By Patrick Farrelly
HOPE AGAINST HISTORY, by Jack Holland. Henry Holt. 280 pp. $25.
If ever there was a time to reevaluate the last 30 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it is surely now. We stand on the brink of an arrangement that will have the respective leaders of Irish republicanism and Ulster unionism, Gerry Adams and David Trimble, sitting at the same cabinet table overseeing the administration of the Northern Ireland State. With the British, Irish, and U.S. governments breathing down their necks, all sides have too much invested in this process to retreat very far from the inevitable deal.
Jack Holland’s history of the conflict, "Hope Against History," is a useful starting point for a fresh look at how we got to this point. It is a cold, objective account that doesn’t spare any of the participants. There is no wishful thinking here, no glamorizing of the armed forces — official and unofficial — defending this British statelet, nor of those who dedicated themselves to its downfall. It is full of telling anecdotes that strip away the self-justifications and mind-numbing peace-process-speak that passes for dialogue and analysis in Northern Ireland today.
The struggle for control of the Northern Ireland State has continued in one form or another since the day the British delegated local control to unionism. The decision by Michael Collins, and later DeValera, to abandon Northern nationalists to the daily delights of life in this bowler-hatted bible belt, merely postponed the inevitable reckoning. Stripped of any regular democratic way of changing their circumstances, and faced with a backward and belligerent administration of Serbian inclinations, it was probably inevitable that Northern Catholics would turn in large numbers to the same military conspiracy that battered the British in the 26 counties. The history of the last 30 years is in many ways a history of the successes and failures of Irish republicanism in its struggle with the Northern Ireland State.
Holland outlines the beginnings of the Provisional IRA in the cauldron of police and loyalist attacks on nationalist neighborhoods and its development from a self-defense force into a disciplined guerrilla army. In 1969, there were only a few veterans around to tutor the young insurgents in the history and ideology of Irish Republicanism. From these necessarily haphazard beginnings, the Provos would always have a Catholic Defender or Hibernian (Catholic Nationalist) sensibility that belied its adherence to the ideology of Wolfe Tone and John Mitchell. The Provos’ adoption of a strict militarism essentially turned the nationalist population into a cheering section for its armed campaign.
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Once the civil rights movement ran into the brick wall of the British supported Unionist state, the Six Counties became a battleground pitting the IRA against all-comers. Holland quite correctly points out that the period from 1977 onward marked a new phase in Northern Ireland. By then the Provos had become isolated and inward looking, with only the Catholic ghettos and their hardcore supporters to sustain them. Only the stupidity of the British government and their Unionist allies and the extraordinary individual courage of the IRA’s own volunteers saved the movement from oblivion. With the election of Bobby Sands the Provos were reborn and the course that we have arrived at today was set. Holland remarks of the Hunger Strike era, "Treating republicans like common criminals had turned them into politicians."
"The ballot box energized the Provisionals and left the moderate nationalists dismayed and afraid," Holland says in his introduction to the post-Hunger Strike era. The ballot box and armalite strategy as espoused in 1981 by Adams and Danny Morrison was also mutually contradictory. The military campaign with its inevitable mishaps and disasters lost votes. Eventually it would have to be one or the other. Two years later Gerry Adams became a Westminster MP. Another three years on, Adams opened up a secret line of communication with Irish Prime Minister Charlie Haughey. He had also convinced the Provos to run for seats in the Dublin parliament.
It was a well-trodden path, traversed by Collins and De Valera before them. For the Provos it would inevitably lead to an accommodation with the Northern Ireland State. With the acceptance of the Mitchell Principles and Good Friday agreement, the Provos, had to all intents and purposes, abandoned republicanism and adopted Irish government/John Hume-style constitutional nationalism. That Adams managed to pull this off without a major split was both a tribute to his considerable abilities and a reflection of the Hibernian essence of the Provos.
Despite all the fading rhetoric about "the road to a United Ireland," the strategy was bought by Adams’s supporters on the simple expectation that it would improve the lot of Catholics in Northern Ireland. This has about the same relationship to the aims of Irish Republicanism as say, a fair wage and a good Christmas bonus has to socialism. Holland quotes Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner and a very perceptive analyst of the situation: "The political objective of the Provisional IRA was to secure a British declaration of intent to withdraw. It failed. The objective of the British State was to force the Provisional IRA to accept the position that it would not leave Ireland until a majority in the North consented to such a move. It succeeded."
Jack Holland does not devote much of this book to the prospects for reforming the Northern Ireland State, and for the Adams strategy to succeed it must be reformed in a pretty substantial way. The prospects are not particularly good. Both as a partitioned entity and a backward region of the UK, the Northern Ireland economy is not exactly prospering. The Unionist majority is as conservative and inward looking as ever, its only real attribute being its extremely resilient intransigence and paranoia. The British and Irish governments’ principal objective has always been to stabilize Northern Ireland by getting rid of the IRA. Forcing Unionists to act in a civilized fashion has never been at the top of the agenda in either London or Dublin.
The admission of Gerry Adams and his circle into cabinet seats and assembly committees with the SDLP and the Official and Democratic Unionists will come with a high price. They will be forced to defend the state and its institutions, including the RUC. The fact that Adams wants to be in government and not in opposition in this new assembly is an indication of how hungry he and his supporters are to taste the trappings of power. Inevitably those same trappings will place some distance between them and their old constituencies. Their ability to deliver anything of substance to the still-impoverished ghettos they came from will ultimately determine their legacy.
In his conclusion, Jack Holland is optimistic about the unfolding situation in Northern Ireland, "where compromise would eventually replace the clash of contending absolutes, the dogmas of Unionism and Republicanism." That’s a big maybe.