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The End of the Troubles?’: An Exchange

In response to:

The End of the Troubles? from the February 19, 1998 issue

To the Editors:

Having just returned from Belfast on my tenth trip since the peace talks began, I find Fintan O’Toole’s commentary on Northern Ireland [NYR, February 19] unfortunately laden with distortions and biases. I say “unfortunately” because I know and greatly admire O’Toole as one of the finest cultural critics in Ireland today. In addition, much of what he writes is insightful concerning the choices people like Gerry Adams must make. But O’Toole’s vision of the new “global Ireland” interferes with his understanding of a very old conflict still raging in the northern part of the country.

In the first place, O’Toole fails completely in his presumed task of reviewing Peter Taylor’s comprehensive work Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein. Taylor’s book, and the accompanying television series, are widely regarded in Ireland and England as having legitimized Sinn Fein, or at least ended its demonization, at a key moment when the British government and its Unionist allies were entering negotiations with the likes of Gerry Adams.

Instead of acknowledging this, O’Toole lifts three small references from Taylor’s 431 pages to prove points that the reviewer wants to make. The first is a footnote in which O’Toole notes that Taylor was incorrect about the origins of Wolfe Tone, a founder of the 1798 United Irishmen in Belfast. O’Toole says Tone was from Dublin, not Belfast, suggesting that Taylor’s knowledge of such matters is “vague.” Then O’Toole writes a one-sentence concurrence with Taylor that Sinn Fein and the IRA have “close links,” which is hardly a revelation. The third is another minor one-sentence reference to Taylor which supports O’Toole’s critique of Sinn Fein.

Nowhere does O’Toole describe the overall thrust of Taylor’s book. As to Gerry Adams’s autobiography, O’Toole writes far more extensively, but only about a single issue, whether Adams is now or ever was a member of the IRA. O’Toole is convinced that Adams, by avoiding an answer to this question, has produced a “useless” and “evasive” autobiography. The rest of Adams’s 332-page book, which tells of growing up in the impoverished Falls Road, joining the fair housing and civil rights movements in the Sixties, being shot by Loyalist death squads, deciding to pursue a path toward a political settlement, is apparently irrelevant to share with the reader. While everyone in Ireland knows that Gerry Adams has had a “relationship” with the armed wing of the Republican movement (the Provisional IRA), O’Toole zeroes in with the obsession of a Joseph McCarthy looking for conclusive proof. He does acknowledge that Adams “has never been convicted of any violent crime, or of any IRA-related offense, except that of attempting to escape from a prison camp to which he was committed without trial,” but goes on insisting that Adams has clandestine ties which bring into question everything else he says.

Is O’Toole wrong in this obsession to prove Adams “evasive”? Not at all, just a bit one-noted. He is perfectly entitled to pursue an answer to this mystery, as many others have, but he shouldn’t be “evasive” himself as to why Adams doesn’t answer the question. It is a serious crime of treason in Northern Ireland to admit ever being a member of a secret organization like the IRA. If Gerry Adams was ever part of the IRA (and I happen to believe he was), he would have to weigh whether satisfying O’Toole’s curiosity is worth a remand to prison.

In any event, the common theme of both Taylor’s and Adams’s books is to contextualize the Sinn Fein movement and explain its decision to initiate a peace drive after years of urban guerrilla war. Both books have the effect of legitimizing Sinn Fein, but the reader would never know this because O’Toole uses his scant pretext of a review to offer his own perspective of events.

His analysis of Northern Ireland reveals why O’Toole wants to give so little attention to the books he is reviewing. He makes the following striking assertions:

  1. O’Toole writes that Loyalist paramilitary groups are “unlikely to form a barrier to peace,” a shocking statement since these elements not only have gone on bloody rampages against Catholics many times in the past, they killed ten and wounded two from December 27 to January 25 while O’Toole must have been writing his article.

In addition, many Loyalists (followers of Ian Paisley, for example) oppose the talks altogether. Those in attendance, like David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party, have close links to the paramilitaries, and threaten to walk out of the talks if the results even reaffirm the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement which allows a modest consulting role for Dublin in Northern Irish affairs.

Trimble, the Unionists, and the Loyalists are joined in seeking to achieve a Protestant-dominated assembly in Northern Ireland, which would preserve the 95 percent Protestant police force that is viewed by nationalists as a hostile and brutal presence. Trimble himself stood foursquare with the Orange Order—the Irish equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan—during last season’s militant parades into Catholic areas.

O’Toole wishfully imagines that Trimble is a “moderate” Unionist leader. In a relatively flattering piece on Trimble in George magazine (March 1998), O’Toole describes him as a “uniquely necessary man,” whose “critics may end up being grateful for those very qualities in David Trimble that they have tended to despise.”

Maybe, maybe not. But O’Toole is unique among Irish commentators in thinking that Trimble’s allies among the Protestant paramilitaries are not a barrier to a peaceful settlement.

  1. O’Toole further claims that the IRA has failed because its enemies have been “liberal democracies” like the British government. Whatever its liberal heritage, the British government has been an occupying power governing Northern Ireland directly from Westminster, deploying over 20,000 troops, engaging in abuses that have been condemned by Amnesty International, for thirty years running. Its behavior provided a completely plausible rationale for the renewal of the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s, according to Taylor’s account.

  2. Anticipating this objection, O’Toole claims that the original grievances of Catholics have now been addressed, and so “the abuses which had sparked the conflict in the first place [are] largely ended.” He offers the specious comment that discrimination has been “outlawed” without mentioning that inequality is both institutionalized and ongoing. In fact, one recent analysis of Northern Ireland concluded that segregation is greater now than in 1969. Unemployment rates for Catholics continue to be almost twice that of Protestants, and the courts and police are essentially in Unionist control.

O’Toole fancifully describes local government as being “successfully overhauled.” It is true that in counties with nationalist majorities there is increased representation of Sinn Fein and John Hume’s Social Democratic and Labour Party. But the real decisions concerning resource allocation and law enforcement remain under the control of the Northern Ireland Office of the British government.

  1. O’Toole apologizes for British behavior in Northern Ireland as based on “lack of understanding.” But any schoolchild could tell O’Toole the British have had eight centuries to get it right. The “lack of understanding” is not rooted in a British mental deficit, but in the arrogance that comes from years of colonial rule.

  2. For O’Toole, the 1920 partition of Ireland was only an “inevitable product of Irish political, economic, and religious divisions,” not a “heinous British crime.” On this point O’Toole not only departs from the Sinn Fein/nationalist creed, but the popular opinion of the vast majority of Irish citizens in his own southern Republic. Whether it was “heinous” is in the eye of the beholder, but the reason for partition was the British desire to maintain a stronghold in Ireland.

  3. Finally, O’Toole claims that Sinn Fein will settle for reformist goals which they could have achieved twenty-five years ago without the intervening violence. That this too is fantasy is shown by O’Toole’s own admission in the next sentence that “such a settlement might well have been destroyed by a Unionist reaction.” That is exactly what did happen, as he well knows, after the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974.

Sinn Fein has managed to progress in ways that were unimaginable twenty-five years ago, and in ways the Unionists still refuse to accept, as both Taylor and Adams document. Censorship has ended, Sinn Fein receives 43 percent of the nationalist vote in the North, one of its leaders has been elected to the southern Dail for the first time in seventy years, Gerry Adams visits both the White House and 10 Downing Street, and so on. And it is highly debatable that Sinn Fein will settle for the modest reforms O’Toole refers to. It is more likely that the present talks will lead, at best, to modest reforms of the North, more cross-border input from Dublin, and a continuation of the conflict, including more violence, until there is a dynamic in place that allows for a gradual transition to an all-Ireland settlement.

What leads O’Toole to blame Sinn Fein for so much violence and exonerate the British due to “lack of understanding”? A clue lies in O’Toole’s recent book The Ex-Isle of Erin (New Island, Dublin, 1997). There he asserts, almost unbelievably in light of the current crisis in the peace process, that by 1996 the “differences between Britishness and Irishness were narrowing to almost nothing.”

O’Toole means that the southern Republic has modernized, industrialized, even outstripped the British in per capita income, and in terms of culture has merged into a bland modern consumerism suitable for the global economy. But in order to envision this postnationalist “global Ireland,” O’Toole must delete the importance, even the validity, of the ongoing conflict between Irish nationalists and British colonialism in the North. The very subject, which is an Irish front-page story most days of the year, is ignored completely in O’Toole’s book on the Irish future. For O’Toole, the whole nationalist project must be a throwback, an obsession, a blot, and a barrier to the Irish taking their place in the modern world.

O’Toole even writes that it is “possible to understand the Republic of Ireland without reference to Britain” at all these days. But is that evidence of modernity, or the triumph of denial?

Tom Hayden
Los Angeles

Fintan O’Toole replies:

I know Tom Hayden’s commitment to Ireland to be deep and genuine. I know, too, how painful it is for people who feel such a profound attachment to what they believe to be the cause of Ireland to deal with the squalid reality of the IRA’s long campaign of violence. It is much more comforting to imagine a heroic resistance to oppression than to confront the death, injury, division, and bitterness that are the IRA’s only achievements. It is nonetheless disappointing that a humane and brave democratic politician can neither acknowledge the consistent abuse of human rights by the IRA nor move, in the characterization of another section of the Irish population—Northern Irish Protestants—beyond a level of easy abuse that even the leadership of Sinn Fein now tries to avoid. The main aim of my article was to elucidate the IRA’s recent history and current position, and in doing so I made it clear I was drawing on Peter Taylor’s work, although no doubt more could have been said about some aspects of his book. In connection with Gerry Adams’s autobiography, it is hard to tell precisely what accusation Tom Hayden wants to make. If, as he himself believes, Gerry Adams was a member of a group dedicated to killing its enemies, then it is hardly excessive either to describe as “evasive” an alleged life-story that fails to deal with that fact or to attempt to fill the gap. If current political conditions prevent him from writing about his time in the IRA, then why write an autobiography which is bound to lie by omission? Would Tom Hayden have found it acceptable, for example, for Richard Nixon to publish an autobiography that failed to mention Vietnam? Would it be an obsessive McCarthyite tactic to suggest what was missing?

There are, furthermore, two serious inaccuracies in Tom Hayden’s characterization of this issue. It is not true that Gerry Adams “doesn’t answer the question” about his links with the IRA. He does—frequently and repeatedly—answer that question with blanket denials that he was ever a member of the IRA or ever engaged in political violence. And it is not true that Adams’s book tries to explain Sinn Fein’s “decision to initiate a peace drive after years of urban guerrilla war.” In fact, its narrative ends long before the peace process begins. A book by Gerry Adams explaining why and how he came to believe in the pursuit of a nonviolent strategy would indeed be a fascinating document. Unfortunately that book has yet to be written.

Nor for that matter has an article in which I claim that Loyalist paramilitary groups are “unlikely to form a barrier to peace.” I wrote that two specific Loyalist paramilitary groups, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, are unlikely, in the event of a settlement that preserves Northern Ireland’s union with Britain, to disrupt it. Tom Hayden ignores this significant qualification. He also confuses these groups with the Loyalist Volunteer Force, a hardline gang which has not taken part in the peace talks, and in whose name the murders he refers to have been carried out.

Though some elements of the UDA have indeed been involved with the recent murders, the fact is that the political representatives of both these groups have been consistently flexible in their approach to the talks. Recent events suggest that, in the event that the mainstream Loyalists do sign a peace deal, a hardline Protestant sectarian murder gang will continue to operate. I hope that their viciousness will be condemned with rather more force than Tom Hayden can muster for their Catholic counterparts.

What will not help to avert such cruelty, though, is the wild abuse of those forces in the Protestant community with whom Irish nationalists have to strike a deal. The allegation that the Ulster Unionist Party and its leader David Trimble are closely linked to paramilitaries is one that should be either substantiated or withdrawn. So far, it has not been substantiated. Perhaps Tom Hayden could explain why, if Trimble is in league with sectarian murderers, the Irish prime minister and leader of the largest nationalist party on the island, Bertie Ahern, has declared himself “happy” with the prospect of Trimble becoming prime minister of Northern Ireland if the peace talks work out. Likewise, to describe the Orange Order as the “Irish equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan” is to use the kind of shamefully inflammatory rhetoric that has kept Northern Ireland where it is today. I don’t like the Orange Order any more than Tom Hayden does, but it is emphatically not an organization of masked men dedicated to lynching, burning, and terrorizing Catholics. Most of its members are ordinary Protestants who see the Order—rightly or wrongly—as a way to preserve their religious heritage. To suggest otherwise is simply to engage in the kind of crude sectarian mudslinging that, in the conditions of Northern Ireland, costs lives.

Tom Hayden’s anxiety to justify the IRA’s violence also leads him to an unusually extreme position in relation to the reform of the abuses that helped spark the conflict in the first place. It is, indeed, true that in spite of the outlawing of sectarian discrimination in the allocation of jobs, levels of unemployment are significantly higher among Catholics than among Protestants in Northern Ireland, though it is notable that Hayden avoids acknowledging that many Protestant areas also suffer extremely high levels of unemployment and deprivation.

The fact is that Northern Ireland has far-reaching legislation outlawing job discrimination and an active and respected statutory agency to police those laws. Ending discrimination in the allocation of new jobs, though, does nothing in itself to create work for Catholics in a chronically depressed economy. Explaining why the economy in Northern Ireland is chronically depressed would take a good deal of space. However, as Tom Hayden might accept, but fails to say, the IRA’s longstanding policy of blowing up “economic targets” like factories and shops might have something to do with it.

It is strange, moreover, to point to the increased segregation of the two communities as evidence of discrimination against Catholics. The reason for segregation is fear of sectarian violence committed by, among others, the IRA. Attempting to justify a campaign of violence by reference to one of its most disastrous effects is absurd. I have never heard allegations, even from Sinn Fein, that the independent Northern Ireland Housing Executive which allocates public housing operates in a discriminatory way. What it does is to operate in the context of a savage sectarian conflict, offering Catholics houses in Catholic areas. If Tom Hayden thinks this is a bad idea he should try asking a Catholic on the Falls Road in Belfast to move to a nice house on the Protestant Shankill Road.

Tom Hayden seems also to have discovered problem—which have occurred to no one else—with the system of local government elections. How come, if the old anti-Catholic abuses remain in force, Sinn Fein has managed to become the largest party on the Belfast City Council? How come members of the party have held council chairmanships? As for the allocation of resources to local government from the central authorities, is Tom Hayden seriously suggesting that the IRA’s long campaign of killing and maiming is justified by the over-centralization of local government? Or has he noticed that one of the reasons so many resources are allocated from London is that the British government heavily subsidizes public services in Northern Ireland?

On the subject of the British government, I did indeed use the phrase “lack of understanding.” I also wrote of “utter ignorance” and of its perpetration of “massacre” and “counter-atrocity”; but since it suits Tom Hayden to characterize me as an apologist whose desire is to “exonerate” the British, these phrases are forgotten. For the simplistic school of analysis which sees the problem as the British presence and the solution as a British withdrawal, such accusations are the only way of avoiding the central issue—that the “British presence” is the 20 percent of the population of the island of Ireland which regards itself as British. That presence can be removed only by the extermination or expulsion of the Protestant community. Trying that final solution, in 1920 or today, is a recipe for bloody civil war. Implicit in Tom Hayden’s prescription for an “all-Ireland settlement” over the heads of the Protestants is the belief that this price is worth paying.

It is interesting, as an Irishman, to be told that in being unwilling to pay it I am at odds with “the popular opinion of the vast majority of Irish citizens” in the Republic of Ireland. In last year’s elections in the Irish Republic about 95 percent of the vote went to parties whose stated policy is that any change in the status of Northern Ireland should come about only with the consent of the Protestant majority there—an acceptance of partition unless and until the people of Northern Ireland want to end it. Sinn Fein, by contrast, received 3 percent of the vote and holds one of the 166 seats in the Dail.

From California, that may look like a vast majority, but from anywhere else it is easy to see who is denying the right of self-determination to the Irish people. Britain has pledged that if a majority on both parts of the island wants a unified Irish state, it will withdraw. The IRA and Sinn Fein, on the other hand, have yet to accept that the wish of the vast majority on the island for a peaceful compromise, expressed time after time in free elections, is sovereign. Behind their rhetoric of “self-determination for the Irish people” there has been an utter contempt for the popular will.

Finally, grateful as I am for the mention of my book The Ex-Isle of Erin, it contains no startling claim that the political differences between Britishness and Irishness have disappeared. It argues, on the contrary, that these differences have become political only. The point is that whereas the categories of Irish Catholic and British Protestant used to contain a whole range of differences—in work, lifestyle, sex life, family size, cultural activities, and so on—they no longer do so. Ireland has changed. Instead of ignoring the sins of their own tribe, and using crude rhetoric about the other tribe, Irish-Americans should be encouraging Sinn Fein and the IRA to recognize those changes and to grasp the opportunities they provide for a way out of a cruel and degrading conflict.

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