Some of the exchanges heard inside and outside Parliament last week brought to mind the language used by the Northern Ireland Unionists and their friends at Westminster at the time of the Home Rule controversy in 1912-1914. A compilation of the more inflammatory remarks of Sir Edward Carson and his allies, published in Dublin in 1918, achieved the unique distinction of being banned by the British censor in spite of the fact that its quotations were chiefly drawn from speeches by politicians who adorned the War Cabinet. The anonymous compiler, who entitled his collection The Complete Grammar of Anarchy, contrasted with some irony the fortunes of the members of the 1913 Ulster Provisional Government with those of the members of its Dublin counterpart three years later. Many of the former were given senior British government appointments: the latter were all shot.

Some things have changed in the interim. The prospect of Ian Paisley attaining the Attorney-Generalship which was Sir Edward Carson’s eventual pay-off is commonly agreed to be remote, but this is not the only notable point of dissimilarity between present and past. One of the most extraordinary and unexpected results of the recent Anglo-Irish Agreement is that it has united in opposition to it (albeit for widely differing reasons) Mr Paisley, Mr Gerry Adams, Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien and Mr Charles Haughey. Another is that it has divided Fianna Fail into two very unequal sections. Whether this realignment manifests itself in an increase in the number of deaths which litter the North’s daily calendar depends in part on the reaction of the Unionists, and in part on the degree of finesse with which the British Government approaches a task which is infinitely more difficult than the actual negotiation of the Agreement. The Irish Republic, it is generally accepted, can do little to assist the process, and much to hinder it, especially by loud-mouthed irredentism and triumphalism. But as the more traditional sources of such sentiments are currently proclaiming that the Agreement represents a sell-out to British imperialism, that ever-present danger has to some degree been marginalised, and the current mood in Dublin is probably best described as one of cautious, perhaps even slightly fearful anticipation. Despite all the rhetoric – and the Agreement itself has elevated ambiguity to an art-form – there is an acknowledgement that Dublin has no executive power, and at the same time some apprehension that it may have assumed some measure of political responsibility, in a situation which could explode at any moment.

The Unionists are patently clearing the decks for action, but for precisely what kind of action is unclear, perhaps even to themselves. In essence, what they appear to be doing is exhausting all the legal forms of protest which are open to them, so that they can subsequently claim legitimacy for any further tactics that they may decide on in their campaign to scuttle the Agreement. The finding that more than one in eight Northern Protestants actually support the Agreement may give them pause, but this is unlikely. Their chief gripe – that they were not involved in the negotiations leading up to the Agreement, and have been structurally excluded from the institutions it has set up – is sharpened by a pervasive and probably accurate suspicion that the fine Italian hand of John Hume can be seen in the Irish Government glove. Indeed, one of the novelties of the whole affair has been the contrast between the Dublin Government’s patent desire to have the SDLP on its side (to the extent that even the hawkish Seamus Mallon has come down in favour of the deal) and the British Government’s tactic of keeping the Unionists at a very long arm’s length. It is too early to say whether this tactic has the seeds of disaster in it: for the moment, all that can be noted with any certainty is that the discourtesy involved has worried moderate Unionists and left them querulous, if not outright rebellious. But the hard-line Unionists will face a British government which seems to be more determined on its course of action in relation to the North than any in recent history, and better-prepared to meet Unionist challenges, orthodox or unorthodox, to the supremacy of Parliament. Whether the Unionist reaction tumbles into violence, or can be nudged into a new form of devolved government acceptable to both Northern communities, is still an open question. What is undeniable, though, is that this is the first time that the traditional British carrot-and-stick approach to Northern Ireland has been applied so unambiguously to the dominant party there.

Apart from the steeliness of the British Government’s nerve, there are other important differences between the present situation and that obtaining in 1974. The immediate target of Unionist anger in 1974 was the power-sharing administration, which was both accessible and vulnerable, and was ultimately brought down by the Ulster Workers’ Council strike. In 1985, they have a choice of targets: the British Government, or the new consultative Conference which will be attended by Irish ministers and served by a Secretariat which includes civil servants from the Republic. The Conference and Secretariat may be even more attractive targets than the power-sharing executive was, but they are hardly as vulnerable. In addition, none of the traditional forms of disruption seem – at this stage – to be attracting the requisite amount of support: only 27 per cent of Protestants would now, apparently, support industrial action to overthrow the Agreement. Ten years of under-investment, job losses and the destruction of the North’s industrial base have taken their toll of Protestant worker militancy.

It would be a mistake, nonetheless, to underrate the capacity of the Unionists to generate dislocation and mayhem. There is even a real possibility that Protestant para-military organisations, unwilling to take on the security forces in the North to any significant degree, will turn their attention again towards the South, while political Unionism does its best, with the tactics of civil disobedience, to make the North ungovernable. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s analysis is that this is not only possible, but probable; and that the British Government will then wash its hands of the whole affair and withdraw, leaving the Northern Ireland problem to ‘blow up in our faces’. He is opposed to the Agreement, in effect, because he believes that its effect will be to worsen, not ameliorate relations between the two communities in the North, and that the improvement of relationships between the Republic and Britain is not worth this. All of which begs a number of questions: such as, will things have to get worse in order to get better? And: would political stasis and an intensification of security on both sides of the border (i.e. a continuation of the current policy) be any better?

Dr O’Brien’s scenario, however, is not the only one on offer. Some Southern politicians no less hostile than Dr O’Brien to the IRA, such as the former Labour leader Frank Cluskey, have put on record their fear that the Agreement might have a destabilising effect on the Southern Government. This, it is argued, would occur if the Northern security forces were perceived by the population of the Republic to be acting oppressively, vindictively or even murderously towards the minority population. In this situation the Dublin Government, through its participation in the much-vaunted Conference and Secretariat, would be saddled with responsibility but unable to do anything to redress the grievances, real or imagined. The thing about Northern Ireland is that the two scenarios are not necessarily mutually exclusive, or even consecutive: they could easily be simultaneous.

The political benefits to Mr Haughey of such a turn of events can only be guessed at: and yet, in the period immediately following the Agreement, he appeared to be the one politician who, even if only momentarily, lost his traditional surefootedness. Even before the Agreement had been signed, he had signalled his probable objection to it: but the terms in which he announced his formal opposition, while studiously vague in some important particulars, were nevertheless uncompromising enough to lose him public support, and to put him, for the first time in many months, behind Dr FitzGerald in the popularity stakes.

It has also lost him the formal support of two members of his parliamentary party. One of these defectors is Senator Eoin Ryan, son of one of the founders of Fianna Fail, and thus a man of impeccable credentials. Senator Ryan’s importance, however, does not reside solely in his lineage. He is a wealthy and successful businessman who has previously warned his party that its policies risk alienating the business community. Fianna Fail can stand the loss of a great many things more readily than it can stand the loss of that kind of support. Closer examination of the nature of the Fianna Fail split indicates exactly how much has changed in the past fifteen years. In 1970, it was Mr Haughey who was the political outcast, on trial on criminal charges and with his entire political and personal life in the balance. Today, the people who are leaving Fianna Fail – or being expelled from it – are the political descendants of those who put him in that position. That there are so few of them prepared to make their position clear – in public at any rate – is partly an indication of the regime of fear he has engendered within the party (his success in defeating three attempts to remove him from the leadership gives him an aura of invincibility), and partly an expression of hunger for the power which even Dr FitzGerald’s current personal success in the opinion polls does not look capable of denying them. Fianna Fail’s rating as a party is still 51 per cent, enough to give them a landslide victory in terms of Dail arithmetic; and the party’s old (and not so old) stagers know that the only thing which can keep them out of office next time around is a split of truly massive proportions. That any cracks at all should appear in the edifice is unusual, but the common pursuit of power will keep most of them hanging in there for a while yet.

Although Mr Haughey’s tactic is premised on the belief that the Agreement is bound to self-destruct and that he will be able to capitalise politically on the resulting chaos, he must nonetheless be anxious about the wedge which has been driven between his party and the SDLP. The SDLP encouraged Dail bipartisanship on the Northern question, because it had most to gain from it. But bipartisanship has now been shattered in Dublin, even as it has assumed gigantic proportions at Westminster, and Fianna Fail’s claim to be the rightful inheritors of the mantle of Irish Republicanism will look a bit problematic as long as the constitutional political representatives of Northern nationalism take the other side of the argument.

If the potential for disruption by the Unionists should not be underestimated, neither should the tenacity of John Hume. His Westminster speech was, for a Dublin listener, an occasion quite out of the ordinary. For one thing, hearing it underlined a number of uncomplimentary facts about the Dail, where the grip of the parties is so intense that the Fianna Fail dissidents could not even get speaking time, though the Government generously offered it to them, and where the idea that parliamentary proceedings should be broadcast is still well short of acceptance. It was galling to hear part of the island’s future being decided in the course of a BBC broadcast from Parliament (and BBC Northern Ireland at that!), while our own legislature gags its members and refuses to come to terms with the technology of the 20th century. Even the Northern Ireland Assembly, for goodness’ sake, has sorted that one out. Hume’s speech was a set-piece of sustained power and incisiveness: he must have been waiting for over a decade to make it. Strange as his Irish accent sounded among all those Westminster eructations, it sounded less strange than the voices of his Unionist fellow-countrymen. Whatever hand he had in fashioning the Agreement, it is plain that he is on a crusade to make it work, either in its own terms or as a prelude to an acceptable form of devolved government, and he is a difficult man to stop.

In a week replete with contradictions, it was peculiarly fitting that one of the most bigoted remarks in the debate should have come from another Catholic, Sir John Biggs-Davison, who observed that the snakes St Patrick is supposed to have banished from Ireland all went to the United States and became Irish-Americans. Perhaps he should be force-fed Emigrants and Exiles, * a powerful new study of the exodus to North America (both Catholic and Protestant). Kerby Miller’s narrative is all the more dramatic because so many of its lines were written, not by the rich and powerful, but by the poorest emigrants, whose intermittent grasp on literacy adds colour to their firsthand account of their experiences. Even on the emigrant ships, it appears, religious services were noted for increasing the sectarian temperature among the passengers. After 1920, emigration consisted largely of ‘embittered Catholic emigrants from Northern Ireland’. The descendants of those embittered men and women are now among the extraordinarily large group of people who would like to see this political initiative work. The problem, as always, is that most of those who want the Agreement to succeed are on the outside, looking in, while most of those who want it to fail are on the inside, looking out.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences