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…

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