Irish historiography has for a long time been overshadowed by a dominant ideology: that of Irish Republicanism. The central element of this ideology consists of the Jacobin separatism of Theobald Wolfe Tone, as refracted through a particular form of Catholic-Nationalist mysticism: that of Padraig Pearse. This view of Irish history was enshrined in the Proclamation of 1916, and further sanctified as a result of the execution by the British of the signatories to that proclamation.

The proclamation called for the complete independence of all of Ireland from England. Since the setting up of an independent Irish state at the end of 1921 it has had pride of place in government offices and schools, and young minds have been encouraged to approach it in a spirit of uncritical veneration, a spirit which is also promoted by other aspects of the culture. In many ways the position of the proclamation, in Irish schools, is analogous to that of the Declaration of Independence in American schools. But there is an important difference. The American War of Independence is generally accepted as being now over, while no one adhering to the Irish Republican ideology is likely to concede that Ireland’s struggle for independence against Britain is over.

There is a paradox involved here: a paradox which endangers both progress and stability in Ireland, and which has brought tragedy into many homes both North and South. The paradox is inherent in the fact that the official ideology, which the State enjoined on the young, is an ideology to which the State does not in practice adhere, and whose consistent adherents it finds itself obliged to punish.

According to the official ideology from Tone to Pearse, the sense of Irish history lies in breaking the connection with England, “the never failing source of all our political evils,” according to Tone; and according to Pearse, “While Ireland holds these bones [the bones of the patriot dead] Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.”

When exactly can the connection be said to be broken? When does Ireland cease to be “unfree”?

When the Irish Free State was set up in 1922 its government claimed it had not departed from the ideals of 1916 and also maintained that through the armed struggle “freedom to achieve freedom” had been won—that is, the remaining stages toward breaking the connection could be worked out in peaceful negotiations. But Ireland still held those bones, and Republicans considered the Irish Free State to be in fact unfree. This was the justification for the continued existence of the underground Irish Republican Army, and it must be admitted that in the ideology of Tone and Pearse it was a convincing interpretation. When young people read the proclamation, and the better known and more inflammatory utterances of Tone and Pearse, and when they then looked at the state in which they lived, and which thrust these texts into their hands, they readily and justifiably convicted their elders of hypocrisy.

When in opposition, Mr. de Valera’s party, which took the name of Fianna Fáil, made full use of the Republican ideology and Republican passions against the state’s first government. But when in power—and it has been the ruling party for thirty-four out of the forty years since 1932—it found itself in essentially the same position as its predecessor. It could, and did, go on using “freedom to achieve freedom”: sovereign independence for a state territorially identical to the old Irish Free State. The same entity having been known by various names and descriptions became a republic (under the interparty government of John A. Costello) in 1949. But that kind of republic, for twenty-six counties, could certainly have been attained by the date in question on the basis of the Home Rule arrangements which the Irish parliamentary party had been denounced for agreeing to in 1914—that is, it could have been achieved without any blood sacrifice at all. It fell short of the Republic for which Tone and Pearse died, in two fundamental respects.

First, the connection with England was, even in respect to the territory under the jurisdiction of the state (twenty-six counties), very far from being broken. In a technical, strictly political sense, it was broken (although it will be restored in a new form through the entry of both Britain and Ireland into the EEC), but in an economic sense the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Area Ageement, entered into by the Fianna Fáil government, made the connection with England even closer than it was in Wolfe Tone’s day, and in fact the two islands constitute one economic area, with a common currency and, in practice, mobility of labor (except for workers from the Republic into Northern Ireland).

Culturally also today’s Republic is closer to Britain than was the eighteenth-century kingdom of Ireland in which Tone lived. Pearse’s ideal, a Gaelic-speaking Ireland, never looked like becoming a reality, and the official genuflections in that direction have become increasingly perfunctory and embarrassing. The fact is that, given the geographical relation of the two islands, the idea of breaking the connection between them has become a crazy one, and most ordinary Irish people (outside the narrow world of consistent Republicanism) have no interest in pursuing it. One vivid example of this is the fact that people living along the relatively densely populated east coast of Ireland, who have the choice between the local television station and British stations, generally watch British television. They could “break the connection” with England “simply by turning a knob,” but they don’t.


This does not mean that they want to return to the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth, or any kind of political federation with Britain. They accept the Republic (the existing one, not the ideal one) as a fact of life, and they also accept its many close connections with Britain as facts of life. True Republicans regard this attitude as unworthy, more or less as Hitler came to regard the German people as being unworthy of him. From a Republican point of view therefore, even the twenty-six county territory which goes by the name of a republic is “unfree,” and therefore has no right to be at peace. This fact should not be forgotten by those who think that if the British troops were withdrawn from Northern Ireland, the border abolished, etc., there would no longer be any justification for IRA violence.

It is true that in Northern Ireland the British connection is very much more obvious. This connection has been desired by two-thirds of the population, the Protestants. The attitude of the remaining third is less easy to define. They have consistently voted against Unionist candidates, and they rejoiced at the fall of Stormont in March, 1972. Most of them certainly would like to see a united Ireland some day, without being altogether clear about what form it would take. Professor Richard Rose’s “Loyalty Survey” (carried out in 1968 and reproduced in Governing Without Consensus* ) found—to the surprise of a good many people—that while 34 percent of the Catholics of Northern Ireland were opposed to the constitution of Northern Ireland as it then stood, 33 percent accepted it and 34 percent were “don’t knows.”

Much has happened since 1968 to embitter Catholics (among others) while the question itself has become an anachronism: the “constitution of Northern Ireland,” as that phrase was understood in 1968, has ceased to exist. The prospects opened up by the Heath government’s March initiatives and by the recent Green Paper are much more attractive from a Catholic point of view than the old “constitution.” The Green Paper arrangements are based on equality of opportunity and proportionate shares of local power. It would be a reasonable assumption in 1973 that the percentage of Catholics willing to try out these arrangements in a Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom would be at least as high as the proportion of Catholics that accepted the unreformed constitution in 1968.

Certainly the proportion that is bent on “breaking the connection with England” in an all out way must be very small: social welfare benefits in the Republic average at one-half the rates prevailing in Northern Ireland, which has shared in the welfare state arrangements of the United Kingdom. Catholics in Northern Ireland are more likely to be unemployed than are Protestants, as a result of local prejudice and the local power structure existing up to quite recent times, whose effects still to a great extent persist. But as the administration of social welfare is British-based, the Catholic unemployed in the North receive the same benefits as the Protestant unemployed, while the unemployed in the Republic are twice as badly off as either set in the North. In these conditions, both for the unemployed and for parents of large families—both important groups in the Catholic population—the idea of a complete break with Britain seems less attractive than it seems to many “friends of Ireland” in the United States.

From a Republican point of view, however, the objective of breaking the connection with England remains, and it is irrelevant to consider how many living Irish people at any time are committed to this idea or not. The Republican mandate is a very curious thing. Primarily it derives from “the dead generations,” the patriot dead. The actual living Irish are neither here nor there and are generally felt not to be worthy of the dead. But most of the dead, when they were actually around, were not worthy of the dead either. This is the point that is brought out most vividly by Robert Kee, whose book The Green Flag has had a considerable impact on Irish opinion at a time when Republican orthodoxies are increasingly called into question.


Mr. Kee has been at work on The Green Flag for many years. He is Scottish himself and is quite strongly attracted to Irish nationalism. His book indeed conveys repeatedly a certain sense of surprise at finding that the Irish, of any given epoch, have not been as nationalistic—at least as Republicans conceive of nationalism—as the official tradition dominant in Ireland, and among sympathizers with Ireland in the United States and elsewhere, would suggest. Thus, both O’Connell and Parnell, neither of whom was a separatist in the sense of Tone and Pearse, had a far more numerous and enthusiastic following among Irish people in their time than either Wolfe Tone or Pearse had in theirs.

It is true that in the general election of 1918 the majority of the Irish (Catholic) people retrospectively endorsed the Proclamation of 1916. The subsequent IRA campaign of 1919-1921 is supposed to have rested on the democratic mandate thus conferred, while the Rising itself, actually carried out by a tiny minority, became “posthumously democratic.” This conception was to remain of importance in subsequent Irish history. The IRA, even if at any given time they are supported by no more than say 5 percent of the population, can say that their present repudiation is irrelevant because some future period will validate them just as the people in 1918 validated the action of 1916.

Thus, they unconsciously impart a strange twist to the Burkeian concept of “partnership” (between the living, the dead, and the unborn) through the formation of a kind of coalition between an imagined past and an imagined future against the real present. The sacrifice of 1916 and the proclamation give them not only their share in the real past, but through it an absolute theory of the whole national past. The electoral validation of 1918 implies (in this argument) that the future is theirs. This mystic double mandate raises them high above mere passing electoral majorities of the present time, and above the Irish governments which rest on these.

But there is rather more to it than that. Successive governments have been hypothetically committed to the same notion of the significance of 1916 and 1918, and so, one may suppose, have been those who elected them, though more remotely and even more vaguely. This gives the Republican movement its extraordinary leverage. The things that Republicans actually do believe in are the same things that most other Irish people half believe in, pretend to believe in, or prefer to be thought of as believing in. People brought up within the dominant concepts lack the historical vocabulary for arguing with Republicans, whose version of Irish history is as sharp and clear as it is constricted and fanatical.

Historical revisionism is important in any country. In Ireland it has become essential for our mental and political health—and indeed physical health too. Mr. Kee’s contribution is here of the first importance. His account of the period from 1918 on is particularly significant. It shows that in 1918 the people did not think they were voting for a resumption of the armed struggle against Britain. They were voting their condemnation of the government responsible for the 1916 executions, and for the attempted introduction of conscription in the following year; their condemnation also of the Irish parliamentary party, which was deemed to have failed in relation to these events; and their general approval of a party which had shown itself more militant than the Irish parliamentary party: Sinn Féin.

But they did not know what they were taking on. What Sinn Féin had led them to believe was that it was just a question of sending a sufficiently determined and effective delegation to the peace conference. Under President Wilson’s principle of self-determination it was obvious (according to Sinn Féin) that Ireland would get its independence. Mr. Kee shows, with copious quotations from newspaper archives, that when the IRA in 1919 began its guerrilla operations, these operations were repeatedly condemned, by local authorities as well as by the clergy, and that the IRA (as distinct from the “political” Sinn Féin) did not attract significant popular support until the coming of the Black and Tans and collective reprisals by the British.

Mr. Kee is not a professional historian and his work differs from that of specialists in Irish history in a number of respects. He is more interested in polemics and myths about history than historians have generally shown themselves to be. I do not mean by this that he is a polemicist or mythmaker himself; far from it. But as a practicing journalist he has an awareness of polemics and mythmaking and, where the facts as he discovers them, or as they appeared to contemporaries, are out of line with subsequent prevailing official myths, he is disposed to say so.

This is contrary to the practice of most academic historians, who are content to trace the facts and, if these seem to collide with prevailing official versions, to leave it to others to develop that particular thought. Thus while academic historiography has in fact presented a picture inconsistent with the official myth, it has never greatly troubled the proponents of the myth. “Irish history” as understood by the historians and that “Irish history” of which Republicans are custodians and to which the state paid lip service have existed on different planes: incompatible but felt to be irrelevant to one another and so not colliding. The merit of such a nonacademic but scholarly historian as Robert Kee is that he has not hesitated to precipitate an encounter between these two versions of Irish history, as a result of which their incompatibility clearly emerges and the myth suffers.

The Green Flag is a long book—over 800 pages with appendices and notes—dealing largely with the period from 1798-1922. Few enough people really read books of this length, but the debate about Mr. Kee’s ideas and other ideas related to these has reached a wide public in Ireland through the press and television. This debate encouraged others who had been repressing comparable unorthodox thoughts into some form of utterance. Thus, for example, the Jesuit periodical Studies had received in 1966 a notable revisionist essay on Pearse and Tone by the Jesuit Celtic scholar Father Francis Shaw. Fr. Shaw stressed a certain morbidity in Pearse’s writings, a characteristic which has to be noted by anyone who actually reads them but which has attracted singularly little comment, although its relation to a movement obsessed with the notion of recurring blood sacrifice is certainly significant. In the climate of 1966—during the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising—the Jesuits decided to suppress this; by the autumn of 1972 publishing it was felt to be possible. Both Republicans and others saw wide implications in these two decisions.

People have been shocked into thinking again, or starting to think, about the accepted version of Irish history by two factors. One is the horror at the ferocious campaign waged by the Provisional IRA since the beginning of 1971 (as well as the equally savage Protestant extremist backlash which that campaign has now succeeded in evoking). The other factor is the growing realization that the Provisionals are right if the dominant Republican ideology is right. As the implications of these two factors sink in, a great many Irish people—including, I should estimate, most university students at the present time—have begun to realize how little they are attached to the dominant ideology and how tired they are of having the limits of their intellectual and moral life marked out for them by Republicans.

There are others however who, while disgusted with the Provisionals and all they stand for, and disenchanted with the narrowness of Irish Republicanism, would reject the idea that the Provisionals are the logical outcome of Republican “break the connection” ideology and favor the emergence of a softened and flexible form of Republicanism corresponding to a rational attempt to fulfill the aspirations of the idealists of 1916 in accordance with the domestic and international realities of our own day.

Logically this thesis has its limits, but logic in politics also has its limits. This strain of “modified Republicanism” is the midstream of Irish politics today. Dr. Garret FitzGerald is in this stream by family tradition as well as by taste and temperament. His father was first Minister of External Affairs in the post-Treaty government from 1922. He was, that is to say, a Republican who accepted the Anglo-Irish Treaty of “freedom to achieve freedom.” Garret FitzGerald himself is one of the ablest and by all odds the best informed of the members of the Irish parliament. He is one of those who have consistently opposed not merely the excesses of contemporary Republicanism but the whole claim of that movement to a separate existence superior to the state, to democracy, and to the living generally.

In Towards a New Ireland he gives us a lucid and concise analysis of the structures which have developed in Northern Ireland and in the Republic since independence. These chapters are to be recommended as a very fairminded critique of the two systems, and they shed a good deal of light especially on the economic side in which Dr. FitzGerald is an expert.

He also constructs a model of what a new Ireland could be like. This is in fact the main purpose of his book. The formula “a new Ireland” is one which has become widely current in the Ireland of today, reflecting our dissatisfaction with what we already have. The slogan was put forward by a group of moderate Protestants in Belfast, of which the most prominent member was Dick Ferguson, who had supported the policies of Captain Terence O’Neill in his attempt to liberalize Northern Ireland. The formula has also been taken up with a different and much more ambiguous application by the prime minister, Jack Lynch, who tends to use it alternatively with the formula “a comprehensive Irish society.” The Social Democratic Labour party, representing a considerable band of Catholic opinion in Northern Ireland, has called its most recent policy document “Towards a New Ireland” (this is a coincidence and their program and Dr. FitzGerald’s are not in fact identical). Finally, even the Provisionals call their policy “Eire Nua,” which is the Gaelic for “New Ireland.”

The formula meets a need. Everybody admits that the simple incorporation of Northern Ireland into the Republic is impossible, and undesirable even if it were possible. Thus, if we are to have a united Ireland, it must be something new, different from either of the existing states whose distortions (both sets) are held to be the consequence of partition. Dr. FitzGerald in Towards a New Ireland presents by far the most detailed and rational description of the sort of federal system that could be set up in Ireland with equality of opportunity, and without domination of one community over another. He also goes to the trouble of working out a pattern of acceptable relations between his new Ireland and Britain, including financial arrangements over a transitional period—temporary continuance of British subsidy—and arrangements for dual citizenship.

I should be very happy to live in the kind of new Ireland which Dr. FitzGerald describes. I should be even happier to live in it were I to know that it would be run by people of the caliber and temperament of Dr. FitzGerald himself, and Dick Ferguson in the North. But I am afraid I cannot yet see how we are going to get to this point, and Dr. FitzGerald, despite the “towards” in his title, does not tell us. “Even after a Revolution,” states a character in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, “the country would still be full of crackers.” Ireland, North and South, has its crackers, Protestant and Catholic, and if we had our new Ireland now it would still be full of these.

Proponents of the new Ireland idea tell those of us who are skeptical about it that we must have some kind of united Ireland, and soon, or otherwise the violence will go on. This is indeed Pearse’s doctrine: “While Ireland holds these bones, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.” Mr. Lynch puts a more limited version of the same thing in his own pussyfooted way: “Violence is a by-product of the division of our country.” It is implied that we have only to put together some kind of federal arrangement and the violence will cease. It is obvious that this ignores or unrealistically minimizes Protestant resistance (including violent resistance) to any form of unification, federal, new, comprehensive, or other.

But there is another depressing situation, which is even more generally overlooked. This is that the IRA will regard any settlement not negotiated by them as a betrayal of the Republic. That is to say that any kind of new Ireland, except one which the Provisionals help to set up, will still constitute “Ireland unfree,” and therefore will never be at peace. And of course any kind of “new Ireland” which the Provisionals were allowed a share in setting up would be violently resisted by the Protestants and thus not result in peace either. Complete peace is unlikely under any arrangement. But arrangements rejected by two thirds of the population (Protestants) would be even less likely to lead to peace than arrangements rejected by one third (Catholics).

The idea that the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland is offset by the Catholic majority in the island as a whole is very misleading. The population of the Republic is certainly not demanding unity with anything like the passion with which the Protestant working class in the North rejects the idea of unity. The idea of unity as a practical proposition (as distinct from a remote and vague object of pious hope) is not popular among ordinary citizens of the Republic. Hence in part the vogue for the “new Ireland” formula. The best hope, both for the immediate future and in the middle term, lies not in pressure for unification, but in toleration of division and in concentrating on the primacy of social and economic objectives in the two parts of the island. In the meantime the law has to be enforced equally against Catholic and Protestant murderers. The organizations of these murderers have to be clearly shown that they have no hope of getting their way by violence. At the same time we have to be vigilant about another threat in the Republic: the tendency of the Lynch government to make “Reichstag fire” use of the IRA threat in order to turn the country into a one-party state.

The Offenses Against the State (Amendment) Act which was rushed through all its stages in the Irish parliament at the end of the last session was objectionable in this respect and also for other reasons. The act, which allows the “belief” of a senior police officer to count as evidence against an accused man, is open to serious abuse. The government had already possessed adequate, and very drastic, powers for dealing with the IRA if it chose to use them. Its failure to do so had been political, not juridical. Nor have there been any dramatic changes in the course of law enforcement since the passage of the act. The Labour party opposed the bill for these reasons, and people like myself are now being accused of being “soft on the IRA.” The government is now concerned for its “law and order” image, and wishes people to forget the part that members of the governing party played in establishing the Provisional IRA in 1969-1970.

Concern about the beginnings of a spread of violence to the Republic is fairly widespread. By contrast there was not much interest in the recent referendum in December which led to the abolition of the formal recognition in the constitution of the “special position of the holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Cardinal Conway, the Roman Catholic Primate of all Ireland, had indicated that he would have no objection to the deletion of this provision. He indicated that he would object to the ending of the constitutional prohibition of divorce, and that prohibition remains. Thus the “special position” is not substantially affected by the withdrawal, by consent of all parties, of its formal recognition. Mr. Lynch’s posters advocating this change (and the granting of the vote at age eighteen) carried the slogan “Yes for a New Ireland” and a portrait of Mr. Lynch, showing that this new Ireland is to be a familiar enough place in practice. In any event only about half the electorate voted. Of those who did, however, a great majority voted for the change.

The change was presented as an olive branch to the North, and might perhaps have been accepted as such if it had come five years ago, in Terence O’Neill’s time. Today it is too little and too late. The offensive of the Provisional IRA has now elicited its counterpart: systematic Protestant violence against Catholic civilians in what is already a piecemeal sectarian civil war. If the British troops were withdrawn in present conditions the piecemeal civil war would turn into a full-scale one. The principal, though not the only, victims would be the Catholics of Belfast.

Short of ultimate disaster there is no quick or dramatic “solution.” There is some hope in war-weariness. Certainly the Catholic community is now appalled by the price it has had to pay for the form of “defense” afforded it by the Provisional IRA in 1971-1972. But the frenzy in a large part of the Protestant community seems still to be rising. This frenzy has been fanned not only by the Provisional offensive but by the persistent claims from Dublin and elsewhere that unity is inevitable.

The Provisionals claim, plausibly enough, that it was their campaign that “put unity on the map.” To the extent that this claim was believed in the Protestant community—and it was quite widely believed there—it carried the message that the way to take unity off the map again was to wage an even more ruthless campaign against the community out of which the Provisionals had struck—the Catholics. This second hideous campaign is now under way.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions—a body which embraces the trade union movement throughout Ireland—asserts that loyalty to the “human race” must take precedence over all lesser loyalties and suggests that those who insist on bringing “constitutional considerations” always to the fore under present conditions are untrue to that fundamental loyalty and are promoting sectarian civil war.

I believe that it is only if the path pointed to by the congress is generally followed that we shall have any hope of seeing any worthwhile “new Ireland” and that it is not likely to be a politically united one until at least a very considerable time has elapsed after the cessation of the present violence. The more we insist on progress toward unity now, the longer it will be before we see that cessation.

This Issue

January 25, 1973