• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Tale of Two Nations

Ulster: Conflict and Consent

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

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.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print