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Home Uncategorized A Long March

A Long March

Brendan O’Leary
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…



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