Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006, by Paul Bew, Oxford University Press, 652 pp, £35, ISBN: 978-0198205555
Paul Bew is an extremely intelligent, widely read, urbane, productive, original and extensively published historian with a sustained record of public engagement in politics. As an historian he professionally reads his way through multiple, and not just official, archives. He critically considers primary source materials and engages in sensible evaluation and criticism, for example in interpreting the by-elections in Ireland that preceded the Easter 1916 Rising. He corrects himself when he has been wrong. He treats history as a problem-solving discipline. He asks open questions of past events, explores primary and secondary literatures in the light of these questions and returns with a relevant explanation that enables the reader to see what drove his conclusions and to evaluate whether they are robust. On occasions he is not so open-minded, notably in his appraisals of Éamon de Valera and of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.
Bew cares deeply about factual accuracy, though in his preface to Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006 (hereafter The Politics of Enmity) he carefully does not claim impartiality, partly because he assumes such a claim would be treated as suspect in an historian of Ireland. There are some very minor mistakes in his book, but to err is human.(1) He is not impartial, but he is no blatant partisan. Partiality shows in methodological selection biases rather than in any deliberate distortions, in certain forms of empathy and estrangement, and in accepting some authors’ agendas rather than others’. Though these selective dispositions are evident, at least to me, all reasonable scholars should recognise that Bew has made extensive contributions to what is now to be treated as the historical record, not least by rescuing obscure sources, reinterpreting stale materials and significantly diversifying the sources usually considered in nineteenth and twentieth century Irish historiography.
Some partiality does not mean that The Politics of Enmity should be classed as polemical. It is without doubt the most reasonable, up to date, rational, liberal and accommodationist unionist history in a field crowded with rage, denial, undignified obsession, and contempt dressed up as common sense. The Politics of Enmity bears comparison with JC Beckett’s majestic The Making of Modern Ireland(2), though it is much more difficult for the beginner. It is distinctly superior to Roy F Foster’s Modern Ireland(3),especially in its treatment of the mid-nineteenth century and of Northern Ireland. That is not because The Politics of Enmity is more recent: it is because Bew is at home in both parts of Ireland and in Great Britain, and because he is more interested in explaining than condemning Irish nationalism. Whether he always does so correctly is another matter.
Bew especially enjoys extracting statements from the records which Irish nationalists should not have made – at least according to their own official doctrines. Thus he quotes a Fianna Fáil TD, Martin Corry of Cork East, in a parliamentary debate on the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1938, commending “storing up sufficient poison gas” on the border, waiting for a favourable wind before releasing it, and then following it.(4) This hare-brained plan to organise a coercive redemption of the national territory will be cherry-picked by unionist sympathisers. But others can play this game of outrageous quotation on cross-border relations and weapons of mass destruction. There is an almost exactly reciprocal but more recent story of proposed extermination, which Bew does not relate. In April 1986, the Reverend Ivan Foster, then the Northern Ireland assembly member for Fermanagh, speaking at the conference of the Democratic Unionist Party, recommended a nuclear strike on the Irish Republic. He argued that if Colonel Gaddafi’s safe haven for terrorists merited the Tripoli raid ordered by US president Ronald Reagan, then a nuclear strike by Britain on the Irish Republic was in order.(5) Deputy Corry and Reverend Foster shared the delusion that weapons of mass destruction could be used against their enemies without any negative fall-out for their constituents. These men exemplify the politics of enmity, albeit of the windbag variety; indeed they are almost comic illustrations of what Northerners rightly mock as “whataboutery”, that is the use of history as ammunition in oral combat. They remind us of what we need to leave behind politically, but we should beware of leaving the past simply to the custody of our historians, be they professional or amateur.
The first important selection bias which affects The Politics of Enmity is the chosen fields of concentration. The table below demonstrates that in pages per annum the book is strongly focused on the break-up of the Union, or, differently put, the formation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. Three times as many pages per year go to this theme as are granted to the initial impact of the Union, and twelve times as many as are devoted to independent Ireland from 1923 to 1966 and Northern Ireland under the Ulster Unionist Party’s long hegemony. Explaining the end of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland is therefore one of the book’s dominant ambitions. The Famine years earn an almost equal level of focus per annum so we may conclude that Bew is as interested in the events (and their interpretation) which he thinks fuelled secessionist Irish nationalism (notably the Famine and its aftermath). The nineteenth century, which we may take as 1789-1891, receives the lion’s share of the book: 360 pages of text. The twentieth, which we may take as 1891-2006, receives 194 pages. The ratio is nearly two to one.(6) The far past often receives greater attention among historians than the near past, sometimes on the unexamined assumption that the far past matters more in accounting for present outcomes. Another presumption is that we can analyse the far past with greater detachment.
To illustrate the power of these last two presumptions, which, to be fair, Bew does not explicitly articulate, consider a simple counterfactual. Imagine that Northern Ireland had been very fairly governed after 1923, that is with no discrimination in constitutional or statutory law or public or private policy, direct or indirect, against those of Catholic origin, or against those espousing nationalist or other non-unionist opinions. One consequence, assuming that comparative birth rates and death rates would have remained roughly as they were, is that there would have been far less Catholic out-migration, both absolutely and proportionally, than actually transpired, and by 1971 cultural Catholics and cultural Protestants would have reached demographic parity.(7) This counterfactual scenario should confirm that the near, rather than the far, past may be far more important in shaping both the intentions and the capabilities of enemies (and friends).
|Chapter title (abbreviated)||Years||Pages||Pages p.a.|
|Impact of the French Revolution||1789-1798||1-48 (48)||4.4|
|The Union||1799-1809||49-86 (37)||3.7|
|O’Connell – Emancipation||1810-1829||87-124 (37)||1.9|
|O’Connell – Repeal||1830-1845||125-74 (49)||3.3|
|Politics of Hunger||1845-1850||175-230 (55)||11.0|
|Fenian Impulse||1850-1875||231-301 (70)||2.8|
|Politics of the Gun||1919-1923||293-443 (50)||12.5|
Table 1.1. The Structure of The Politics of Enmity.
Equally, the facts of Ireland’s history, and their framing, rather than counterfactual speculations, refute the naive idea that we can be more detached about the far past.(8) Modern Irish history is decisively animated by whether Ireland’s institutional, economic and cultural development over the last four centuries is best understood in a colonial or postcolonial framework, or treated as typical or atypical of European anciens régimes.(9) The same may fairly be said about controversies over whether sectarianism has had an independent and fundamental causal importance in explaining the politics of enmity – one that exceeds in importance the national and ethnic differences between the imperial centre and its first colony and the ethnic and national differences within that colony. Where does The Politics of Enmity stand on these matters?
There are some clear clues rather than direct evidence. Bew’s book begins in 1789, that is with the impact of the French Revolution on Ireland, and not in 1609, or 1641 or 1688, or earlier. “Colony” and “colonial” do not appear in the index. “Sectarianism” does, with four sub-entries: “in 1798 rebellion”, “of the IRA”, “in north of Ireland”, and “O’Connell-Cullen correspondence”. This is “telling”, to use one of Paul Bew’s favourite expressions.
An index, of course, is not always a reliable guide to content, but other in-text references to Ireland’s colonial past have a distinct character. Either other historical figures make colonial diagnoses, on which Bew does not comment; or Bew puts colonial and its cognates inside “scare quotes”. Thus a passage in William Pitt’s speech in defence of the Union, delivered on January 22nd, 1799, included the following analysis: “[Ireland is] prey to the hereditary animosity of the old Irish and English settlers.” (10) That expression passes without comment, even though Pitt was a rather important person to be diagnosing a native-settler conflict as at the heart of the politics of enmity.(11) Shortly after, but in the same chapter, the structure of government under the Union is described thus: “[it was] implicitly authoritarian. The construction of the Irish government under a Lord-Lieutenant remained unchanged. The implication was stark; the Lord-Lieutenant in Dublin Castle was granted almost all the powers of colonial government without any significant restraint flowing from local representative structures […]; though, of course, the ‘colonialist’ aspect was mitigated by the responsibility of the Irish administration to the new Union Parliament.”(12) Readers may wonder why the quotation marks are required in the last part of the sentence but not the first; it seems they are not supposed to diagnose Ireland’s condition as colonial, but only as “colonial” in the eyes of nationalist partisans.
It is possible to read too much into the foci of concentration, phrasings and the usages of quotation marks. Bew has written or co-written many books on contemporary Northern Ireland and on independent Ireland, and so his concentrations in The Politics of Enmity may be simply a function of a desire to emphasise his most recent and novel contributions. Perhaps, but it was as a scholar of the nineteenth century, including of the Land War, and as a biographer of Parnell, that he made his initial professional reputation. Moreover, it is not difficult to see that two problems drive The Politics of Enmity – and have driven Bew’s work since he ceased to frame his questions directly within Marxism. The first may be posed as a question: “Why did the Union of Great Britain and Ireland not work?” The follow-up interrogation: “Why did the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland fail to work?”, is subordinate, at least in The Politics of Enmity, to Bew’s interest in the breakdown of the first Union, whence in my view the greater attention paid to the nineteenth century.
What is the answer? In brutal summary it is said to lie in the failure of British policy-makers to follow the counsel of Edmund Burke, that is to emancipate Catholics, until it was too late. His second and related problem may also be framed as a question: “What explains the power of Irish nationalism?” His answers to that question are indirect but may be fairly summarised as lying in the ideological power of modernised Roman Catholicism, in British policy errors (before, during and after the Famine) and in the failure of all political parties on our island, and its larger neighbour, to respond sufficiently to the conciliatory politics of John Redmond. In effect he then argues that there was nearly a repeat performance in the North later in the twentieth century. Irish Catholicism and Irish republicanism, North and South, precluded a politics of integration or reconciliation before the 1960s. The subsequent interaction of British policy errors and republican zeal then prevented an early resolution of sustained violent conflict after 1969. In précis form these are what readers will take to be Bew’s problems and answers.
The problems are genuine, and among the most important ones for historians of modern Ireland. His answers, however, are not compelling and do not fit well together. They do not benefit from any extended comparative analysis across places, as opposed to across Irish time. If (the Bew version of) Burke’s policy recommendations were right, then equal citizenship should have made the Union work. Logically the argument has several empirical implications. One possible conclusion is that equal citizenship never happened. In which case we have to ask why? Were colonial legacies, or Protestant sectarianism in Great Britain and Ireland, the critical obstacles to equal citizenship? Another possibility is that we must conclude that “equal citizenship” happened too late. This is the conventional wisdom, shared by Bew. Instead of emancipation being implemented with the Act of Union, it was delayed until 1829 when it was won through mass mobilisation and protest, though at the price of new class-based restrictions on the franchise.
Leaving aside the question of whether Catholic emancipation was politically feasible for Pitt and his allies – it was after all opposed by the Crown and the Protestant oligarchs in both countries – it is a fair question to ask whether this thirty-year interval can bear so much explanatory weight in accounting for the politics of enmity. The facts are such that one can argue with varying degrees of difficulty (a) that equal citizenship was emerging from 1793 (from the Catholic Relief Act onward), (b) that it emerged after 1829, or 1840 (when the Protestant monopoly of the administration of justice and of corporations was ended) or (c) that it has still not quite been accomplished (given the Act of Settlement). Whatever our judgment on the factual status of the move toward political equality in Ireland it nevertheless is not obvious that earlier reforms in Burke’s direction would have resolved, staunched or calmed the national question. It was the denial of a democratic solution to the national question, viz home rule, after Catholic emancipation, which helped fertilise the republican zeal which broke the Union. But even the constitutional nationalists whom the republicans displaced included many openly intent on achieving sovereign independence; for them, as Albert Venn Dicey noted, home rule was a stepping stone, not a final resting place.(13) Catholic emancipation did not appease either constitutional nationalists or republicans, and hard-line Protestant unionists observed that it encouraged them. Under the domination of the Ulster Unionist Party after 1921 equal citizenship was, of course, not applied in Northern Ireland, and whatever our judgments on the attainment of equal citizenship under British direct rule after 1972 it is clear that moves toward equality did not resolve the national question. The terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 included equality reforms, but if they had not addressed the national question then neither the SDLP nor Sinn Féin would have negotiated and endorsed the settlement.
Scepticism is also in order about other dimensions of Bew’s grand explanation of the failure of the Union. Of course there were errors, cycles and inconsistencies in British public policy over two centuries, but the sustained pattern of “error” suggests something structural was afoot rather than pervasive incompetence across a range of very smart and powerful people. Ireland was part of the Union, but not part of the British nation. Why? It was a security issue from the moment England became a European power and it remained so until 1945, and arguably even after. Ireland as a whole was administered differently and directly, in testimony to its still partly colonial status before 1914.(14) The church of the English settlers remained the established church until 1869. Its wealth included tithe-revenues paid by non-Anglicans. Ireland generated a consistently strong sequence of nationalist autonomy and independence movements before 1914. The natural question to ask is why was Ireland nationalist (in the main), while Scotland and Wales (in the main) were unionist? Was it because Ireland was (mostly) Catholic, and Scotland and Wales were (mostly) Protestant? But if so, why was that? Was it, relatedly, because the Liberal Party and the Labour Party successful mobilised in Scotland and Wales, but not in Ireland? But, if so, why was that? Was it because Ireland was (mostly) agrarian, whereas Scotland and Wales were more industrial? But if so why? Was it because Ireland and Ulster especially, unlike Scotland and Wales, were the sites of enduring settler colonial conquests in which native-settler animosities remained intact? Was it because there was a Scottish and English question in Ireland? Or a British question in Ireland? With the exception of the agrarian-industrial contrast these comparative questions are not posed in The Politics of Enmity, even for rebuttal.
What of Bew’s emphasis on republican zeal, under the Fenians, the Volunteers, the IRA, and the Provisional IRA? Its importance in breaking the first Union – and in modifying the second – cannot be denied, but it too has to be explained, rather than merely exhibited as an unmanageable shock or a disruptive cultural singularity. It also has to be appropriately compared with its loyalist counterpart.(15) The sons of Ulster who went to their deaths at the Somme were engaged in a cult of sacrifice for their nation in 1916 that was at least as emotionally and religiously intense as that of those who fought during Easter Week in Dublin and elsewhere – and the numerical scale of the sacrifice for the Crown was far greater.
Paul Bew is fully capable of and sometimes engages in comparative analysis. In trying to establish that multiple English “mainstream writers” were not racists toward the Irish during the Famine he observes that these writers pointed to the success of the Irish outside the island, especially in the United States.(16) He appears to concur with the substance of the argument. But the data are not then probed in the way that they might have been. What explains the comparatively better performance of the Irish (meaning the Catholic Irish, the Protestant Irish or the Irish?) outside of Ireland?(17) Was it the consequence of the land ownership system in Ireland, rooted in conquest and confiscation? Was it the religious discrimination against both Catholics and Protestant dissenters by the oligarchy and its largely Orange Episcopalian supporters? Was it exclusion from full citizenship? Or was it the failures of British nation-building? And are not all of these possible explanations linked to the legacies of settler colonialism? The distinct oddity of The Politics of Enmity is the absence of any focused discussion of either settler colonialism or British imperialism.
Bew has made an intellectual journey that many traversed in the twentieth century, that is from Marxism to moderation. His particular track has, however, been unusual. We may say that he left LA and has headed toward AL, that is he has gone from Louis Althusser(18) toward Arend Lijphart(19). These names may appropriately signify his intellectual starting and eventual resting points respectively. Bew began his intellectual career with theoretical (and practical) communist enthusiasm, rejecting Unionism with a big u, and Irish nationalism, with a small n and a big n. Now on the benches of the House of Lords, wholly deservedly in recognition of his contributions to political accommodation, he is arguably on his way to a full-throated endorsement of Lijphartian politics, that is power-sharing and bi-nationalism, the institutionalised recognition of British unionism and Irish nationalism. He just cannot quite bring himself to say so yet, and we may wonder why.
Let us begin with LA. The French communist philosopher Louis Althusser was the guru of the ’68ers in the British academy and Bew must be understood as a member of that cohort. He references Althusser just once in The Politics of Enmity, in a footnote where he mildly castigates those, including the young Tony Blair, who saw progressive potential in the Northern Ireland conflict in the 1970s.(20) Yet Althusser constitutes more than a footnote in Bew’s own development.
Althusser brought structuralisme to Marxism, and sought to redefine historical materialism through a series of denials, based on a “symptomatic” reading of Marx’s texts, which, roughly speaking, enabled him to extract what he wanted from Marx’s writings and to anathematise what he did not. So, denial one, he declared Marxism was not a “humanism”. That is, it was not concerned with humans’ motivations, volitions, or meanings but rather with their roles in social structures, as “bearers” of production relations. The late Paul Bew is as distant from this austere stucturalism as one can imagine: he asks, for example, of Captain William Henry O’Shea “Was he, in short, a wittol?”(21)
Althusser secondly denied that Marxism was an “historicism”. That is, it was not teleological; nor did it guarantee an end to history, that is a consummation in advanced communism. History has no subject, Althusser said. It is instead, he declared, more obscurely than usual, “a process without a subject”. This doctrine would put most Irish historians out of business, since they excel in subjects without processes, but that is where Paul Bew now finds himself, emphasising the chaotic and inchoate, notably during 1798, 1919-21 and since 1966 – and not entirely without cause.
Denial three, Marxism was not, according to Althusser, an “essentialism”. Social formations or modes of production do not have “essences” or “centres”; indeed, they are “decentred”. Social formations were to be understood as a combination of “invariant practices” – economic, political, ideological – arranged in a hierarchy in which “the economic” is dominant only “in the last instance”. Social formations and modes of production, we may note, scarcely register in The Politics of Enmity. They were once Paul Bew’s theoretical bread and butter.
There was one further important denial issued by Althusser: Marxism was not an “economism”. Economic determination in the last instance, remarkably, did not do anything more than determine which practice (political, ideological, or economic) was to be dominant in any given social formation. It could determine, for example, that the political was dominant over the economic! With causal determination of that kind materialists were free to be much less materialist, though not many exercised the discretionary right: the young Bew did. The late Bew is what the Althusserians would have called “politicist”: that is his history is so relentlessly political, high-political, that economic and social structural matters get drowned out in the dumping of the Marxist bathwater.
Althusserian Marxism was part of an intellectual vortex from which few returned sane, alive or Marxist. But though its prose deserves extinction it had some beneficial by-products. It encouraged Marxists to depart from a resolute focus on technology and on economic development and to treat political and ideological conflicts seriously – rather than as mere expressions of the functional requirements of the mode of production. The vocabulary and styles of Althusserian Marxism suffused the early works of Paul Bew, especially those he co-authored with Peter Gibbon and Henry Patterson.(22) Althusserian Marxism was less evident in Bew’s professional historical monographs, which showed he could write with clarity and without the opacity of Parisian high theory. Indeed, over time his writings ceased to have an obvious Marxist flavour, though as late as 1997 he and his co-authors were dropping comradely footnotes toward Proinsias De Rossa.(23)
A full appreciation of The Politics of Enmity requires an understanding of Paul Bew’s relations with Marxism in Ireland circa 1966-1991. Most Marxists in and most Marxist analysts of Ireland were “Green”, that is they aligned with (the progressive) dimensions of Irish nationalist and republican criticisms and attacks on British imperialism or the British state. But where did the loyalist working class fit in such analyses? The backlash against the civil rights movement, the paramilitary campaigns of the UVF and the UDA and the new unionist and loyalist political organisations that mushroomed in the early 1970s were grassroots phenomena. Loyalist marchers and paramilitaries in parka jackets protested against the unionist establishment and the “treacherous” Westminster government. They violently rejected efforts to reform “their” police. Some executed pogroms. It was pretty difficult to argue that these Ulster Protestant workers were closet Irish nationalists, who had had their national preferences manipulated by capitalists and landlords. Althusser’s cumbersome theory of ideology and ideological state apparatuses was never deployed to make such a case.
Bew rejected Green Marxism – especially its presumption that a united Ireland was the best means to socialism. He maintained that Protestant working class resistance to a united Ireland was autonomous of ruling class suasion or manipulation. He did not, however, pander to the most reactionary traits in unionist and loyalist culture. Unlike some of the membership of the British and Irish Communist Organisation (B&ICO), and its acolytes, he did not indulge in “Orange Marxism”.(24) The latter slipped into the view that the Union was more important than working class union, celebrated the benefits of British rule in Ireland and elsewhere; justified, or denied, discrimination against Catholics and called for hard-line measures against the IRA, though not against loyalist paramilitaries.
The B&ICO was not Bew’s home, to his credit.(25) The Workers Party, formerly Sinn Féin The Workers Party, formerly Official Sinn Féin, was the final resting place for many of Ireland’s Red Marxists. In the 1980s its growth gave independent Ireland the distinction of having the only communist party in western Europe that was increasing its vote share – admittedly never above 5 per cent. But the party collapsed in 1992 as part of the worldwide self-immolation of Marxist parties after the Soviet implosion. The Workers Party virulently rejected traditional Irish nationalism, which it saw exemplified in Provisional Sinn Féin. Bew was a key influence. Organised throughout Ireland, the party declared itself more interested in working class unity than in particular national boundaries. However, it kept its IRA, the Official IRA, in being far longer than many of its members admitted, or knew, and its IRA did not decommission its weapons after it ended the use of arms. The reasons are not entirely clear. Organisational preparation for an October revolution in Ireland was probably not the dominant factor.
The key doctrinal feature of Red Marxism in Ireland (c 1966-1991) was its conviction that the constitutional question, that is the national question, was secondary. Paul Bew, Peter Gibbon and Henry Patterson declared that “There is nothing inherently reactionary about the Protestant working class or, for that matter, a national frontier which puts Protestants in a numerical majority”.(26) Northern Ireland’s membership of the United Kingdom should be preserved – pending global socialism. What distinguished Bew and his colleagues from the men from the B&ICO, as well as from the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, was their attitude toward “the minority community”, whom they usually called Catholics. They acknowledged and condemned discrimination, and opposed repressive measures against them. They also thought that their nationalism would diminish radically if that happened.
They had an account of partition: it was rooted in the uneven development of capitalism in Ireland: the “stark reality” of the contrast between “bustling progressive industrial Ulster” and “backward”, “stagnant”, “peasant southern Ireland”.(27) Uneven development flowed not from imperialist divide and rule policies but from different historical settlement patterns and ensuing modes of production. Bew’s co-author Peter Gibbon claimed that there were different consequences to the English and Scottish colonisations of Ireland, which led to different “modes of production” (a rather loose usage of the concept of mode of production). In The Origins of Ulster Unionism Gibbon maintained that Southern landlords acquired huge estates, while northern colons were settled with smaller parcels of land and capital, and that commercial textile production paved the way for the development of capitalism in Ulster.(28) This story is not present in The Politics of Enmity. Nor is it there in some residual form: it just seems forgotten.
Bew, Gibbon and Patterson maintained that the economic divergence between North and South, and the different political interests to which it gave rise, accounted for the conversion of eighteenth century Presbyterian republican nationalists into nineteenth century Protestant unionists and, ultimately, explained partition. Uneven development was more important in explaining Protestants’ politics than their relatively superior economic position within what became Northern Ireland. Sections of the (so-called, they said) Protestant labour aristocracy were progressive; and though discrimination existed, Protestants had also earned their privileged positions through possession of superior skills.(29) Divergent economic interests were reinforced by sectarianism, but this phenomenon was considered of secondary importance. “The role of sectarianism was less in founding the state [of Northern Ireland] than in influencing the form that it took.”(30) The resistance to the nationalist demand for Home Rule was not simply an “Orange” affair but part of a much wider coalition of social forces, including a non-Orange labour aristocracy and the explicitly anti-Orange ideologists of liberal unionism.(31) Sectarianism developed independently of manipulation, even if the Unionist bourgeoisie and elements of the British ruling class cheerfully exploited it .
Bew and his colleagues also argued that Great Britain’s attitude towards partition was much more flexible than Irish republicans asserted.(32) The interests of the bulk of the colonists (or their descendants) and (some) of the imperialists diverged – to use language they avoided. The former wanted partition, not the latter. Leading members of the British ruling class (the Liberals) were prepared to concede Home Rule to Ireland in 1886, 1893 and 1911-14; and during 1919–21; and both the Liberals and Conservatives in the 1920s were more interested in ensuring a moderate (rather than republican) government in Dublin than in partitioning Ireland. The British policy elite remained flexible. Churchill considered abandoning Northern Ireland in 1940 in return for Ireland’s participation in the Allied war effort.(33) (The offer de Valera received was rather like that given to Redmond in 1914: trust us, you can have what you want after the war is over – and that is one reason it was not accepted.)
The leading Red Marxists, strongly influenced by Bew, therefore rejected any theory of imperialism as an explanation of Britain’s role in Ireland and even more vehemently the idea that the Irish nationalist struggle was “anti-imperialist”. They argued that it was incredible to regard Britain as the obstacle to Irish unity; indeed for some of them the British government was regarded as a party to the “plot” to reunite Ireland. Bew maintains this theme in The Politics of Enmity, treating Harold Wilson and Roy Jenkins as extremely keen on withdrawal, but blocked by the Irish government and by officials in London and Dublin.(34) The obstacle to Irish unification for Bew and his colleagues was the resolute opposition of Ulster Protestants, whose loyalists were at their most belligerent when the Union was under threat (in 1912, 1920–5 and 1974).(35) The militant Irish republicanism of the late 1960s and early 1970s was held culpable for unleashing sectarian pogroms and ruling out more fruitful socialist strategies.
Bew and Patterson, despite their own extensive raking in the Stormont archives, argued that partition was, in principle, compatible with progressive politics. Though the Stormont regime had been reactionary, “the problem of the involvement of the British state in Northern Ireland [lay] not in its existence but in its specific forms”.(36) We might say that just as the late Bew believes that Pitt might have produced a more progressive Union so the young Bew believed that Stormont could have produced a more progressive second Union.
The Stormont regime, in his Marxist reading, resulted from an alliance between a dominant populist faction of the ruling class and sectarians among the Protestant working class. The alliance was facilitated by the unreliability of the British state as a unionist agency and was fostered by the successes of Sinn Féin during 1919–20. Stressing the heterogeneity of Protestants, Bew, Gibbon and Patterson argued that significant sections of the Protestant working class were not wedded to the Protestant cross-class alliance – though they were committed to the Union. In certain circumstances, such as the outdoor relief riots in Belfast in 1932, some Protestants were capable of showing class militancy in alliance with Catholic workers. But the Stormont government then reacted by visibly and ritually excluding Catholics. Yet, so we were told, discrimination was not an instrument used to delude proletarian fools; nor a justifiable reaction to republicanism – the implicit and sometimes explicit B&ICO line. Instead it was a logical response by the capitalist state, given sectarian conditions, to the possibility of class conflict.(37) This is a style of thought that Bew no longer exhibits. He no longer believes that political elites operate according to the diktats of functional capitalist rationality.
Bew, Gibbon and Patterson argued that the crisis of the 1960s was not caused by economic modernisation. Instead the liberal turn under Terence O’Neill was a political response to significant electoral successes by the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) in 1958 and 1962. Bew insisted that secular and progressive forces were dominant within the Protestant working class in the 1960s; a large proportion of the Protestant working class were “not the dupes of Orangeism … but were influenced by a secular ideology of opposition to regional deprivation, articulated by the NILP”.(38) The British government exaggerated the degree to which O’Neill could or was willing to reform sectarianism and mistakenly supported him rather than the real progressive force, the NILP.
The theme of “Marxism for the Union” was visible in all this work. Given the resilience of Protestant working class opposition to a united Ireland, it followed that progressive forces could only do well when the Union was safe. Marxists should therefore support the Union; and reforms to improve the position of the Catholic working class should not, therefore, be linked to the national question(39) – indeed, there should be no Irish dimension. Progressive periods in Northern Irish politics, it was claimed, were associated with radical surges in Great Britain(40) – which presumably means that the Liberal government of 1905-14 and the Labour governments of 1966-70 and 1974-9 did not count as such. Irish nationalists and republicans, in this perspective, could be undermined by removing sectarian inequalities and ending the repressive regime that governed life in the ghettos. “Primacy, therefore, should be given not to advocating an ‘independent Ulster’ or ‘complete integration’ solutions but rather to reducing the extent of divisions within the masses themselves [through] the construction of a progressive alliance to reform the state and create the best possible conditions for the development of class struggle.”(41)
Bew’s analyses of the public-policy trajectory of the British state, intra-Unionist divisions within Stormont, and of Protestant resistance to a united Ireland were often adept, subtle, and empirically supported. They recognised the difficulties that Marxists have faced with national questions. But they could not solve them – indeed they exhibited them. The autonomy of nationalism and ethnicity from economic and class politics is perhaps the fundamental challenge to Marxist accounts of politics. As Frank Parkin put it in his sharp and wonderfully funny book Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique, ethnic or national solidarities are no less meaningful and no less fundamental than solidarities based on people’s position in a matrix of productive forces and relations of production. These solidarities may arise from a common culture, religion, language, shared historical experience, and multiple permutations of these variables. National or ethnic solidarities need not, however, be rooted in objective economic conditions, or in objective interests rooted in such conditions. There has been no linear relationship between Irish nationalism and the prosperity (or otherwise) of Catholics under either Union (1800-1921; 1921-). And class unity and class conflict have been much less important for Orange workers than their non-class interests. Their class consciousness has been as exclusionary toward Catholics as it has been usurpationary toward employers.(42) Relatedly, nationalism has no necessary relationship with capitalism, though its spread may be connected with industrialisation.(43) In the Ireland of the last two centuries, nationality and ethnicity have been more binding and explosive forms of solidarity than class.
The Politics of Enmity, tellingly,is not about class enmity, though class receives its subdued due from time to time, especially in subtle, informed and revealing accounts of the preferences and resentments of politicians. Political attitudes and voting behaviour in Northern Ireland (and Ireland before 1914) correlated far more closely with ethnicity (or religion) than with class. One comparative historical study of the relative influence of religious background (or ethnicity) and class on party support in Belfast in the 1960s, not cited in The Politics of Enmity, found that religious background exerted six times the influence of class.(44) Richard Rose’s Loyalty Survey, also not cited in The Politics of Enmity, conducted in 1967–8, showed that while the difference between middle class and working class Protestants’ support for the constitution of Northern Ireland was 4 per cent, and the difference between the Catholic classes was 2 per cent, middle class Catholics and Protestants differed by 36 per cent, and working class Protestants and Catholics by 30 per cent.(45) Support for the NILP existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but Bew and Patterson exaggerated its appeal. Its best share of votes cast was an apparently impressive 26 per cent in 1962, but it never managed to attract the support of more than 8.5 per cent of the total electorate. Its occasional moderately high vote share owed much to nationalist and republican abstentionism and the large number of uncontested seats between 1921 and 1969. (In 1958, a staggering 46.2 per cent of seats were uncontested.) Moreover, the NILP’s core support in Belfast came predominantly from Catholics – suggesting that working class Catholics were more socialist than working class Protestants, though Catholic support for the NILP probably owed more to its role as a parliamentary opponent of the Ulster Unionist Party. When offered a choice between nationalists and the NILP, Catholics preferred the former, and most Catholics were never likely to transfer their loyalties en masse to the NILP because the party, while less prejudiced than the UUP, was, after all, unionist, and, from 1949, solidly pro-partition. The NILP had little to say about Catholic grievances about discrimination, favoured strong measures against the IRA, and its leadership had a strong Protestant cultural ethos. Two of its four Stormont MPs elected in 1958 were Protestant lay preachers. The party split over the (Protestant) issue of Sunday closing in 1965. The Protestants who supported the NILP were never dominant in unionist politics. In Rose’s Loyalty Survey, seven times as many Protestants preferred unionist parties to the NILP. The weakness of Protestant working class support for the NILP is telling, because after 1949 that support involved no stark conflict between their national identification and their class interests.
The class analyses and hopes of the young Paul Bew were suffused with wishful thinking, though much less so than those of most other Marxists. Revealingly, Bew and his colleague Patterson acknowledged that the NILP and other allegedly progressive forces – the Walkerites at the turn of the century, the Midgleyites in the 1930s, and the Workers Party in the 1980s – could only do (modestly) well among Protestant workers when the national question was not on the agenda. The truth, in short, is mundane. In Northern Ireland (and historic Ulster, and pre-partition Ireland) class divisions were not as politically serious as other divisions – or enmities, that is those based on nationality, ethnicity and religion. The class divisions that are politically salient today in Northern Ireland occur within rather than across national communities, as can be seen in the support bases for Sinn Féin and the DUP compared with the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party. There is no denial of these propositions in The Politics of Enmity.
Some wishful class analysis was not surprising in a Marxist. What was more striking in Bew’s work, and what has followed into his later writings, is his determination to reject, almost without discussion, any comparative parallels with colonial societies to explain the politics of enmity in Ireland or to treat British imperialism as an independent causal force in explaining Irish politics (even though the analysis of colonialism and imperialism need carry no Marxist or Leninist burdens). In The Politics of Enmity Bew refers, rather ferociously, in a footnote to the “glib and deeply unserious application of the so-called Algerian analogy” to historic Ulster, and recommends for therapy “the powerful and impressive work of one of the great modern Anglophone scholars of Algeria, Hugh Roberts”. (46) The reference is to Northern Ireland and the Algerian Analogy: A Suitable Case for Gaullism?, in which Roberts targeted the South African and then Oxford political scientist Bill Johnson, who had argued that the Britishness of Northern Ireland was as much a myth as the Frenchness of Algeria, and that Ulster Protestants were analogous to the European colons of Algeria.(47)
Colonial comparisons clearly hit neuralgic points with Bew. There is an article waiting to be written comparing French Algerian intellectuals with British Ulster intellectuals, and one can imagine various titles, “Pieds Noirs and Bowler Hats: Albert Camus and Louis MacNeice” for the literary and “Communists and Colonialism: Louis Althusser and Paul Bew” for the political and philosophical journals. Bew and Roberts, of course, are right that there are many differences between Northern Ireland after 1921 and Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s. But they are wrong to ignore the multiple similarities between British state-building failure in Ireland and French state-building failure in Algeria, which have been the subject of some of Ian S Lustick’s major works.(48) In each case the outlying territory (Ireland, Algeria) failed to be assimilated into the political culture of the dominant political community; in each case the native populations (Catholics and Muslims) were subjected to massive land expropriations, to the benefit of (British and European) settlers; in each case the relevant settler community formed the core of anti-democratic challenges to the political system when it appeared to be willing to make substantive concessions to the natives (in 1911-14 in Ireland, and during 1955-61 in Algeria). In one case the descendants of the settler community were powerful enough to ensure that part of the outlying region remained within the metropolitan political system (six of the counties of historic Ulster) whereas in the other they were not able to do so (none of Algeria was kept for those who believed it was French). These parallels escape Bew’s and Roberts’s attention.
In The Politics of Enmity Bew pays far more attention than his young self to sectarianism and to the important role that Orange sentiment, especially among lower-status Ulster Protestants, played in opposition to Catholic emancipation and to the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland – a church memorably described by Macaulay in 1839 as “established and maintained by the sword … producing twice as many riots as conversions …[and] whose ministers were preaching to desolate walls”.(49) But Bew remains strongly inclined to see the exclusivist, sectarian and triumphalist nature of Ulster Protestantism from the 1880s onward as a mirror-reaction to the exclusivism, sectarianism and triumphalism of nineteenth century Irish nationalism. What also remains persistent is his disposition to regard Ulster Protestants and the Union as on balance progressive, compared with the alternatives.
The young Bew failed to (or did not want to?) register the full importance and durability of ethnicity, and sought to downplay, bypass or ignore national or ethnic or religious demands and fears; and, on occasion, appeared to acknowledge the importance of just one community’s national, ethnic and religious demands and fears, and not that of the other. Implicit in his writings, after all, was the assumption that Irish nationalism among cultural Catholics ought to be conjured out of political existence, largely through economic reforms and policies. Ought implies can. Why could not the same be done with British nationalism in Ireland, especially Ulster Unionism? It was, it is implied, made of sterner stuff and had to be humoured. Bew, of course, argued that class solidarity or a progressive politics of equal citizenship could be achieved by the removal of structural inequalities between Catholics and Protestants. This thinking was certainly progressive, but the blind spot was to think that such policies would resolve the national question. Social equality, equality of opportunity and affirmative action are desirable and worthy goals and would have gone some way toward redressing grievances, yet a considerable leap of faith was required to envisage Sinn Féin and SDLP voters, and several thousand IRA militants and ex-prisoners, surrendering their nationalist aspirations just for jobs, or for better jobs – in 1975.
The imaginative political settlement that is currently working has required no surrender of anyone’s national identity or aspirations. That is wise. National identification cannot be easily bought or sold among peoples living on what they regard as their homelands. The point applies, of course, as much to unionists as to nationalists. Material shifts in prosperity have indeterminate effects on nationalism. Thus the new-found prosperity of the Celtic Tiger has led to no noticeable shift toward Irish nationalism among Ulster Protestants, while Northern Irish Catholics are far more overtly nationalist today in their party identifications than they were in the 1960s, when they were much less well off . The tendency of peoples to resent and resist being ruled by those deemed aliens or outsiders appears to operate independently of economic variables.
The young Paul Bew, like most Marxists and many liberals, inclined toward “an unwarranted exaggeration of the influence of materialism upon human affairs”.(50) This habit of thought lingers in the mature Bew, but it is fading. Exaggerated materialism lay at the heart of the uneven-development explanation of partition. If this mechanism had been dominant, then only the industrial areas of Antrim and Down should have remained in the UK, and cultural Catholics living within these areas should have been (or have become) as unionist as their Protestant neighbours. Conversely, Protestants from outside the Lagan valley should have been (or have become) as fierce Irish nationalists as their Catholic neighbours. Instead, conflict in Ulster and Northern Ireland (as elsewhere) took place without respect for economic developmental boundaries. That Ulster was economically more developed than the rest of Ireland in the nineteenth century also needs to be qualified, as Bew observes in The Politics of Enmity.(51) The comparison applied, at best, to Ulster east of the Bann (three counties), and even then was relevant primarily for the Lagan valley, north of the Mountains of Mourne and south of the Glens of Antrim. Since partition, economic unevenness between and within the two parts of Ireland has varied considerably, but with no obvious effect on political attitudes, differences or enmities.
The national nature of the Northern Ireland question, and of “the Irish question” (or “the British question in Ireland”) which preceded it, were and are better able to explain Ireland’s armed and verbal enmities better than class conflict – however disguised or displaced. Feasible prescriptions for repeal or home rule before 1914 or for Northern Ireland after 1920 required that the national question be tackled directly, rather than wished out of existence or resolved through force in favour of one party. They required ways of protecting as well as transcending the rival national identities on the island. Recognition of the power of these arguments will take any intelligent and open-minded leftist from Louis Althusser towards Arend Lijphart. It is a tribute to Paul Bew’s non-sectarianism that this is the path he has taken. He has not thrown out his Marxist bathwater to don an Orange sash; he has become an active agent of bi-national reconciliation.
Arend Lijphart famously commends “consociation”, that is cross-community executive power-sharing, proportional representation, community autonomy and veto rights as institutions for deeply divided places where there is a politics of enmity based on nationality, religion, ethnicity or language. Consociation helps establish and maintain democracy where there might otherwise be political systems of domination punctured by civil war.(52) In our reconstructed island consociation goes by the name of “power-sharing” . Bew accepts its necessity, and also knows that it is not enough to end enmity in and over Ireland.
As a prescriptive formula consociation is insufficient in the presence of rival nationalisms precisely because these put in doubt the stability of the territory over which power is sought. For power-sharing to work amid rival nationalisms requires further agreements, not just on the definition of the territory in question but on sovereignty, and on how it might change, and, in our case, requires cross-border political institutions of a confederal or federal character to link the nations divided by partition. Institutional “bi-nationalism” is required, not just power-sharing. “Lijphartian bi-nationalism” has long been articulated by many, including this reviewer. There is, however, nothing personal in Bew’s reluctance to come out as a bi-national consociationalist.(53) What may better explain his reluctance is his disciplinary background rather than his past political commitments.
He is an historian within a politics department, but he is not a political scientist. Just as importantly, he is not an institutionalist. Readers of The Politics of Enmity would be hard-pressed, without supplementary guidance, to give an accurate account of the formal institutions of Grattan’s Parliament, of Ireland under the Union, of independent Ireland, of Northern Ireland between 1920 and 1972, of Northern Ireland under direct rule, or indeed of Northern Ireland since 1998. (Bew may be excused for not giving us a full account of the institutional scene since the spring of 2007.) We do not even get a good account of the details of all the Home Rule bills – and acts.(54)
He is interested in political ideas, but not as much in detailed ideas about institutions, or in formal institutions and their impacts. The preface correctly tells us that the book’s theme is the “animosity” between the “Protestant British – both on the British ‘mainland’(55) and in Ireland itself – and the Catholic Irish”, and about “the ideas and attitudes which underpin that conflict”.(56) The ex-Marxist is now interested in the discourses of political elites, and in their machinations in “high politics”; he is no longer concerned to show that these derive, however indirectly, from the workings of whatever may be dominant in the last instance or from the imperatives of the class struggle. He is not, however, especially interested in the legal and political “superstructure” within which these discourses flourish or rot. That may explain why he ignores the works of so many constitutional lawyers and political scientists without which, in my view, one cannot fully understand the politics of antagonism of the last two centuries – and before. But here he is true to the profession of history in Ireland on both sides of the partition line, in which social science, even past social science, is not much cited.(57)
Differently put, an institutionalist perspective, amid mobilised nationalities, can reasonably claim to account better for the evolution of the politics of enmity in Ireland’s past than a narrative built around sectarianism and policy incompetence. Once certain institutions are locked in, they may trap political agents who would rather, as the saying goes, start from somewhere else. Institutions shape what discourses live or die; and institutional changes have consequences, intended and unintended, which breathe life into old ideas or give new ones better prospects of survival. They shape perceptions of what is possible and unlikely.(58)
The Protestant Crown vetoed Catholic emancipation in 1800-1; and so did a second chamber of Protestant landlords, in alliance with the willingly bribable Protestant oligarchs of Ireland. Pitt could not deliver Ireland’s entry into the Union on Burke’s terms because of the institutional structure of the existing Union. It took a major peace-time mobilised threat to change that structure.(59) Subsequently, under the Union, the institutions of plurality rule and the expansion of the suffrage – after the second and third electoral reform acts – created a two-party system in Ireland (of Nationalists vs Unionists), which squeezed out the Liberals. As the party which had lost out in Ireland, they were more available for an alliance with Irish nationalists, though they were only keen on the idea when they needed Irish MPs for government formation. The unreformed House of Lords then blocked Irish home rule demanded by Irish nationalists – who were only able to put their demand formally on the agenda when they achieved pivotality in the House of Commons after the reform acts. The democratisation of the UK’s constitution and its institutions therefore fertilised the Irish national question, even if it did not cause it. The Unionists rallied behind the non-democratic institutions – the Crown and the Lords. A Union State, which had an indivisible conception of sovereignty (albeit one that rested in the “Crown-in-Parliament” rather than the people), proved incapable of federalising itself to accommodate democratic Irish nationalism. It is odd that the power of undemocratic and unitary institutions in Great Britain before 1914 receives such little attention among revisionist historians of Ireland.(60)
Bew has not endorsed Lijphart, if I am right, because of his disciplinary formation, not because of any reluctance to give credit where it is due, or for fear of some kind of theoretical surrender. Released from his former Marxist commitments he has gravitated to the Cambridge school of “high politics”, in which he was educated, and in which he excels. In this school politicians are generally treated cynically, as ambitious and opportunistic schemers. Virtuosity is recognised and kudos granted to the historical researcher who can show the widest gaps between public postures and private beliefs. In a sense this is a Pareto-Marxism: ideas are weapons in the arsenal of the ambitious, mere rationalisations of power drives and appetites. Thus Bew unmasks O’Connell, Parnell, Carson, Craig and many others as players in the game of high politics, and as more calculating (and miscalculating) than their publicly professed commitments would suggest.(61) Just as no officer is a hero to his valet, no politician is a hero to a Cambridge historian of high politics.(62) There is, however, one major exception to this pattern in The Politics of Enmity: Bew pays constant homage to Edmund Burke, a trope to which I will return.
The second reason that Bew cannot give a full-throated endorsement of Lijphart and bi-nationalism is because he believes it has benefited the extremists in Northern politics, the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Féin. These parties now co-govern from Stormont. They have displaced the Ulster Unionist Party, which Bew advised, and the SDLP, from the leaderships of their respective communities – though both parties remain in the cabinet. It is, I suspect, psychologically very difficult for Paul Bew to appreciate the class characteristics of Northern Ireland’s current government. It is a cross-national coalition under the domination of the leaderships of each national community’s most working class party! It is also painful for him, and many others, to accept that this coalition is necessary, with all its difficulties, to close the cycle of enmity, because it offers the best prospects of an enduring release from our violently antagonistic past.
Though there will doubtless be some troubles ahead – notably over policing powers – it is as moderated parties that the DUP and Sinn Féin share power. Most now agree that restrained chuckling is better than fighting. The Politics of Enmity was finished some time in late 2006, when its author found it hard to accept that the two sovereign governments, as well as the electorate of Northern Ireland, were about to resolve the outstanding formalities between British and Irish nationalists through the instruments of the Free Presbyterian minister Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, the former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA. Instead Bew wrote of the making and remaking of the Good Friday Agreement: he has a book with that title advertised in print, which I have not yet read. It would, I suspect, have been better to have delayed its issue and written of the making and fulfilment of that agreement, through minor modifications. Bew’s impatience can be excused: the extended path to the implementation of the agreement cost the man he had intimately advised, David Trimble, his job, displaced the party he had helped move toward reform and accommodation, and brought its more sectarian rival to power .
The Politics of Enmity begins with an account of the impact of the French Revolution – in which its American precursor is barely mentioned. One of the immediate impacts of the events in Paris and the provinces was that it showed that a Catholic majority country could overthrow its despotic monarchy, abolish tithes and legal discrimination against its Protestant religious minorities (and Jews) and establish a democratic republic, which resembled its American predecessor. The early French Revolution was therefore attractive to Irish dissenters, who had already warmed to the American Revolution, and to Irish Catholics. This American impact is not, however, extensively traced by Bew. Instead we see the French Revolution through the eyes of Edmund Burke.
Deference toward Burke affects many Irish (and British) intellectuals as they age.(63) This widespread – and in my view misplaced – excessive admiration for Burke has at least three sources. The first is the belief that Burke had a wise policy, which would have incorporated Ireland successfully into British rule, namely full, early, and generous Catholic emancipation from the penal laws. This belief, however, is problematic. To the extent that Burke came to endorse such a policy, he came late: RB McDowell’s short essay, “Burke and Ireland”, quotes the Burke of 1772 as having lost interest in Irish politics and as content with Anglo-Irish constitutional relations in the 1760s and 1770s.(64) True, Burke had a consistent record of opposing the Penal Laws, but only the French Revolution prompted him to treat the matter as requiring urgent remedy, and Burke’s proposed “equal citizenship” was of a most class-ridden nature.
Bew lucidly shows that Burke’s class honour and horror were aroused by the fact that the Penal Laws enabled a lower class Protestant to regard himself as superior to a landed or bourgeois Catholic. “A plebeian oligarchy is a monster” was the famous orator’s wording. What Burke wanted was a proper caste and class hierarchy, a reformed ancien régime – in which religion was irrelevant to rank-order. The supposition of many subsequent commentators, including Bew, is that Burke wisely saw that without Catholic emancipation Catholic half-citizens would become whole Jacobins. But, Burke wanted only a small number of the propertied to be enfranchised and also presumed that emancipated Catholics would be quiescent, deferential, grateful, and therefore socially conservative. This supposition was highly doubtful, however, because the inferior status of Catholics was not just religious, that is an outcome of sectarian discrimination and prejudices, but rather was rooted in the two national and ethnic reconquests of the island between the 1640s and the 1690s. The survival of public and private folk memories of these events, in Gaelic and English, is not in doubt. In short, the shift from Jacobitism to an alliance with Jacobinism was not too difficult, and arguably was more a shift in ethno-national means than in ends. Emancipated Catholics would want “their land”, as the historical record showed after 1829 – in both senses, their plot of land and the national territory. The Protestant Ascendancy were therefore not stupid to reject Burke’s policy. They rightly feared that emancipation would trigger the reversal of the conquests on which their status rested.
Burke’s political programme, a reordering of the ancien régime, was, in fact, attempted under the Union – albeit later than Pitt wanted. The belief of Bew and others is that Burke’s (actually Pitt’s) policy would have worked if the Union and Emancipation had been combined – as proposed and promised by the prime minister but rejected by the king and the oligarchs of both islands. But the right counterfactual question is this: did the Repeal program of O’Connell resonate with his supporters just because of the interval between the moment of the Union and the moment of emancipation? That question is not posed in The Politics of Enmity, though we are told that the young Daniel O’Connell was committed to an Irish parliament as early as 1800. We are also told of the Lords’ veto on an emancipation bill in 1825, despite a considerable Commons majority; Bew observes of the latter that “The last opportunity for wise and voluntary concession was lost …”(65) This judgment, however, casts doubt on the importance of the interval per se. There is not a huge interval between 1825 and 1829. What was more important was that emancipation had to be forced on the British state through mass mobilisation rather than volunteered as a wise reform. But had emancipation been delivered in 1801 there would have been no doubt that the ’98 rebellion was the immediate cause – that would also have been an involuntary concession.
The second source of the misplaced admiration for Burke is the conviction that French republicanism, against which Burke fulminated, provided the kindling flames for Irish nationalism. The implication is that if Pitt and the Protestant Ascendancy had followed Burke’s policy, then republicanism would have had much less resonance. Republicanism appealed strongly among both Presbyterians and Catholics in the 1790s, and among Catholics later – especially among the diaspora. No doubt religious oppression disposed them in this direction. But republicanism had other resources which made it likely to fertilise in Irish soil(66), and Irish ethnic nationalism had yet other and older sources. Ideologically, republicanism favoured small farmer democracy, and merit over rank. The nationalist desire to remove English rule was flexible: it could be attracted to monarchical or republican programmes.(67) The latter won out, eventually, and one reason that happened was that the linguistic assimilation of the native Irish to English increasingly exposed them to the American, French and Scots conceptions of Enlightenment and modernity .
Bew and other historians therefore seem far too generous to Burke’s influence, diagnoses and prognoses. Burke opposed democracy, and democratisation, and though a few states stabilised their ancien régimes before World War I, Burke’s broader political programme had no long-run prospects in modernity. Numbers and democratisation would have mattered in ways Burke did not foresee. Expanding Irish population, for example, acted as a check on the democratisation of the Union. With no major famine or no truly enormous large-scale migration Irish Catholics would have comprised a huge proportion of any expanded Union-wide electorate. Their potential political pivotality would therefore have led to deeper resistance to the expansion of the suffrage, and, consequently, to deeper class, religious and national conflict over citizenship rights within the nineteenth century UK. It is entirely possible to argue that the significant expansion of the suffrage in the UK in the second and third reform acts was only possible because the Irish Famine had radically reduced the numbers of potential Irish voters – though, of course, the Famine’s causation lay elsewhere.
Burke’s sociology, and Bew’s now more conservative political economy, are therefore questionable. Making Catholic peasants into conservatives required fully emancipating them, as citizens, and giving them “their land”, as farmers. When that was eventually done, they were already nationalists, and their radical small town and urban cousins were actual or prospective republicans. The claim, contrary to Burke and Bew, that it was not possible to modernise Ireland without it becoming largely dominated by Irish nationalism has the distinct advantage that it describes what happened. To argue otherwise is very difficult. Too much hinges on various Cleo’s nose sequencing arguments – “if the Union had brought immediate emancipation, if the Famine had been better managed, if home rule had been granted earlier, if Irish nationalists had settled earlier for the exclusion of some of Ulster from home rule”, and so on. The breakdown of the Union, I suggest, owed less to the sequencing management of the issues of modernity than to the fact that democratisation inevitably brought forth a political movement to reverse the conquest(s).
The third source of admiration for Burke is the conviction that Ireland’s rightful place in the modern world is within the achievements of British institutions and civilisation. The conviction has two corollaries: that only fanaticism or policy errors could have produced other outcomes, and that therefore the sources of Ireland’s ills and enmities are endogenous, that is they derived from religious sectarianism within Ireland. RB McDowell describes Burke’s version thus: “Great Britain was not to blame for all of Ireland’s ills. They originated in Ireland and the worst fault British statesmen could be accused of in relation to Ireland was that they wished to ‘hear of it and of its concerns as little as possible’’.(68) It was a familiar, apologetic and highly contestable diagnosis in the eighteenth century. In Burke’s time Ireland was governed by an Anglican oligarchy that owed its status, land and privileges to conquest and which ran Ireland under British tutelage. The conviction became even less plausible under the Union, when, after all, Westminster and Whitehall governed Ireland, as a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people, including the Protestant settlers in Ireland, until 1829. This is not to deny the very numerous achievements of British institutions and civilisation. It is merely to affirm the truth that Ireland unfree had neither autonomy nor justice, and that it was denied many benefits because its majority population were of the wrong ethnicity and religion.
Bew concludes his analysis of the failed 1798 revolution as follows: “The bloodshed and murder confirmed two awful lessons. For Catholics (and radical Presbyterians), that the state and its allies (especially perhaps its Orange allies) would, if provoked, impose a bloody terror on the countryside. For Protestants, on the other hand, it became easy to claim that Catholics could not be trusted: given a chance, they could use their power, as at Scullabogue, to destroy the other community. Both sides now believed the worst of each other, and not without justification.’(69)
This analysis has merit, and some partiality. The detailed murders at Scullabogue, up to 200 deaths in one source, are neither directly, quantitatively nor proportionately compared with “the bloody terror” of General Lake’s repression of Ulster in 1797 and the repression of the three risings in 1798, nor are they granted proportionate numbers of stories in Bew’s narrative – which would, of course, be difficult. He does record the slaughter of the Irish rebels by comparison with the treatment of the French as prisoners of war, but does not provide the total human cost of the putting down of the rising. The major modern historian of 1798, not cited, estimates that up to 30,000 peasants were killed.(70) This is not, I think, indictable evidence of some kind of straightforward Protestant or unionist bias on Bew’s part. Rather it reflects a common problem in the history of mass collective violence. It is much easier to tell stories – sad or uplifting, horrifying or banal – over relatively small numbers of deaths than it is to do so for much larger numbers of dead, which, in the phrase, become statistics. The recall of the undoubted atrocities at Scullabogue became a standard tale in unionist memory. For that reason it deserves to be retold, but a comment on its disproportionate treatment in the public memory and historiography would have been in order.
There are more overt forms of partiality and estrangement in The Politics of Enmity. These manifest themselves most obviously in the treatment of political violence. At the strategic level there is insufficient appreciation of the rationality of nationalists – and an underplaying of the strategic use of force or the threat of force by unionists and loyalists. The repression of the insurrection of 1798 (and others) suggested to some nationalists that reform and peaceful extra-parliamentary action were a better strategy than revolution (O’Connell’s view). But it was equally rational for constitutional nationalists, from O’Connell through Parnell to Hume, to counsel rather than to threaten. Their message to Westminster and Whitehall was “treat and negotiate with us or we will be displaced by the hard men”. Rather than evaluating this recurrent pattern, the tendency in Irish historiography is just to moralise and to be statist – as if violence against an undemocratic state established by foreign conquest and built on ethnic and religious partiality is automatically immoral.(71)
The revolutionaries, by contrast, handed down the lesson from 1798 that a foreign alliance was necessary to break British power, and that British power was at its weakest in a European war (the IRB view), and, therefore, that it was important to build revolutionary capacity for such moments. In some revisionist historiography this is treated as a romantic form of politics rather than a sane strategic appraisal confronting the nationalist movement. There were, of course, nuances within the rival constitutionalist and revolutionary positions, but when they co-operated they were highly effective.
Bew is more inclined to highlight the micro and the sectarian in political violence, at variance with his general focus on high politics. He gives too much credit to Peter Hart’s work on the IRA, which in its efforts to treat IRA actions in Cork in the war of independence as “ethnic cleansing”, goes significantly beyond what the evidence will bear, and, according to some, derives statements from interviews with dead people – a method of inquiry not available to social scientists.(72) To his credit Bew footnotes some of Hart’s critics, but does not register the burden of their criticisms.(73) The IRA’s worst deeds, and the attractions of an alliance with Nazi Germany, both to the IRA and to some Northern nationalists, are appropriately highlighted in The Politics of Enmity. But if I may be forgiven a few last “whatabouteries” it is quite remarkable that in the 215 footnotes to the chapter entitled “The Era of the Troubles” there are no citations to any study of loyalist paramilitaries. The reference to death data in the mid 1970s, citing Lost Lives(74), does not mention them as among the principal agents of death at that juncture. The UDA in fact does not appear in the index, while the modern UVF appears but once – in 1966; there is, by contrast, ample evidence of treatment of the IRA, and its various offshoots, in the text and in the index. These omissions and selections do perhaps reflect the man’s empathies, and perhaps a rushed treatment of the present.
The thrust of my disagreements with Paul Bew’s historical interpretations should be evident. But I trust it is clear that this overview of his evolution is intended as a tribute, not as an assault. Bew has not abandoned Marxism for reaction; he has realigned his progressive orientation behind liberal and social democratic politics, and has therefore remained true to himself, despite changes of party dress and formal ideology. He now exemplifies the best traits in liberal unionism. It is not surprising that he forefronts liberal unionism at the expense of its discriminatory and Orangeist dispositions and record. He deserves tremendous credit for assisting David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party to co-make the Good Friday Agreement and in trying to implement it in good faith.
We share many premises, including that there are at least two principal nations on Ireland, that both need to be accommodated and that there have been many lost accommodative possibilities in the past. We differ on our readings of the history of the British state, especially in Ireland, and in the primacy or otherwise we would give to ethno-national sentiments and doctrines in explaining popular and elite politics. We differ in the degree of generosity I cede to Collins and de Valera and their followers, and he cedes to the Craigs (James and Bill and their followers), and some would say that is entirely predictable.
Where we differ in an interesting way is on the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. I believe that agreement made the 1998 agreement possible. Moreover I have argued that it was the transformative innovation which decisively reoriented both republican and unionist politics, and have generally held such hopes and expectations since it was made. I also see it as present in the current agreement. Bew and I interviewed different civil servants at the time the agreement was made and after, and that may be reflected in our different analyses. He sees mostly confusion and a violation of the principle of consent in the inter-governmental initiative of 1985, and now writes as if the 1998 agreement, rightly, abolished the provisions of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. But if the 1998 agreement were to fail the constitutional and treaty default position is substantively the same as the 1985 agreement – which is no accident and helps concentrate both liberal and illiberal unionist minds on making the present arrangements work for fear that joint authority might otherwise emerge. The agreement also enables Northern nationalists for the first time to work within institutions which they have substantively and democratically endorsed: they may still hope for federal unification, but the second best outcome is pretty good, especially by contrast with what went before.
Bew and I agree too, I think, in seeing partition as the outcome of a national conflict – though he emphasises its sectarian foundations more and I its colonial roots. He has no especial difficulties with the pattern of partition, whereas I do: Ireland came into the Union as a unit, and, therefore presumptively, should have had the chance to obtain autonomy or to secede as a unit.(75) If there had to be a partition then there was little justice in the one unilaterally imposed by the Westminster government: “opting in” or “opting out” on the basis of counties or parliamentary constituencies would have been much more impartial across the respective national communities; so would a three- or four-county Northern Ireland, which would have a left a more even distribution of minorities and majorities in each of the new jurisdictions. The strongly biased nature of the partition – and not just the modus operandi of the Northern Ireland government – sowed the seeds of the modern conflict, for which a bi-national resolution proved necessary. It was, to use Bew’s vocabulary, the over-extended presence as well the form of British rule in Northern Ireland which created the contemporary harvest of enmity, which both Bew and I, and the communities from which we hail, are trying to make into a workable cold peace, from which amity may later flow. Whether that happens or not I would be happy to be counted among the friends of Paul Bew.
To see footnotes click here
Brendan O’Leary was born in Cork but grew up in Nigeria, Northern Ireland and Sudan. His university education was at Oxford and the LSE, where he was a professor of political science. He holds the Lauder Chair of Political Science and directs the Penn Program in Ethnic Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania. Details of his publications and career may be found at: http://www.polisci.upenn.edu/ppec/PPEC%20People/Brendan%20O’Leary/Brendan%20O’Leary.html