Interviewer: What have you got against Roman Catholics? Belfast Protestant: Are you daft? Why, their religion of course.

Things in Ireland can be even worse than that. Sectarianism from a Belfast Protestant is nothing new; but even Irish liberal pluralists can be a bitterly partisan bunch, excoriating traditional prejudices with a virulence so unremitting as to involve them in a kind of performative contradiction. In this articulate, claustrophobic, intensely combative culture, theoretical enquiry is now so locked into political doctrine, power and discourse so intimately intertwined, that even Michel Foucault might have been driven to put in a word for disinterestedness. There are commentators on Irish affairs today who would be simply incapable of giving a fair review to the work of their political opponents. And much of this is in line with a history which, given the relative absence of an industrial middle class, the depth of ethnic division and the dominance of a corporatist Catholicism in the island as a whole, never produced any very flourishing liberal tradition.

John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary’s eminently judicious, splendidly level-headed study of Northern Ireland is therefore especially welcome.footnote McGarry and O’Leary, it should be said, are not in the least disinterested—they are, by and large, ‘neo-nationalists’ of the sdlp variety—but they strive to give both Unionist and traditional nationalist causes their due, before proceeding to rap them both sternly over the knuckles (the book’s partisan subtext peeps through in the more sardonic, polemical tone of its endnotes). Beginning with Irish nationalism, while properly insisting that Unionism is in fact a species of nationalism too, they discriminate its exclusively ethnic and inclusively civic varieties, and acknowledge that Sinn Fein, despite its almost wholly ethnic constituency, is formally committed to the latter. They are critical, however, of Sinn Fein’s majoritarian (all-Ireland) principle of self-determination: if the principle of majority self-determination within Ulster alone had been operative at the time of partition then Fermanagh and Tyrone, along with the city of Derry, should have become part of the Irish Free State, but the authors, like the Unionists, see no overwhelming reason why the most reasonable plebiscite area should have been the whole island. In Ireland, the issue of self-determination is plagued by a conflict over what counts as the relevant unit of self-determination in the first place, in what one might see as illustrating a profound tautology built into the very notion of political democracy. The people must govern themselves politically, but what counts as the people is itself a political construction. Even so, McGarry and O’Leary are in no doubt that the Irish Free State should have been granted jurisdiction in 1921 over far more people and territory than it actually obtained. While the Unionists insisted on the right of Northern Ireland to secede, they acknowledged no such right for people or areas within its boundaries. To avoid imposing on Ireland a system rejected by a quarter of its population, the British government of the day created an artificial state rejected by one-third of its population.

McGarry and O’Leary are also sceptical of the nationalist belief in British imperialism as the cause of the current conflict, or as the central obstacle to its resolution. It is, they argue implausibly, ‘merely one set of causal agents’ in the struggle. With some justice, they see traditional Irish nationalism as having drastically underestimated the tenacity of Unionist political preferences, and deny that ira violence, unlike that of the Irish war of independence, has either any popular mandate of legitimacy or any claim to meet the eminently reasonable criteria for a just war embedded in Catholic theology. One such criterion is that violence must be the only means available to resolve a serious injustice, whereas the ira would presumably have to claim with neo-scholastic subtlety that violence was the only means available to them to resolve an injustice by other means. In McGarry and O’Leary’s eyes and, as some Sinn Feiners will now acknowledge, the armed struggle has served to reinforce Unionist intransigency, inhibited political reform and economic investment, and provoked the British authorities into further erosion of civil liberties. Irish unification, so the book argues, demands the consent of the Unionists, a continuing British presence in the country and changes in the constitution and public policy of the Republic; and European institutions may well facilitate it better than traditional nationalist models.

The tone of the study sharpens significantly when it turns to examine ‘green’ or republican Marxist accounts of Northern Ireland. Such a case, so it argues, trades in simplistic ‘false consciousness’ notions of Unionist hostility to national unity, views ethnic, national and religious issues as purely superstructural, and delivers an implausibly economistic account of Great Britain’s interests in the North. If partition was indeed, among other things, economically motivated, the British presence in the North can hardly be said to be so now, with a subvention from London to the region of £3.5 billion per year. But not all green Marxism is economistic, as the authors are somewhat grudgingly constrained to acknowledge in quoting, among others, Eamonn McCann; there have been strong political reasons for the British presence too. In granting this, McGarry and O’Leary also retain a degree of scepticism: a united independent Ireland within nato might have served British geo-political interests just as well—abstractly true but historically irrelevant; British policy in Ireland has been determined by reasons other than defensive ones, and the end of the Cold War has not, yet, led to a reversal of the British commitment there. These are arguable claims; but they pass over too quickly the importance of sovereignty, for the sake of which the British ruling class was prepared to go to war over an inconsiderable South Atlantic archipelago and is currently tearing itself apart over Europe. The book risks straw-targeting all Marxism as economic reductionism; and its arguments against the analogy between the ira and other wars of anti-colonial liberation are in general rather shaky. The fact that the ira, unlike the Vietcong, ‘do not enjoy the active military support of the contiguous state they are fighting to unite with’ is hardly a knockdown case. The book is not implacably opposed to the anti-colonial model of Northern Ireland, but prefers to view the war in the North as a national rather than anti-colonial affair. Whether these dimensions can be quite so neatly distinguished is surely doubtful. The struggle in Northern Ireland has indeed been an ethno-national, partly intra-class conflict, but for it to fail in this way to conform to a ‘classical’ class or anti-colonial paradigm is no reason to undervalue its class or anti-colonial aspects. Is a struggle launched wholly by women against wage-cuts class warfare, or is it not? No Marxism worth the name has claimed that anti-imperialist warfare is simply inter-class conflict in exotic or exported guise. The fact that ‘liberal democracies outside the British Isles have not seen the conflict as a war of national liberation’ is neither here nor there; neither, strangely enough, have they tended to view commercial television as a form of cultural exploitation. No Marxist needs to argue—though some in Ireland and elsewhere certainly have—that national, ethnic and religious conflicts are the ‘mere by-products of capitalism which will disappear in socialist societies’; but neither is there nothing to be said for the green Marxist case that partition has gravely weakened working-class unity and the cause of socialism in Ireland.

McGarry and O’Leary then turn to the discourse of Unionism, discriminating its devolutionist and integrationist wings, and critically inspecting its claim that the primary cause of the Northern conflict is the irredentist posture of the Irish Republic and the uncertainty of the British commitment to the region. The authors point out in response that the Unionists have never taken the nationalist minority in the North seriously; that they have consistently denied their unjust treatment of them; and that—since most uk citizens apparently do not regard the Unionists as authentically British—some of the arguments Unionist use to reject the nationalist case for a single Irish nation can be deployed just as effectively to dismiss their own case for Northern Ireland as exclusively part of the British nation-state. Unionist ‘majoritarian’ thinking is arguably incoherent: if it holds that the majority in the uk cannot overrule the preferences of the majority within Northern Ireland, then it has no grounds for claiming that the majority within Northern Ireland should overrule the preferences of the minority there. Unionism’s hostility to the irredentist clauses of the Republic’s constitution overlooks the fact that Article 29 of the same constitution binds the southern state to the pacific settlement of international disputes. A strain of revisionist Unionism views the British state as an embodiment of pluralism and liberal individualism, in contrast to an ethnically based nation-state, and thus as graced with a progressive ideology. To this McGarry and O’Leary riposte that almost all civic democracies in fact assume an ethnic basis for citizenship, and that the racist uk is certainly no exception to this rule. Moreover, the Republic of Ireland—a society without hereditary monarchy, aristocracy or an established church, and with a decent record on human rights—is hardly the benighted enclave this argument would suggest. Its treatment of its Protestant minority has been a good deal more enlightened than the Unionists’ treatment of the nationalist minority. The book thus concedes far less to Unionism than it does to Irish nationalism, but nonetheless identifies some striking analogies between them. Each blames exogenous agents for the Northern conflict; each upbraids its own patron-state for being lukewarm in its support; each deliberately misreads the reality of the other’s national identification. For one sort of Unionist, Gerry Adams is a Briton who simply needs to be persuaded of the fact; for one sort of Irish nationalist, Ian Paisley has merely been manipulated into forgetting his authentic Irishness.

Irish Marxism can come wrapped in orange and red as well as green. The authors have little trouble in dispatching the first of these varieties, surely one of the most degenerate strains of the doctrine in modern times. Initially developed by the British and Irish Communist Organisation, so-called orange Marxism is really a species of Unionist supremacy thinly disguised as hard-nosed historical materialism, seeing in the Protestant North a democratic industrial vanguard at odds with a reactionary, ruralist and nationalist Republic. ‘Red’ Marxism, by contrast, rejects imperialism as an explanation of Britain’s role in Ireland, and in some of its versions views the conflict as essentially one between traditionalist and managerial forms of capitalism. Ethnic struggle can be decoded as a crisis of capitalist modernization, a move which in the authors’ eyes once more fatally underestimates the relative autonomy of ethno-national issues. Red Irish Marxism uncouples the national and social questions, regarding the former as a dangerous distraction from what are properly matters of class and capital. The North should remain in the Union, and the true answer to the warfare there is socialism, as the true answer to sin is holiness.