The nlr’s record of publication on Ireland is indeed a patchy one, though not as lacking in substance as is claimed by Sam Porter and Denis O’Hearn. We should certainly have published much more than we did over the last twenty-five years, but what we did publish does not deserve the slighting references made by our correspondents—perusal of it would also have shown that their generic indictment was unjust.
Porter and O’Hearn do not address the central arguments to be found in our coverage of Northern Ireland. Our perspective on Northern Irish politics has been embedded in analysis of uk politics as a whole. Those issues of nlr which featured extended analysis of uk politics also featured attacks on the role of the British state in Northern Ireland—for example, nlr 70 (1972), nlr 130 (1981), nlr 140 (1983), and nlr 158 (1986). In nlr 70 I argued that the British state’s impasse in Ireland would contribute to the defeat of the Heath government and its Irish policy but pointed to an aspect of the situation which Porter and O’Hearn make light of: ‘In the six counties of Northern Ireland, a violent clash is now under way between
As it happened Stormont and the Heath government’s ‘power-sharing’ policy were broken by a general strike of loyalist workers while the Heath government itself was ejected by an election held in the middle of the British miners’ strike. Tom Nairn, nlr’s most prolific writer on uk topics, then developed the argument that the United Kingdom was a pre-modern polity and that democracy demanded the Break-Up of Britain (the title of his 1977 book on the subject, comprising articles many of which had appeared in the nlr).footnote2 Having bothered to take an interest in what we publish it is rather odd that Porter and O’Hearn fail even to notice this important—and surely ‘substantial’—strand in the work of the Review. Nairn’s analysis stressed that, for good or ill, nationalism furnished a necessary stage in the evolution of popular consciousness and thus a prerequisite for the development of any democratic polity. So far as Northern Ireland was concerned the break-up of the uk, and the nationalist imperative, meant that Ulster would have to find its own identity, freed from any tutelage by Westminster and without any British military presence. Eric Hobsbawm critically assessed what he saw as the dangers of this approach in a review of the book in nlr 105.footnote3 Nairn’s ‘break-up of Britain’ approach was developed in a number of later essays in the Review, notably an article in nlr 130 published in the closing months of 1981 where Nairn argued that ‘British state power has manoeuvred itself into a cul-de-sac where the only choices are paralysing intransigence or withdrawal. . .The only strategy offering any hope is. . .to be conciliatory about the prisoners and “tough” about military withdrawal and forcing self-government upon the province. . .Ireland has become simply a daily de-legitimation of state authority. . .Here is another potent infection of the social climate, with far worse to follow.’ Writing a little over two years before the miners’ strike Nairn warned that repression in Northern Ireland was being studied with a view to application on the mainland.footnote4 Nairn’s distinctive analysis rates inclusion
nlr is primarily a journal of analysis and debate, without a homogeneous position on Northern Ireland, but it has repeatedly published attacks on the role of the British state there, for example by Ken Livingstone in nlr 140, Tony Benn and Eric Heifer in nlr 158 and Tony Benn in nlr 190. Ken Livingstone argued: ‘Unless the [Labour] party changes its attitude on Ireland, a new Labour Government would find itself using the apparatus of repression in Ireland from the first day it is in office. . .[A] Labour Secretary of State [would be] responsible for internment, trial without jury, deaths of children via plastic bullets and all the horrendous things which previous Labour Governments have done. . .We have to go into an election pledged to withdrawal within two years. That’s the maximum time you can allow for a transition based on a negotiated disengagement.’footnote6
The contribution of Livingstone, Heffer and Benn to raising Irish issues in British political life was outstanding and they should surely have been numbered among the ‘honourable exceptions’ referred to by Porter and O’Hearn in their over-generalized and sectarian critique. Similarly, Paul Foot and Chris Mullin also waged campaigns against a number of the more notorious miscarriages of justice produced by the British state’s policy in Ireland. Foot also composed a strong case for British withdrawal. These British leftists did not endorse the republican slaughter of ‘civilians’ and ‘wrong targets’—numbering 597 people between 1969 and 1989. But they did call for the withdrawal of British troops and for a halt to many specific acts of repression.footnote7
In the seventies and eighties most of the Labour Left and the Marxist Left in Britain organized for the withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland. But the circumstances created by the bombs and bullets of the Provisional ira did not favour the development of a mass campaign. Indeed republican military actions were presumably aimed at bringing about a change in the attitudes of the rulers rather than fostering popular opposition in Britain to the government.
When Porter and O’Hearn criticize the ‘British Left’ it may be that they are attacking mainly the record of the leaders of the Labour Party, in which case their observations are closer to the mark. In recent years the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major eventually took initiatives on Ireland that were more radical than anything known to have been contemplated by previous Labour governments. Following Sinn Fein’s decision to participate in elections it registered gains which may have helped to galvanize Downing Street into action. The 1986 Anglo-Irish agreement began timidly diluting British