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Response to a Review

Robert W White

Thomas Fitzgerald’s review of Out of the Ashes by Robert W White appeared in the October issue of the Dublin Review of Books and is available here. Prof White’s response to that review appears below. Readers are invited to read both pieces to make up their minds on the issues involved.

Dear editors,
In his review of Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement (Social Movements versus Terrorism), Thomas Fitzgerald unfairly damages my reputation as a scholar and undermines the book’s message by suggesting that I consider the ongoing violence of anti-Good Friday Agreement Republicans to be “legitimate”. He actually praises my argument that “through talking to ‘terrorists’ or non-state insurgents it is easier to understand or evaluate their point of view, rather than simply denouncing and demonising it” and then hypocritically condemns me for presenting the perspective of anti-GFA Republicans. In reality, Out of the Ashes is unique and important because it presents oral histories from Provisional and anti-GFA Irish Republicans.

Fitzgerald describes the end of my chapter on anti-GFA Republicans as “overtly emotional and inappropriate”. He complains that I describe “Wolfe Tone, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Patrick Pearse, and so on” as people who “cannot be co-opted” and then quote from Patrick Pearse’s famous statement, “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” Thus,

Is White suggesting that the only solution in Northern Ireland is a return to violence, or that violence is inevitable? Certainly the sentiments he expressed could give succour to those who take this position. It is up to the reader to decide whether they consider this to be a socially responsible attitude for any historian/sociologist to take.

Fitzgerald conveniently ignores the context of my presentation.

The final paragraph of that chapter shows that some Irish Republicans are remarkably committed to their beliefs. I quote an oral history from John Hunt, who was born in 1920, interned by the de Valera government in 1940, and, at ninety-six years of age, spoke at a Republican Sinn Féin event associated with the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Hunt’s remarks outside of the GPO included a quotation from Pearse’s famous oration in 1915 over the grave of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, “the fools, the fools, the fools! — they have left us our Fenian dead.” After quoting Hunt’s remarks, I wrote that Ireland is filled with people the authorities consider “dangerous” because of their unending commitment to physical force — “Wolfe Tone, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Patrick Pearse, Bobby Sands, Mairéad Farrell and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh” (emphasis added). After noting that the authorities can minimize but not eliminate the threat of violence, I completed the Pearse quotation — “while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” By leaving out the references to Bobby Sands, Mairéad Farrell, and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Fitzgerald conveniently avoids the influence that Pearse and his ilk have on more contemporary activists.

When Fitzgerald asks, “Is White suggesting that the only solution in Northern Ireland is a return to violence, or that violence is inevitable?”, he is either painfully naïve and clueless or simply finds it easy to sidestep inconvenient facts. Table 5 of Out of the Ashes shows that violence never ended in Northern Ireland; hence, a chapter on anti-GFA Republicans. I don’t know if continued violence is inevitable. I do know that in the past few years Patrick Pearse’s famous oration has been quoted many times by many people. Fitzgerald cutely draws on the punk band Stiff Little Fingers to write that “Pearse’s words were from ‘another time, and another place’”. Can we just assume that everyone believes this, including all those anti-GFA Republicans who refuse to go away? No. If the many different people who have quoted Patrick Pearse these last few years did not explicitly state that his oration was from another time and place, were they socially irresponsible? Put another way: It’s not my fault that most of nationalist Ireland spent most of 2016 celebrating the lives and actions of Patrick Pearse and his comrades.

Fitzgerald’s attack on my reputation contributes to an intellectual climate that complemented Section 31 censorship of the Provisionals. With some exceptions, Irish historians, political scientists, and sociologists left it to journalists to investigate a long-term, high-profile conflict in their own back yard. Why? Because they risked condemnation from people like Thomas Fitzgerald. This is not new. In this “Decade of Centenaries”, Irish scholars have published excellent work on the 1916-23 era. However, I wonder if there is so much room for research on that era because it was safer for scholars of that time and place to focus on the Fenians, the Land War, and so on. In 1976, J. Bowyer Bell wrote that when “the present Troubles began, contemporary Ireland had been ignored by academics, especially Irish academics, except in matters of literature … for many felt that writing seriously about the Irish present only exacerbated old quarrels”. Scholars have every right to pursue an interest in events of one thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, or yesterday. At the same time, something is lost if we wait until all of the actors have died before we write about them.

Many sociologists and political scientists study collective behavior and social movements. And there is a well-known relationship between the state’s response to dissent and recruitment to protest —sometimes repression leads to more protest, sometimes it reduces protest. Something is bringing recruits to anti-GFA organizations. An Irish social scientist might use oral histories to investigate the influence that the Terrorism Act (2006) and the use of “internment by remand” to silence people like Martin Corey, Stephen Murney, and Tony Taylor have had on recruitment. That probably won’t happen. Why risk being labeled a fellow-traveler, an advocate of violence, or socially irresponsible? If the climate had been more open for Irish social scientists to fully engage with the conflict in Ireland between 1969 and 2005, then perhaps we would be that much closer to a just and lasting peace.

Out of the Ashes is not an apology for political violence, by anyone. The book, and my scholarship in general, is an attempt to help all of us better understand why people engage in small group political violence. That is socially responsible, as readers will see.

Robert White



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