the Northern Ireland Assembly represented in turn by the British government. That was no mean achievement. Militant republicanism and the wider shores of loyalism had come in from the cold. They were coaxed by the British and Irish governments and by the international community. The assumption was that they were to be tutored by the 'strong centre' of the Ulster Unionist Party and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). There were elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly in November 2003. These cast aside the strong centre and incidentally (
Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party is dominant in Northern Ireland but is being closely pursued by Sinn Fein (who have made significant advances in the Republic as well). If, to quote Robert Paine, 'political legitimacy is mainly the problem of getting people to listen to, or rather accept, what is said' this places a considerable burden on those who wrote the script in 1998. They might pay attention to Enoch Powell who argued that it was the duty of politicians to 'Read, read, read'. A good starting point would be