Surveying the political spectrum of Irish politics

Roy Johnston reviews Changing Shades of Orange and Green: redefining the Union and the Nation in contemporary Ireland, John Coakley (ed), UCD Press £15.95 (20.25 euros) hbk

John Coakley is senior lecturer in politics at University College Dublin and director of the Institute for British-Irish Studies. He has produced, in Changing Shades, a useful survey of current political positions and their academic analyses.

In his introduction Coakley gives an overview of the political spectrum: ‘mainstream’ unionism, ‘British’ conservative unionism, Ulster loyalism; his variants of nationalism include the consitutional variety and militant republicanism.

In his classification of the nationalist spectrum, he treats the SDLP as being an innovatory clean break with the old Nationalist Party, but fails to relate this to the civil-rights movement which was the catalyst for the break.

As regards ‘militant republicanism’ he treats us to a sequence of no less than seven Sinn Feins, and hints at their relationships with the underlying IRA, suggesting a need for further analysis, especially for the 1960s period, when Goulding, who deserves credit as an Adams precursor, attempted to politicise the movement.

Missing from the Coakley analysis is any reference to the various attempts to develop cross-community politics, such as were attempted in the mid-1960s by the politicising republicans and the Communist Party. The Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) had tried earlier; the Alliance, the Greens and the Women’s Coalition came subsequently.

The civil-rights movement, which triggered the 1960s events, emerged as a result of the work of the politicising republicans under Cathal Goulding, helped by the present writer, and supported by individual communists like Betty Sinclair and Derek Peters.

This was originally a cross-community initiative, but it became tribalised, and forced into the Catholic ghettoes, when the unionist establishment counter-attacked with the armed B-Specials in August 1969. This triggered the emergence of the Provisionals (cf the present writer’s Century of Endeavour, Academica/Maunsel 2003, Ch 7).

Thus, the gun was introduced by the ‘loyalist’ element in 1969 to kill the cross-community Civil-rights, just as it had been earlier, with the Larne gun-running in 1914, to prevent all-Ireland cross-community Home Rule (cf my father Joe Johnston’s 1913 Civil War in Ulster, re-published by UCD Press in 1999).

In his treatment of politics in the Republic of Ireland Coakley overviews Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and the Progressive Democrats, avoiding mention of the emergent Sinn Fein and the Greens. He then goes on the overview the Good Friday agreement (GFA), and in this context he recognises the role of the Alliance and its difficulties in the face of a system dominated by quasi-tribal structures.

The contributions by politicians include papers from Alban Maginness, Mitchel McLaughlin, Dermot Nesbitt and David Ervine, all of whom are MLAs, and Desmond O’Malley TD. The outlines of their contributions and backgrounds indicate a degree of failure to cover the spectrum, there being nothing from the Democratic Unionist Party (ie Ian Paisley and company), nor from the mainstream parties in the Republic of Ireland.

Maginness in his analysis credits the civil-rights movement with its early catalytic role, rightly decoupling it from the national question. He blames ‘physical force republicanism’ for re-introducting the latter; in fact it was Blaney and the Donegal Fianna Fail mafia, helping the set the stage on which the Provisionals subsequently emerged.

McLaughlin, despite quoting Bernard Shaw, falls short of declaring any republican aspiration for Protestants to cease to be unionist and to participate willingly in a secular democratic republic. Provisional republicanism, it seems, remains intellectually in the catholic-nationalist straitjacket.

Nesbitt’s contribution is interesting in that it outlines the steps leading to the acceptance among at least some of the Unionist camp of the need to get away from the idea of ‘pure majority rule’. he also gives the argument a European dimension, reminding us of the many situations in Europe where national minorities exist associated with state boundaries.

Ervine echoes the earlier analysis that motivated the communist activists, who mostly had Protestant backgrounds, to support the emerging 1960s Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA): working people with common interests in social issues were kept divided on religious grounds by ruling elites who did well out of such divisions. He goes on to say, perceptively, that

"..decommissioning would threaten the political standpoint of the Democratic Unionist Party, by removing the bogeyman on which their political careers have been built. For them, the retention of weapons by the republicans is an important poltical prop...".

O’Malley established the Progressive Democrats in 1985, and was party leader until 1993. His contribution is basically an outline of the background to the foregoing, and a critique of Charles Haughey.

The academic analyses are from Jennifer Todd (University College Dublin), Paul Arthur (University of Ulster), Richard English (Queens’s University Belfast), James McAuley (Huddersfield) and Tom Garvin (University College Dublin). Their analyses, from varying perspectives, throw some new light on an old problem, and deserve to be taken up creatively in the political arena.

Todd has an acerbic comment: ‘..when Catholics mobilised, Stormont was brought down four years later; when Protestants mobilised, Sunningdale was brought down in 14 days..’ illustrating the brutal reality of majoritarian communal power. She misses out somewhat on the analysis of the prior civil-rights demands, which were not to bring down Stormont but to reform it, along lines foreshadowing the GFA.

Arthur’s chapter on the transformation of republicanism is based largely on Gerry Adams’ contributions. It emerges that neither Adams nor Arthur appear to have any knowledge of the thinking of Adams’ predecessors (ie Goulding, Mac Giolla, the present writer and others) who attempted to project in the 1960s the non-violent road to the republic via the civil-rights process.

I found much empathy with the English contribution on ‘new unionism’: starting from a realistic assessment of the 1970 Unionist mind-set, he notes the emergence of loyalist paramilitarism and Paisleyism as fissiparous processes, and questions the association of Irishness with Catholicism. He develops the two-island framework and introduces a Scottish dimension. He blames Mrs Thatcher’s rigidity for the outcome of the hunger strikes, which he identifies as a Pyrrhic victory.

McAuley identifies the Progressive Unionist Party as filling the vacuum on the Left within the Protestant community, sporting an explicit unionist label, unlike the earlier NILP and the CP in Northern Ireland which tried to be cross-community working-class but in fact were crypto-unionist.

The final contribution by Tom Garvin treats the ‘fading of traditional nationalism’ in the Republic. He traces the political transformation in the Republic, and the decline of Catholic influence, to the 1951 Mother and Child Scheme episode, which was the last act of Catholic triumphalism. The basis was laid, with the Whitaker economic reforms of the 1960s, and the subsequent educational reforms, for the economic prosperity of the 1990s.

Coakley in a concluding overview presents a positive vision for the working of the Good Friday agreement, with the development of north/south and east/west linkages, within the overall context of a European Union. He adds a selection of key political documents as an appendix.

Roy Johnston,, June 2003

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