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A Tale of Two Nations

Ulster: Conflict and Consent

by Tom Wilson
Basil Blackwell, 330 pp., $49.50

Wolfe Tone
Wolfe Tone; drawing by David Levine

In the opening paragraph of a review published in The New Republic, Professor Denis Donoghue said, “Tom Wilson’s book is ostensibly an academic study of this situation, but in fact it is an essay in propaganda. He is a Unionist, and writes in support of that position.” In the last paragraph of the same review, Donoghue describes Ulster: Conflict and Consent as “a serious, thoughtful book,” a view that is rather hard to reconcile with his opening dismissal. But these things tend to happen when Irish Catholics (Nationalists) review books by Ulster Protestants (Unionists), and vice versa. It is all part of the Irish situation. Irish troubles regularly wreck the rail line between Dublin and Belfast. But they also disturb communications in more subtle ways, even at high intellectual levels.

Tom Wilson’s book is not an essay in propaganda, although it is written from a unionist point of view. I use a small “u” because Wilson clearly does not speak for either of the Unionist parties (James Molyneux’s Official Unionists or Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists). Wilson is critical of a number of past Unionist positions, actions, and statements, though he is less critical of these than Nationalists would consider appropriate. Wilson, in fact, represents the most moderate, rational, and secular element in the general unionist tradition. Nationalists regularly call for dialogue with Unionists, and most Unionists most of the time refuse. Wilson is one unionist who is willing for a dialogue to take place with nationalists, but I don’t know of any nationalist who really wants a dialogue with him or the likes of him. I have noticed one peculiarity of a nationalist, considering a statement from a known unionist. The nationalist pays attention only up to the point when the unionist makes it clear that he is still a unionist. When that point is reached, the nationalist loses all interest. Those repeated calls for dialogue are really coded demands for a declaration of surrender.

Tom Wilson was born in Northern Ireland and at various times has acted as adviser to the (former) government of Northern Ireland on economic issues. He has been Adam Smith Professor of Political Economy at the University of Glasgow. Ulster: Conflict and Consent is “an assessment of all aspects—political, economic, religious, constitutional and social—of the situation, in and around Northern Ireland.” It is an extremely perceptive and instructive assessment; the best book on the situation that exists, in my opinion. The people who most need to read the book are Irish nationalists, but most of these, if they open the book at all, will close it when they reach page xi of the introduction, where the author states his basic position as follows:

Although the members of any particular nation may differ widely in their views on many matters, they must, nevertheless, have enough in common to want to belong to the same state and to live under the same central government. A nation, in this sense, needs to be founded on a consensus, and that is a far more searching requirement than a ballot-box majority. There is no such consensus among the people who live in the island of Ireland, and they cannot be said to constitute a “single nation” in any normally recognized sense of the term. To claim that they do so is to ignore “the integrity of their quarrel” and to suggest, with a disregard for both history and recent experience, that there has been no real disagreement after all about national identity. It is to overlook the fact that Irish nationalists have insisted on complete separation from the United Kingdom and have refused to accept the unity of the two islands. The Ulster unionists, for their part, have sought to maintain that unity—hence their name—and have demonstrated in the most unambiguous way that they do not want to belong to the Irish Republic. Indeed it is hard to see how the two sides in Ireland could have displayed more clearly a divergence of views about the political unity of the island of Ireland on the one hand, and the unity of the British Isles on the other.

No Irish nationalist could refute that statement: every sentence in it is irrefutable. Yet, even though irrefutable, it remains utterly unacceptable, for it is a classic statement of what is known, to nationalists, as the “two nations theory.” The “two nations theory” is heresy, in Irish nationalist dogma, which asserts that Ulster Protestants are members of the Irish Nation, even though those Protestants have repeatedly and almost unanimously declared that they want no part of the same.

To avoid confusion, I should perhaps here make clear my own position and background, which are not in alignment with each other. Like Tom Wilson, I am a confirmed “two nations” man. But I don’t belong to the same nation as he does; I belong to the other one. My roots, like Denis Donoghue’s, are in the Irish Catholic community, which generally feels itself to be the Irish Nation, and whose spokesmen so often claim the Ulster Protestants as belonging to the same nation (in which, of course, they would be in a minority). I was brought up on “one nation theory,” and gave it up only rather late in life, when I found, in discussions with Ulster Protestants, that the theory is in fact untenable. And I find, in practice, that I get on much better with Ulster Protestants when they know that I am not claiming them as my compatriots. And with many of my compatriots I also manage to get on pretty well, because they know me as one of them, and they don’t in their hearts believe in the “one nation theory” either.

There is a “two nations theory” and a “one nation theory.” There is also a “no nation theory,” to which at some points in this study Tom Wilson seems to lean:

Like the notion of a pure Gaelic race, the notion of a united Irish nation that existed before the coming of the English is a pleasing fiction. There was no such nation. Gaelic society was tribal and seminomadic with no effective central authority. The High Kingship was an imposing title for which the chieftains of the clans might fight but, apart from brief periods under Brian Boru and Edward Bruce respectively, it meant little in political or military terms. A different verdict would, of course, be required if the words “Gaelic nation” were really a misnomer for Gaelic society and culture. The achievements of the old Gaelic—or, better, the old Celtic—culture are something in which the people of the island, irrespective of creed and political affiliation, can—rather obviously—take pride. This achievement did not, however, rest on political unity. On the contrary: “The absence of political unity makes the cultural unity of the country all the more remarkable.” As Beckett has observed, it was not until the seventeenth century that Ireland was “united for the first time under a central administration.” It was the English who established that administration.

I don’t quite agree, here. It is true that Gaelic society did not evolve into a nation-state. But is that a reason for denying it the character of a nation? In my view, it is not. Gaelic society—as Wilson acknowledges—had a common religion and language, and a common culture. It had its own distinctive literary and artistic forms, which were common to the whole country. And it also had a distinctive legal system, accepted in all parts of the country. Germans and Italians felt themselves to be part of a German or Italian nation, long before a German or Italian state emerged. Similarly, I think we can meaningfully speak of a Gaelic nation.

The point is of more than academic importance; it has relevance to the scene today, and to the present political violence. Irish Catholics, though their community dropped the Gaelic language for English more than a hundred years ago, see themselves as heir to that old Gaelic nation which once dominated the entire island. They see themselves as having got most of that territory back. And they see themselves as entitled to get the rest back, irrespective of the claims and views of the alien intruders who have got possession of eastern Ulster.

This is the reality within Irish nationalism. This is what drives the Provisional IRA, and also fuels the parallel political pressure for the unification of Ireland. But the reality of the territorial drive has usually been masked, in recent times, by a political rhetoric that says something else. This rhetoric—unlike the reality that underlies it—derives from the Enlightenment. As Tom Wilson rightly says:

The idea of an “Irish nation” indifferent to religious rivalries, rooted in history, but enlightened by the Revolution, takes its rise in the Belfast of the late eighteenth century.

Theobald Wolfe Tone, a true child of the Enlightenment, who died in an attempt to bring the French Revolution to Ireland, dreamed of a secular Irish Republic, in which the descriptions of Catholic and Protestant would have become irrelevant, because submerged in a common radical nationalism. Protestants (he was himself from a Protestant Dublin family) and Catholics would join in creating an Irish Republic, totally separate from Britain, and linked with Revolutionary France.

For a short time, in the last decade of the eighteenth century, Tone’s dream looked as if it might possibly achieve fulfillment. Protestant and Catholic radicals did join together in the movement of the United Irishmen. From 1793 on, when England and France were at war, the United Irishmen became a revolutionary conspiracy looking for aid from Revolutionary France. The original United Irishmen were middle-class people and—as Wilson indicates—most of them were Belfast Presbyterians, then the most radical people in all Ireland. (The same people are now the heart of Ulster unionism.) By 1795, Wolfe Tone was in France, where he was brilliantly successful in convincing the French that a revolutionary situation existed in Ireland, and that Ireland was therefore the best place to strike a blow against England. A great expedition was fitted up and reached Bantry Bay, with Wolfe Tone aboard and a large army. If that force had landed, and had armed large numbers of Irish, Ireland would have become, for a few years, part of the French Revolutionary system (and later of the Napoleonic Empire). But bad weather prevented a landing and dispersed the fleet. Wolfe Tone returned to France.

In Ireland, the United Irish leaders persevered. They were conscious that their movement could not succeed if it remained confined to a radical section of Ireland’s small middle class. The peasantry had to be aroused, and some of it was, with results that were to prove disconcerting to the secular radicals (mostly of Protestant background) who originated the call to revolution. The peasants were overwhelmingly and traditionally Catholic, and the secular and ecumenical ideas of the original United Irishmen were incomprehensible to them. Their idea of revolution was that the Catholics would get their land back, and the Protestants would be killed. The “United Irish” oath, as administered in Catholic areas in the second half of the 1790s, included a declaration of fidelity to the Catholic religion. There was also a strong millennial aspect to the Catholic part of the revolutionary movement in the late eighteenth century.

The United Irish rising, which took place in 1798, consisted, in reality, of two quite distinct risings: a Presbyterian one, mainly in County Down (in what is now Northern Ireland), and a Catholic one, mainly in County Wexford (now part of the Republic). The Catholic rising was the more formidable of the two. The Catholic rebels, in the areas they held, massacred Protestants. Both risings were suppressed by the British and the suppression of the Catholic one was particularly ferocious. Late in the year, the French sent another expeditionary force, much smaller than the 1796 one, which landed in the West of Ireland, and was rather easily defeated. Wolfe Tone was captured at sea and committed suicide in prison rather than face execution.

The “United Irish” tradition lingered on, but unevenly. The Protestants of County Down ceased to be enamored of the idea of a “United Irish” revolution once they had considered the fate of the Protestants of Wexford, piked to death on Wexford bridge. Some individual Protestants in the nineteenth and, to a lesser extent, the twentieth century played prominent parts in Irish nationalist and revolutionary movements, but the great majority of the Protestant population—concentrated mainly in eastern Ulster—were and are unionists.

Among Catholics and nationalists—interchangeable terms, in practice by the beginning of the twentieth century—“United Irish” ideas lingered on as ideology. The theory was that Protestants and Catholics had once been happily united, in the brave days of ’98, but had then been separated by the crafty British, with their “divide and rule” imperialism. (The Protestants of County Wexford dropped out of the Catholic folk memory although they remained in the Protestant one.) The unity that had once existed must surely return, Catholics/nationalists kept saying, without managing to sound as if they really believed, or even much wanted, this.

The United Irish ideology, which had been half-hearted enough in the nineteenth century, acquired a new prestige in the twentieth, in some very odd ways. which were quite at variance with the content of the ideology in question. After the crushing of the Easter Rising of 1916, and the execution of the leaders, the most famous of these, Patrick Pearse, became a quasi-sacred figure for all proper Irish Catholics/nationalists. And Pearse himself had exalted Theobald Wolfe Tone, the father of Irish Republicanism. Tone, sanctified by Pearse, himself became a quasisacred figure, whose utterances were canonical for all Republicans. Republican oratory constantly referred to “the ideals of Pearse and Tone,” as if these were the same thing, which they were not.

If Tone had ever met Pearse, he would have thought him demented, in a repulsively archaic way, altogether alien to Enlightenment values. Pearse was a mystical poet, in whose mind and heart Irish Catholicism and Irish nationalism had fused into one thing. Irishmen who died for Ireland were reenacting the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ and the fruit of their sufferings would be the Resurrection of the Irish Nation. That is why the Rising took place at Easter.

Within the Pearsean synthesis, Wolfe Tone became the proto-martyr: a truly astonishing metamorphosis for a child of the Enlightenment. Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown was, according to Pearse, “the holiest place in Ireland.” Poor Tone, who had hoped to rid his benighted fellow countrymen of such notions as “holy places,” now found himself stuck in one of the wretched things himself.

When, in 1921, the homogeneously Catholic parts of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the region with a Protestant majority remained in what then became, and still is, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

In the Catholic part—now known as the Republic of Ireland—both the political parties profess a Republican ideology, which claims to be derived from the principles of Wolfe Tone. It might be thought that this ideology would lead the Republic to be eager for rapprochement with the Protestants of Northern Ireland. The actual effect of the teachings of Wolfe Tone (as interpreted by Pearse) has been not to unite Catholics and Protestants, but to exacerbate the bad relations between them. The more “Republican” an Irish person claims to be, the more likely that person is, in practice, to want to murder Protestants.

Irish Republicans—of whom there are various shades—are the most militant nationalists among the Catholic population. The cutting edge of the Republican movement today is the Provisional IRA. There is an ominous resemblance between the pattern of feelings of modern Catholic Republicans toward Wolfe Tone and Protestants, and the pattern of feelings of traditional Catholics toward Jesus and the Jews. In each case, the great teacher is felt to have been rejected and betrayed by his own people, and then adopted by another people, the Catholics, Wolfe Tone, like Jesus, became a Catholic teacher. And in both cases, all that was left of the relation between the teacher and his original people, in the eyes of his adopted heirs, was the stigma that rested on the original people, by reason of their rejection and betrayal of him.

The resemblance between the “Tone” pattern and the “Jesus” pattern is not coincidental. Modern Irish Republicanism—beneath its thin veneer of Enlightenment—is a product of a profoundly, and traditionally, Catholic culture. To stigmatize people of a different tradition for their rejection and betrayal of a teacher, and then for obstinately denying the obvious truth of his teaching, was a conditioned reflex.

Over the past twenty years, the IRA have been systematically murdering Protestants—as well as British soldiers—in Northern Ireland. The unavowed objective is to rid Northern Ireland of Protestants, after which the departure of the British will be automatic. The IRA know that it will be a long time before this objective can be achieved since the Protestant community, a million strong, is in a majority in the Northern Ireland which the IRA claim to be “liberating.” Still, significant progress has been made. There are now fairly extensive border areas—especially in County Fermanagh—that once harbored Protestant families of farmers and shopkeepers, and that are now altogether free from Protestants. As you might say, judenrein.

The IRA claim that they are not killing Protestants because they are Protestants. “We have nothing against Protestants, as such,” is a phrase frequently on Republican lips. The Protestants are being killed for rejecting a particular tenet of Theobald Wolfe Tone’s: the only one of his tenets that is alive in the modern Republican subculture. This is the proposition to which Wolfe Tone, near the end, claimed to have devoted his life (although, as Marianne Elliott shows in her excellent biography of him recently published, it was only the last three years of his life that he actually devoted to this effort. The proposition runs: “to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils.”)*

To the IRA this text is canonical. To reject it, and support the connection with England, is a capital offense. As almost all Protestants in Northern Ireland support that connection, they are all legitimate targets.

Most Irish Catholics in the island of Ireland—as distinct from the borough of Queens, New York—condemn the IRA’s campaign, and most of them do so sincerely. Yet the IRA’s objective, as distinct from its methods, still enjoys widespread support, which does much to account for the durability of the campaign. The objective is of course the unity of Ireland. I remain, as far as I know, the only person who, while actually a member of the government of Ireland (1973-1977), publicly declared that he was not working for the unity of Ireland. That declaration may have contributed to the cutting short of my political career (1977), but I’m not sure how much it contributed. My negative views on Irish unity are in fact shared, or apparently shared, by a large minority of the citizens of the Republic. Wilson quotes some relevant figures from a survey made in 1972: 45 percent of Dubliners supported the “two nations theory,” 58 percent regarded unity as essential for a just solution of the Northern Ireland problem, but 36 percent disagreed. Wilson also quotes poll figures (for 1980 and 1987) suggesting that over 90 percent of the population of Northern Ireland don’t want unity. These figures suggest that there is not a majority in the entire island of Ireland favoring unity. If this is so, the whole democratic—or pseudo-democratic—case for Irish unity falls to the ground.

Still, what polls say is less important than what the ballot box says, and all the Republic’s political parties, with varying degrees of emphasis, claim that the unity of Ireland is high among their objectives. Their sincerity, in many cases, is doubtful, but their professed commitment, whether sincere or insincere, is helpful to the IRA. Indeed, the more insincere it is—and this is often obvious enough—the more it serves as a foil to the sincerity of the IRA, as shown in the risks they run and the sacrifices they are prepared to endure.

But what kind of unity are all these people looking for? Is it a unity of people or simply of territory? “Unity of people” is the orthodox answer, and will be forthcoming from most politicians, when the appropriate button is pressed. Even the IRA would have to mutter something to that effect, if questioned on the point. Unity of people, under the common name of Irishman, is in Wolfe Tone, and therefore canonical in the Republican ideology. In the old days—before 1969—Republicans used to go on a great deal about uniting Protestant and Catholic. The leadership in those days was left-wing, in quest of class war and—at least in theory—opposed to sectarian confrontation. After 1969, with the emergence of the Provisional IRA, the movement became more overtly Catholic-nationalist and only perfunctory and increasingly sparse lip service was paid to the nonsectarian ideal. In theory, one day, Catholics and Protestants might be united; in the here-and-now. Protestants were people to be killed (though not “as such”) in order to recover the lost territory.

Nationalist politicians who condemned the IRA stressed that the unity they desired was a unity of people, not territory. But the Constitution of the Republic said something else, and no party seriously sought to have it amended by referendum (although this is not nearly so difficult a procedure as in the United States).

I shall come back, shortly, to the Constitution, but first let us take a look at the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 15, 1985. That agreement was welcomed at the time by politicians and press, not only in Britain (though not by most people in Northern Ireland) but in the United States and throughout the Western world. Ostensibly, this was a “uniting people not territory” exercise, and it was accompanied by a great deal of rhetoric about “reconciling the two traditions in Ireland.” A few skeptics, including myself, pointed out that an agreement between Dublin and London, reached without consultation with any representative of the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, was most unlikely to do anything to reconcile the two traditions. In fact the agreement infuriated the unionists, and was seen, in both communities, as a victory of one side over the other, which it was.

Defenders of the agreement, both in Britain and in Ireland, said that unionists had absolutely no cause for alarm, because the agreement affirms the right of Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom, as long as a majority of its citizens so desire. These defenders of the agreement were relying on Article 1(a), which states that “any change in the status of Northern Ireland” would only come about with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The “status of Northern Ireland” was understood in Britain, and also internationally, as meaning its status as part of the United Kingdom. The Republic’s apparent acceptance of this was hailed as enlightened progress, away from the bad old days of irredentist claims to territory, irrespective of the wishes of a majority of the inhabitants thereof. So indeed it seemed. Unfortunately, the progress was illusory.

Tom Wilson, in an excellent chapter on the Anglo-Irish Agreement, points out that the recognition of Northern Ireland’s status is de facto only, and not de jure. There is Article 2 of the Constitution of the Republic to be considered. Article 2 states: “The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas.” Concerning the relation between this Article of the Republic’s Constitution, and Article 1 of the agreement, Tom Wilson writes:

If this de facto recognition had been accompanied by de jure recognition—that is to say, by the removal of Article 2 from the Irish Constitution—the situation in 1985 would have been transformed.

It was not to be: Article 2 remains in force. How, if at all, can Article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement be reconciled with Article 2 of the Constitution? The precise answer to that one was still unknown when Ulster: Conflict and Consent was published. The answer came on March 1, 1990, when the Supreme Court of the Republic, in a unanimous decision, found the agreement to be consistent with the Constitution. In handing down the judgment, Chief Justice Thomas Finlay cited Article 2 of the Constitution and also Article 3, which runs:

Pending the reintegration of the national territory, and without prejudice to the right of the Parliament and Government established by this Constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole of that territory, the laws enacted by that Parliament shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws of Saorstat Eireann [the Irish Free State, geographically identical with the present Irish Republic] and the like extra-territorial effect.

According to the Chief Justice, speaking on behalf of the whole Supreme Court: “The reintegration of the national territory is a constitutional imperative”. Thus the government of the Republic is required by law to use the Anglo-Irish Agreement to seek to acquire that part of the Republic’s “national territory,” which is at present part of the United Kingdom, its cosignatory. The fact that a majority of the citizens of Northern Ireland wish to remain in the United Kingdom can be recognized de facto—although it is not explicitly acknowledged in the Supreme Court judgment—but de jure there is no such place as Northern Ireland.

The notion that “the reintegration of the national territory is a constitutional imperative” goes a long way to legitimize the Provisional IRA, the people who are most active in implementing the imperative in question.

In the last chapter of his book, Tom Wilson speaks of and is somewhat heartened by what he calls “weak support for unity.” Certainly very few people put unity ahead of material concerns. In that sense “support” for unity is lacking. But acquiescence in pressure for unification is sufficiently general to be a political force. The largest party in the country, Fianna Fáil, is the party that gave the country the Constitution, with that uncompromising territorial claim, and is also the party that still beats loudest on the unity drum. The other major party, Fine Gael, lags well behind Fianna Fáil, partly because it is felt to be “less national.” And if support for unity is weak, opposition to it is still weaker. Were that not so, Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution would have been repealed years ago. As things stand, there is very little chance of their being repealed.

And this “acquiescence in pressure for unification” extends to the IRA. Very few people consciously approve of the IRA and almost everybody condemns their actions. But a certain equanimity, within the condemnations, reflects a degree of acquiescence. Terrible things they are doing, to be sure, but aren’t they our own, and trying to get back our lost land for us? Hardly anyone says anything like that, out loud, but the thought is there. If you live in the Republic, as I do, you can sense it, after each IRA atrocity, in the little silence that follows each ritual condemnation, and then the swift change of subject. A similar, but not identical syndrome exists in Northern Ireland, and Seamus Heaney has captured it definitively in North.

That degree of acquiescence in the Republic, plus a considerable amount of open support as well as ambivalent acquiescence in IRA activities, among Catholics in Northern Ireland, plus much open approval and support among Irish-Americans, plus parallel political “nonviolent” pressure for unification, plus the Constitution of the Republic—and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of it—all these are more than enough, I fear, to keep the Provisional IRA in business for a long time to come.

  1. *

    Marianne Elliot, Wolfe Tone: Prophet of Irish Independence (Yale University Press, 1990).