The Fenian Problem

Roy Johnston reviews The Fenian Problem: insurgency and terrorism in a liberal state by Brian Jenkins, Liverpool University Press, ISBN 978-184631-175-8 £65 hbk

THIS BOOK, by a Canadian historian, draws on the experience of the British state in dealing with Fenianism, comparing it with the IRA experience from the 1970s, and drawing lessons perhaps relevant in the context of dealing with the contemporary so-called 'Islamic terrorism'.

He begins with the impact of the post-Famine Irish emigrants in Britain, the USA and Canada, and the influences of Chartism and Auguste Blanqui. He then goes into how the state in Ireland responds to the threat of a US invasion linked with a Fenian insurrection, seen as threatening in 1865, and nipped in the bud by the arrests of the leaders (including Stephens, who however spectacularly escaped), and by the banning of the Irish People.

We see the origins of the 'special branch' in Ireland as a repressive tool, and the emergence of a progressive demand within Britain for reform, with Charles Bradlaugh and the Reform League calling for a federated republican constitution, uniting the four main nations within what was then the United Kingdom.

The re-emergence of the Fenian threat took the form of armed actions and bombings in Britain, the most spectacular being the Clerkenwell event, a botched job, causing many civilian casualties.

Tory agitation turned the British working-class violently against the Irish. The execution of the 'Manchester martyrs' attracted a campaign for commutation, with the republican Reform League and Marx's International Workingmens's Association in support.

Cardinal Cullen commented acidly on the contrast between British support for Garobaldi and the Italian republic and the Fenian project; Allen, Larkin and O'Brien were "..not half as bad as the Garibaldians..".

We see here the negative effect of armed national struggle on the process of working-class unity which was beginning to emerge under Marxist influence. This was a precursor of the way in which the 1960s attempt to develop a broad-based movement for civil rights among working people in Northern Ireland was destroyed by Provisional violence.

The remainder of the book is dedicated to the analysis of how the justice system coped, and how the ongoing reform process, under Gladstone's leadership, was beginning the render the need for armed conspiracy anachronistic, with the emergence of the land reforms and the Parnellite Home Rule movement.

This book also is primarily a source for scholars seeking to understand the complexities of the process of emergence of national independence movements on the fringes of empires, and of the usually negative roles of conspiracies in the political reform process.

The earlier Stephens material is a component of the Jenkins raw material. Both form an important background to the following work by Eoin O Broin which deserves a wide readership as an analysis of the processes underlying the current accession of Sinn Fein to the company of those promoting political reform within democratic constitutional constraints.

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