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States and Nations

Bill Kissane
Northern Ireland: What is It? Professor Mansergh Changes His Mind, by Brendan Clifford, (A Belfast Magazine; Belfast July 2011. A Political History of the Two Irelands: From Partition to Peace, by Brian M Walker, Palgrave MacMillan, 272 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0230361478 Towards the end of Saul Bellow’s classic novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet his jaded anti-hero, Mr Sammler, travels along New York’s ninety-sixth street and laments the modern preference for explanation in place of understanding. Nostalgia for the Europe of his youth leads him to conclude that when there is only question and answer there is no charm, and when there is no charm there is only question and answer: “the thing works both ways”. Bellow himself, although a member of the prestigious Chicago Committee on Social Thought, later declared “knowing the unknowable” the novelist’s truest avocation. This review compares two books, one of which assumes we know what Northern Ireland is, and another which doesn’t. The Northern Ireland conflict has certainly led to a standard repertoire of questions and answers. Why did the Troubles break out? Why did they last so long? Why in this part of Ireland, not south of the border? Yet these questions and answers, indeed the question of origins (when did it all begin?) also raise that of what it is. Brendan Clifford thinks this question needs resolution before explanations of conflict or of peace can convince. Some scholars, focusing on institutions and political systems, have argued that the inbuilt demographic majority of Unionists combined with Westminster style practices created an inherently exclusive system which can be compared to polities such as Israel or South Africa. Yet these are states, unlike Northern Ireland. Alternative spatial concepts; a cultural “corridor”, an ethnic “frontier”, a “zone” of settler colonialism, rely on long-term non-institutional factors to explain what made Northern Ireland different. Yet partition clearly created the context where control over institutions and over others proved explosive. Clifford’s perspective on the troubles stresses the importance of this singular context. The book I compare it to, Brian Walker’s history of “The Two Irelands” thinks ethnic and religious factors sufficiently important on their own to compare two entities that were not equivalent units. Clifford’s Northern Ireland:What is it? is a series of articles, not a book. What it lacks in organisation and primary research, however, it makes up for in intellectual penetration. The subtitle, “Professor Mansergh Changes his Mind” blames Nicholas Mansergh – “Irish historian”…

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