Sam Porter and Denis O’Hearn (hereafter poh) accuse us of radically misrepresenting the current situation in Ireland in the interests of sectarian Ulster unionism and British imperialism. They claim that our explicit and implicit agenda is the maintenance of the union of Northern Ireland with Britain, and that we are too busy attacking Irish nationalism ‘to address the problematic nature of unionism and the unionist state’ (p. 133). This charge is both a misunderstanding of the article and the issues, and demonstrates the problems and errors inherent in adopting a particularistic and narrow perspective, as encapsulated by the poh critique.
In the first instance, the point of the article was to focus on recent developments in the politics of the Irish Republic; Northern Ireland was discussed only in so far as it figured in political debates in the Irish state. To the obvious chagrin of poh, who appear to live in the backwater of the ‘failed nationalist revolution’ and wish readers to believe that the events and politics of Northern Ireland are the sole political issue, the article accurately reflects the politics and society of the Irish state which are far more complex. The reality is that while Northern Ireland is an overdetermining influence on Irish politics and society, it is neither the primary nor only issue; its population, and particularly its young people, look increasingly to the European continent. For too long, political commentary has (mis)treated the Irish state as an appendage to events in Northern Ireland; this is a gross and misleading oversimplification. It was time to set the record straight.
poh are also wrong to suggest that the absence of a sustained discussion of Ulster unionism or of British policy towards Northern Ireland, neither of which was integral to the focus of the article, is indicative of our role as apologists for both. They are obviously unaware that one of us has co-authored a history of the Northern Ireland state, which a recent review praised for providing an understanding of the dynamics of unionism while adding: ‘to their credit they make no attempt to excuse the political form unionism takes.’footnote1
For our critics, even to mention some of the formidable obstacles to Irish unity, such as the substantial British subvention to Northern Ireland, is to be guilty of a ‘mean-spirited, partisan and distinctly conservative agenda’ (p. 133). Rather, it is clear that they would prefer to ignore this reality, and cajole readers to partake in a ‘collective amnesia’. Unlike poh, we acknowledge the development of a revisionist nationalist project in the north, which does not forsake the goal of Irish unity but is prepared to think about the means of achieving it in a more nuanced and flexible way, for instance through the development of interim structures of joint authority. We do not argue that the existence of the subvention forecloses any possibility of constitutional change in the north nor are we unaware of the existence within the British state of a current of opinion that sees Northern Ireland as an expensive encumbrance. Nevertheless, poh ask ‘. . .can we really expect the overstretched British exchequer to subsidize the northern economy at such a level if it is not forced to by war?’ (p. 135). But, likewise, can we really expect the overstretched Irish exchequer to pick up the tab? This is not to argue that ‘the union must continue because of dependence on the British subvention’ (ibid.), but it is to face the reality of the situation. The northern economy’s salvation might only be possible, as poh claim, ‘through integration with the southern economy’, but surely the latter’s population needs to consent to unity. Life and public opinion in the south has undergone a seismic change since 1922. Not only have recent polls shown that people within the Republic are equally divided on whether or not they ever want to see a united Ireland,footnote2 but a large majority are unwilling to see their taxes increased to offset the subvention. In line with evidence from the European Values Survey, those least concerned about a united Ireland tend to be young, urban, middle-class voters, particularly in Dublin—a trend that should worry Sinn Fein and its supporters who have clearly underestimated or ignored the growing level of antagonism and/or apathy towards the nationalist project. This collapse in the traditional matrix of populist social and economic policies, familism and nationalism, which was the central focus of the article, helps explain the profound shift in social and political allegiances, and some of the difficulties currently being experienced by Fianna Fail in particular in reconstructing itself, now in opposition.
Just as we are attacked for not devoting most of an article on the contemporary Irish Republic to a denunciation of the sins of imperialism and the northern Protestants, what we do write about the history of Irish nationalism and republicanism is grossly travestied. Thus, we are supposed to depict the mode of production and dominant class in the south after 1921 as ‘feudal’ (p. 137), a patently absurd position. We also apparently think that, despite the fact that land legislation prior to Irish independence had eliminated the landlord class throughout the island, the driving force of Irish nationalism after partition was the desire of southern peasants to expropriate the ‘northern landlords’ (ibid.). In their eagerness to rubbish our view, poh adopt a position which is mistaken in substance and in fact. Contrary to their suggestion, in fashioning a policy of economic autarky, De Valera was not proposing a ‘radical’ solution but merely pursuing nationalist denunciation of British rule as an explanation of Irish underdevelopment to its logical, though deeply flawed,
Our animus against the republican movement which allies us with the bbc, the Northern Ireland Office and even the British army and its border observation towers(!?), results, poh claim, in a stereotype that ‘completely disregards the radicalization of republicanism during the later 1970s and 1980s’. Given that the article was about a political system where republicans got 1.6 per cent of the vote at the last general election, our lack of discussion of the ideological development of Sinn Fein reflects its unimportance in the southern state, not our biases.footnote5 Nevertheless, at the heart of their attack is an implicit analysis of the ‘Irish Question’ which even many Irish nationalists would now reject as bankrupt. It is the traditional nationalist refrain of British misrule and oppression of the ‘Irish people’ which defines the ‘war’ that the ira recently terminated as a form of anti-imperialist struggle. There is no attempt on our part to deny or justify Britain’s record in Ireland but what we do deny is that the republican struggle was an ‘anti-imperialist’ one.
In support of our contention, it is worth referring here to a recent survey of explanation of the Northern Irish conflict by two academics of liberal nationalist persuasion. While agreeing that the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 forced ‘imperialist incursions’ on Irish sovereignty they dispute the core arguments of those who depict Britain as the ‘perpetually malevolent imperialist ogre’: