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Home Reviews Challenging the State

Challenging the State

John Mulqueen
Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s, by Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile Books, 823 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-1846684685 Ambiguous Republic offers a comprehensive insight into the observations and opinions of the Irish state’s civil servants and politicians. Diarmaid Ferriter covers a lot of ground in this multi-dimensional study, in just under seven hundred pages of text, drawing largely on the available material in Dublin archives. The 1970s was a decade of ambiguities, Ferriter argues – the northern Troubles reached into the southern jurisdiction, which underwent upheavals of its own. He makes particularly good use of private correspondence and memoirs to explore the turmoils, fears and continuity of what he sees as this transitional decade in the Republic. During this period, he writes, “new boundaries were set” and “new ambitions articulated and occasionally realised”. The Troubles, with its overspill of violence across the border, in varying degrees overshadowed political life in the state during the 1970s. The biggest shock to its political system revolved around the allegations that cabinet members attempted to import guns for use in the North by those who would form the Provisional IRA, which led to the arms trials of 1970. These complicated events involving intrigues, denials and deceptions are vividly explained – the arms trials chapter, “Lost Reputations and Suppressed Truth”, is a highlight. These events led John Kelly, then a Fine Gael senator, to speculate that democrats in both main parties might unite in a new party that could unequivocally support parliamentary democracy, but he thought this was unlikely given Fianna Fáil’s “animal solidarity”. There were now two IRAs as the republican movement had split into Official and Provisional wings at the beginning of the year. Following the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry, in January 1972, and the subsequent burning of the British embassy in Dublin, the stability of the state was perceived to be fragile. But the Fianna Fáil government acted against the IRA threat in May and reactivated the non-jury Special Criminal Court. There had been widespread jury intimidation by subversives, mainly by the leftist Official IRA. The taoiseach had earlier been warned by Downing Street that the Official IRA would pose a greater security risk in the event of a Soviet embassy being established in Dublin, which the British contended would function as an espionage centre (the embassy opened in 1974 and British and American fears in relation to spying activities would prove to be…

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