Labour and the Fight for a United Ireland

The border controversy is just the latest episode in the epic of Britain’s political establishment and their willful ignorance of Ireland.

A welcome to Northern Ireland road sign signalling the crossing of the border between north and south can be seen on May 4, 2016 in Ireland. Charles McQuillan / Getty

A recent YouGov poll found that 38 percent of people in Britain reckoned they knew “a fair amount” or “a great deal” about the issues surrounding the Irish border (also known as the British border in Ireland). 49 percent reported themselves to be “not very much” or “not at all” informed.

In itself, the fact that one person in two had to plead ignorance about the most important factor behind the current Brexit impasse is a woeful indictment of the British media — not to mention the country’s school system. But there’s also reason to doubt that 38 percent figure. While just 29 percent of women reckoned they knew at least a fair amount about the border question, 47 percent of men had the same faith in their grasp of the subject. That probably says more about the gendered distribution of self-confidence than it does about the uneven spread of historical education.

We shouldn’t expect the right-wing, hard-Brexit media to help public understanding. But some of the anti-Brexit liberals who claim to be deeply concerned about peace in Northern Ireland are just as guilty of using Irish history as an exotic foil for their own parochial agendas. Take, for example, Gavin Esler, the former BBC journalist who ran as a candidate for Change UK in this year’s European elections. On the eve of the vote, Esler claimed in the Evening Standard to have “often asked prominent members of the IRA what they made of [Jeremy] Corbyn” during his time as a reporter in Northern Ireland: “They repeatedly used the same phrase: he was, they said, a ‘useful dupe.’”

Esler’s claim to have used valuable interview time in the early 1980s to quiz IRA commanders about an obscure figure on the London Labour left, who only became an MP in 1983, is just as implausible as his suggestion that Corbyn was “flirting with Theresa May’s Brexit deal.” He might well have asked them about Ken Livingstone, a far more prominent figure at the time. But no senior republican would have used the phrase “useful dupe” about British politicians who defied the bipartisan consensus on Northern Ireland.

The same week, we had the pleasure of another foray into Irish politics by the Guardian’s celebrity columnist Marina Hyde. Hyde poetically described Corbyn as “a man who lavished deserved decades in obscurity on frotting the IRA.” It’s the kind of line — “Jeremy Corbyn has gay sex with Irish terrorists” — that might have occurred to Boris Johnson, Toby Young, or Rod Liddle, only to be dismissed as too crude for their liking.

Mapping Irish History

For those who want to escape the sandpit of British liberalism and learn something new about Irish history, two recently published books are highly recommended. The Atlas of the Irish Revolution was an unexpected phenomenon in Ireland. Almost a thousand pages long, weighing over five kilos, its first print run quickly sold out, and a public vote crowned it Irish Book of the Year. The Irish broadcaster RTÉ went on to make a documentary series based on the book that was narrated by Cillian Murphy, star of Peaky Blinders and Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

The Atlas is quite simply the best introduction available to Ireland’s struggle for independence a century ago, the outcome of which still shapes political life on the island today. It contains essays from over a hundred contributors, ranging from established figures like Roy Foster, Terence Brown, and Michael Hopkinson to young researchers breaking new historiographical ground. Class and gender perspectives are well represented, and the written text is complemented by an abundant supply of maps, photographs, and reproductions of historical documents.

As one of the rare books that could be a weapon in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense, the Atlas is not to be digested in a single sitting, and we won’t try to summarize its contents here. But some of its essays shed particular light on the partition of Ireland, a subject whose contemporary relevance should be obvious.

Since Boris Johnson became prime minister, his blustering threats to defy parliament and the courts have led some pundits to accuse him of betraying the true spirit of Conservatism, based on respect for tradition and the rule of law. Anyone familiar with the Home Rule Crisis of 1912–14 will have greeted that suggestion with a hollow chuckle. As Frank Callanan shows in his chapter on the crisis, Unionist opposition to Home Rule leaned heavily upon “extra-constitutional resistance, which required and received the support of the leadership of the Conservative Party.” The Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law famously told a Unionist rally that he could “imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support them.”

Soon afterwards, the Unionist leaders established their own militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and smuggled in weapons from Germany to arm it. When the Liberal government considered action against the UVF, the officer corps of the British Army rallied to its defense, threatening to resign en masse if they were given orders to “coerce Ulster.”

Not that they had any objection in principle to the use of force against the King’s subjects. Sir Henry Wilson, the general who kept his Unionist allies fully appraised of what the government was planning, was horrified to see his political masters “contemplating scattering troops all over Ulster, as though it was a Pontypool coal strike.” The methods that could safely be used against Welsh miners or Irish smallholders were unthinkable for a force led by Tory landowners. As Callanan writes, “the crisis disclosed an active political antagonism to the policy of a democratically elected government amongst many senior officers in the British Army.” The men who stoked up that antagonism — Bonar Law, Edward Carson, Lord Birkenhead — soon joined the wartime coalition government, their subversive role entirely forgotten.

Bonar Law’s Conservatives were still in power with Lloyd George when the partition settlement of 1920–21 was imposed. As Brendan O’Leary notes in his essay on the birth and consolidation of Northern Ireland, the territory marked out for exclusion from the new Irish state “constituted the largest area of historic Ulster that [Unionists] could control without the risk of quickly losing their newly created majority to demographic change.” Even if some form of partition was inevitable at the time — a debatable point — the line actually drawn on the map was “manifestly unjust in relation to conceptions of self-determination,” containing a large nationalist minority who were denied access to political power.

The slow workings of demographic change, and the more immediate impact of the Brexit crisis, have put the idea of a border poll on the agenda. For the first time since partition, there is at least an outside chance that a majority in Northern Ireland could end up supporting Irish unity. The former DUP leader Peter Robinson has warned his fellow Unionists that they should be prepared to make a positive case for the union in the event of a referendum.

The events described in the Atlas are rich with lessons for the present if pressure for a border poll begins to mount. First of all, there should be no question of imposing any requirement for a “supermajority” (60 percent, two-thirds, or whatever the threshold might be). When most Irish nationalists agreed, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, that a majority within Northern Ireland could block constitutional change, that was a major ideological concession on their part. It could be reasonable to argue that a majoritarian border poll is not what the region needs right now; it’s certainly reasonable to expect proponents of a united Ireland to have a clear, well-articulated sense of where the unionist population is going to fit in. But moving the goalposts just as Irish unity starts to seem a plausible objective should be out of the question.

The second point concerns the role of the Conservative Party. Imagine the following scenario: a Labour government, whether equipped with a majority of its own or in coalition with other parties, agrees to hold a referendum in Northern Ireland at some point over the next few years. It’s all too easy to picture Tory politicians taking a leaf out of Bonar Law’s book and egging on Unionist resistance to the process, in the hope of clawing their way back into power. The deep emotional ties that once bound the Conservative elite to Ulster are now largely absent. But they’ll be happy to make use of any weapon available to undermine a left-wing government, which shouldn’t allow itself to be blindsided by this challenge.

From Civil Rights to Armalites

Eamonn McCann’s War and an Irish Town, now in its fourth edition, is a very different kind of book: first published in 1974, it’s the work of a leading participant in Derry’s civil rights movement, and still one of the sharpest and most readable accounts of the origins of the Troubles. The first half is a memoir that describes the experience of growing up in Derry during the 1950s and 1960s, before moving on to cover McCann’s role in the civil rights and anti-internment campaigns during the period between 1968 and 1972. The second half changes gears to offer a Marxist interpretation of Irish history from the nineteenth century to the start of the Troubles. McCann has added a lengthy new preface to the latest edition that gives his perspective on more recent events.

Of all the books published in the early 1970s that sought to explain the Troubles to a wider audience, McCann’s polemic is the only one still in print and reaching new readers. Its longevity certainly owes a great deal to McCann’s sense of humor. I’ve always liked his description of a secondary-school history teacher who also wrote an opinion column for the local paper in Derry:

Mr McCauley may be the last man in Europe still fighting the French Revolution. Without doubt there are a few people dotted around Europe — clustered, perhaps, in the Iberian peninsula — who regret that the French Revolution actually happened. Mr McCauley however, may well be the last combatant, drawing attention to the fact that scarlet women pranced déshabillé across the altar of Notre Dame and hinting that lack of vigilance on the part of Derry Catholics could easily result in the same thing happening in St Eugene’s at the top of William Street.

Another reason for the book’s enduring influence is the distinctive political viewpoint it contains. Although McCann came from a working-class nationalist background in an overwhelmingly Catholic city, he always rejected the idea of communal allegiance and directed some of his sharpest barbs against nationalist conventional wisdom. The book’s epigraph is a quote from the United Irish leader Wolfe Tone, reveling in the Pope’s expulsion from Rome by French soldiers, and its opening chapter has more to say about Derry’s Catholic establishment than the Unionist Party or the Orange Order.

McCann’s interpretation of Irish history is revisionist in the good sense of the term, but without the lofty, condescending attitude of intellectuals like Conor Cruise O’Brien and those who followed in his wake. He had no trouble seeing why traditional Irish nationalism could appeal to those who lacked O’Brien’s elevated social background:

Underlying all the mythology there is a deep stratum of truth. The Irish people, particularly the Catholic Irish people, were exploited and oppressed for hundreds of years by Britain. The overwhelming majority of them were born in misery and reared in squalor. They lived from day to day, fighting to tear some dignity from life, most of them finally to die amid the ugliness in which they first saw the light of day. And knowing that one of the reasons for their condition was that the country was ruled by Britain . . . some people need myths, need them to glorify their history in order to push away the grim reality of the way they have to live now. If the traditional Republican account of Irish history has been most fervently believed in the Catholic ghettoes of the North, in the Bogside and Creggan, Ardoyne and Ballymurphy, it is because the people who live there, ground down by oppression and with no apparent possibility of escape, have needed an ennobled history, have needed to postulate a line of continuity between the glorious struggles of the past and a liberation yet to come. When a man lives in a world of bookies’ slips, varnished counters and Guinness spits he will readily accept an account of the past which tends to invest his living with dignity.

Apologists for the record of British rule in Ireland will certainly find little comfort in McCann’s account of the crucial years from 1968 to 1972. His description of the Unionist response to the civil rights movement — grudging, inadequate concessions on the one hand, violent repression on the other — is no longer especially controversial, although there are still those who present the violence of 1968–69 as the fruit of a nonexistent IRA conspiracy. But he also punctures the claim that British troops were dispatched in August 1969 to protect the Catholic minority and enable reforms to be carried out, addressing the grievances of the civil rights campaign. In fact, their role was to back up the “civil power” — the unreconstructed Unionist statelet that British politicians decided to leave in place after the first eruption of violence.

By the summer of 1970, that policy had started to poison relations between nationalist communities and the British Army: the Falls Road curfew proved to be a vital landmark, soon followed by the internment raids of August 1971 and the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry. That made it possible for the Provisional IRA to launch an armed insurgency against British rule that had wide popular support in the early 1970s (although that support soon began to contract, waxing and waning over the years to come).

Outside Left

McCann concluded his book with a warning that the Provos would eventually hit a brick wall because of their political limitations:

If the Irish conflict could be settled by determination, by unconcern for personal aggrandizement, by an ability and a willingness to fight on against overwhelming disadvantageous odds, the Republicans would be assured of victory. On their own, however, such qualities are not decisive.

A second edition of War and an Irish Town published in 1980 was more sympathetic to the Provisionals, welcoming their recent turn to the left, although McCann still identified an “acute contradiction” between republican and socialist ideology, “which cannot be resolved within the Republican movement.” By the start of the following decade, the author had reverted to his previous standpoint. He saw the IRA campaign as a dead-end and welcomed the ceasefire of 1994, but took a skeptical view of the alternative political strategy put in place by Gerry Adams and his associates.

McCann’s articles from the late 1980s to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, collected as War and Peace in Northern Ireland (1998), have stood the test of time as a shrewd left-wing perspective on the emerging peace process. Another book, 1992’s Bloody Sunday in Derry: What Really Happened, has great value as a companion volume to War and an Irish Town. McCann’s demolition of the Widgery Report, a cynical whitewash of the massacre in Derry by Britain’s most eminent judge, set the record straight decades before Lord Saville delivered his report.

McCann first stood for election in Derry’s Foyle constituency in 1969, when he was squeezed out by the future Nobel laureate John Hume. (One of the local teenagers canvassing for him that year, Mickey Devine, later became famous as the last of ten hunger strikers to die in Long Kesh prison in 1981.) Almost half a century later, he finally won a seat in the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly election for the left-wing People Before Profit Alliance. McCann was squeezed out the following year — his vote held up, but the number of seats in Foyle had been reduced — although his People Before Profit comrade Gerry Carroll held onto his seat in West Belfast, and the party made further progress in this year’s local elections.

Will this tentative opening to the Left be shut down by a renewed focus on the national question, as happened before in the late 1960s? The answer to that question will partly depend on whether British socialists can address the traditional failings of their labor movement when it comes to Ireland.