Contorted view of the Irish conflict

Peter Berresford Ellis reviews The Longest War: Northern Ireland’s troubled history by Marc Mulholland, Oxford University Press, £8.99 pbk

“THE TROUBLES that broke out in Northern Ireland in 1968 proved that even liberal democratic institutions and a standard of living enviable in all but the wealthiest countries were no proof against ethnic conflict in the contemporary age.”

When I read these words, the very first sentence of this book, I nearly put it down in disgust. Where were the ‘liberal democratic institutions’ in Northern Ireland in 1968? Tell any Catholic, or even Protestant, working class family in Belfast or Derry that they had a standard of living that was enviable — by whom? — and they would think your sense of humour was bizarre indeed.

Could it be that Mulholland, a Fellow in Modern History at St Catherine’s College, Oxford had such a perverse sense of humour or were we being confronted with yet another revisionist propaganda tract? Certainly, this book talks more of symptoms of the English colonial problem in Ireland than actual causes of the conflict.

However, in fairness to Mulholland, once you get over the ‘dressing’ stage of the book, then there are some facts cited which makes rubbish of that awful gaff of an opening sentence. But if we are looking for fairness in examining what has gone on during the last thirty years, we still await that volume.

Having decided to stick with it, I did find it a useful little handbook with some easy-to-access basic information. A few misprints make one nervous — mention of the republican aim of a 30 county Irish republic (p.187).

One sadly comes away with the conclusion that it is a work pandering to English concepts — that the problem was not colonial; that the conflict was merely ‘tribal’ and ‘religious’; that the violence was entirely an Irish affair and that the English role was as ‘peacemaker’ rather than England being the cause and means of prolonging violence.

And we are back to the old myth that the unionists are ethnically different from the nationalists. Unionists are a political group. They undoubtedly should have the freedoms they long denied others. But they are not and never have been an ethnic group. To lump unionists and Protestants as an ‘ethnic group’ is an insult to the generations of Irish Protestants who were nationalists, republicans and Irish-speakers, many of whom led the anti-colonial struggle against England — Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Henry Joy McCracken, Fintan Lawlor, Thomas Davis, William O’Brien, Isaac Butt, Charles Parnell, Roger Casement, Robert Lynd, Joseph Campbell to name just some of the more prominent.

Only when the myth of a unionist ethnic identity, linked to a single sectarian background, is dismissed for the nonsense it is, will we start to get any fair account of Northern Ireland.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-02 15:05:28.
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