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|From: Church & State: Articles|
|Date: April, 2012|
No History Or False History: The Choice
|Joseph Lee, when he was Professor of History at Cork University, admitted that the specialist academic history magazine which was founded in the 1930s, Irish Historical Studies (IHS), was officially debarred from publishing material about affairs in the 20th century: "The rules of the journal excluded any reference to Irish politics after 1900" (Joseph Lee, Ireland. 1912-1985, Cambridge, 1989, p589).
That meant the history of the modern Irish state was out of bounds to it. But it also meant that the British state was very much within its remit. The state, in the era which it was allowed to concern itself with, leaving aside ancient times, was the British state. Apart from a handful of years in the 1640s (Confederation of Kilkenny) and a couple of decades under James 2nd, the state in Ireland was the English state until 1707 and the British state thereafter.
But IHS had little to say about the British state as the central force in Irish history during the centuries with which it was allowed to deal. And a magazine dedicated to Irish history which did not take the state which determined Irish affairs as its subject simply did not deal with Irish history.
The role of the British State in Irish history is not a matter of technical sovereignty. The State was not negligent in Ireland in those centuries, leaving social developments free to run their course. That was the case to a considerable degree in Antrim and Down, and the Plantation Counties, but in the rest of the country the State was an active social engineer, curbing spontaneous developments, systematically brutalising and debasing the populace, and maintaining a small English Protestant colonial stratum in subordinate power, with a monopoly of political office, a monopoly of land ownership, and an extremely privileged position in commercial affairs.
Irish history, in the sense of a history of the populace, is little more than the history of protest against the State, and of an occasional vain attempt at insurrection against it, until the early 20th century, when land agitation went beyond protest and achieved the substantial abolition of the landlord system of the colony, through an unprecedented collaboration between a unique Constitutional agitator, William O'Brien, and Balfour's Tory (Unionist) Government.
But the Land Act of 1903, which laid down the structure of Irish society that has been evolving ever since, could not be dealt with by IHS. And it has not been dealt with by any commercial publisher.
That Land Act is the sole constructive act of British policy in Ireland brought about through active collaboration between an Irish social force an the British Government. But we have no history of it—of the agitation that led to it, the opposition of Redmond's Home Rule Party to it, and the political and social repercussions of it. This means that independent Ireland has no history of itself. Those who commanded history-writing in the state decided that the writing of its history should not be undertaken by its paid historians.
The development set in motion by the 1903 reform now seems to be reaching the end of its tether. We are told that Ireland is becoming, or has become, something else. It is becoming something else without knowing what it has been. The decision of its academic authorities that it should not write its own history kept it in ignorance of itself; and now it is becoming something else, guided by a deluded view of what it was, written for it by Oxford and Cambridge, and inserted into its mind by the vast expansion of second and third level education during the past generation.
Being without an official history of its own which corresponded with basic facts of what happened, the educational system was open to the many histories of Ireland that have been busily produced for it in Britain in recent decades. British histories of Ireland are written in the British interest. It could not be otherwise in the era of democracy. The era of democracy, in which the populace is implicated, to one degree or another, in the conduct of the state, is inherently nationalist in tendency. Democracy generates nationalism—one people is not inclined to subordinate itself to another. And vice versa—nationalism generates the sense of community without which there can be no democracy.
Ireland has been declared to be post-national and post-Christian. If those statements corresponded fully with the reality of things—if everyone was thoroughly educated/indoctrinated according to the fashionable ideology of the moment—this could be summed up by saying that it had matured into being post-Irish.
This is at a moment when nationalism is on the rise everywhere else, and the illusion that there is a mode of post-national democratic existence is falling away.
Irish Historical Studies has loosened itself up a bit in recent years. This reflects the rise to dominance of Oxbridge history in Irish academia (i.e., revisionism). What was not allowed in it was Irish history of Ireland.
There is at present a little dispute going on among revisionists. The established revisionists are being challenged by some newcomers.
The condition of history-writing in Ireland was so dire twenty years ago that the revisionists felt that they could get away with anything‚that they could invent facts without fear of being taken to task. The extreme instance of this is Professor David Fitzpatrick's "History Workshop" in Trinity College, and his star apprentice Peter Hart.
Hart, under the supervision of Fitzpatrick and English military historian Charles Townshend, wrote an account of the Cork Republican resistance to British rule after Britain had comprehensively lost the 1918 Election (not that he mentioned the Election) as a Catholic sectarian rampage of murder of Protestants. It became a best-seller of the Oxford University Press. Hart was acclaimed as a master historian, who had led us out of the darkness, by the personnel of the History Department of Cork University, who howled down an attempt at a critical intervention.
The centrepiece of Hart's book was his assertion that the British military convoy at Kilmichael surrendered and was murdered in cold blood. Why, in the kind of war that Britain was fighting in Ireland, this should have been a shocking event is not clear. But Hart's revelation was greeted with an interesting combination of shock and delight by "post-nationalists". Its great merit was that it contradicted the account of the famous Irish commander in that battle, Tom Barry (who got his experience as a British soldier in the Great War before coming home and joining the Republican resistance), which said that during the battle a section of the British declared that they were surrendering, but when the ambushers relaxed, they picked up their guns and shot some of them. Barry's story of the false surrender was confirmed by many, including General Crozier, the Commander of the Auxiliaries. But Hart's assertion that there was a genuine surrender, which was accepted but that those who had surrendered were then murdered, was received as a gift of honey by the Cork University History Department, which was broadening its horizons.
When Hart's proofs were looked at—outside academia—it was found that they consisted of interviews with Republicans who had taken part in the ambush. These interviewees remained anonymous in Hart's book, and in the thesis on which it was based. But it was established that, if Hart had interviewed Republicans who had taken part in the ambush, he could only have done so by communicating with them in the other world, the Hereafter.
Hart's Kilmichael story was made so much of, not only in academia but in the newspapers, that discovery of the fraud brought not only Hart into disrepute, but the Trinity operation that produced him.
In recent years a British academic of Irish origin, John Regan, has begun to question the academic methods at play in Irish Universities, saying that they are bringing Irish Universities into disrepute abroad and making their history graduates unemployable. But this seems to be a dispute amongst revisionists. The slipshod methods inculcated by Professor Fitzpatrick in his proteges have become an embarrassment to the revisionist cause.
The most sensitive thing in the history of Anglo-Irish relations is the point of transition from the British State in Ireland to the Irish State.
The point of transition is not the Easter Rising. That was an armed rebellion and Britain is happy with that. Putting down rebellions is what Britain has done an awful lot of and is at ease with.
The point of transition is the election of December 1918, the meeting of the elected representatives in the Dail in January 1919, the Declaration of Independence by the elected Irish Parliament, the establishment of Dail Government Departments, and Republican Courts/policing system, and the refusal of the British Parliament to take any notice of the Irish election, and its support for the British Government to continue governing Ireland and smash down the elected Irish Government. That is Constitutional, and the great British myth is that it is the great Constitutional force in world affairs.
British conduct towards Ireland in 1918-19 is disgraceful in terms of Britain's own ideology or mythology—its ideal of itself. But Britain, as a healthy democracy, is not going to own up to having behaved abominably at that very delicate moment in world affairs when the world was looking to it to see if it had been in earnest about anything it had said in its Great War propaganda.
Since Britain cannot charge itself with Prussianism—not that Prussia ever did anything like that—the only thing to do is conjure away that critical 1918-21 period in Ireland, to drop it out of history, to present the Irish defence of the elected Government in 1919-21 as a mere continuation of its 1916 rebellion, and to take the Agreement of December 1921 (the 'Treaty') as a handsome concession to a bunch of the rebels who undertook to behave themselves and were legitimised as a constitutional state.
John Regan criticises the established historians in Ireland for conferring impeccable constitutional democratic credentials on the Treatyites who constructed the Free State in 1922. He says that they have done this because after 1970 they undertook to write a false history of the origins of the Free State, presenting it as more democratic and constitutional than it was, so that the Provos in the North could not cite it as a precedent for what they were doing.
It is true that systematically false history began to be produced by the Universities after 1970, in accordance with the directive of the Lynch Government when it changed course in the Summer of 1970. False history began to take the place of no history.
In a remarkable delusion, Southern historians imagined that the way they had (or had not) written history was a cause of the war in the North and that, if they wrote it in a different way, they would undermine the Provos. They had never troubled to figure out what Northern Ireland was and therefore could not see that the way it was governed as part of the British state provided sufficient reason for what was happening in it. Or if some of them saw it they dared not describe it. The most they could talk about was discrimination. The fact that the region was excluded by Britain from the democratic system of the state, and that responsibility therefore lay with Britain was unmentionable.
This is also not mentioned by Regan, who says not a word about what Northern Ireland was as part of the British state. He turns a blind eye to the major infringement of democracy in Ireland in 1922, the infringement enacted by British democracy in that part of Ireland that it retained within the British state, while carping at certain irregularities that he sees in the conduct of the Treaty scheme; and he goes along with the notion that Southern "irredentism" was a major disturbing influence on the North:
"For most of his political life, de Valera appeared to foment a discontented nationalism by employing what John Bowman has called the rhetoric of 'inevitable unification'. This sometimes raised partition as an electoral issue but did not at any time form constructive policies intent upon remedying it. Rather, de Valera's irredentism is best understood as an attempt to monopolise the issue, forestalling extra-constitutional ambitions in that quarter… Anti-partitionism reinforced the border by exacerbating unionist Ulster's paranoia, while the institutionalising of Roman Catholic theology and the Gaelic language in the Southern state widened the gulf between North and South. De Valera cannot have failed to notice this. But by uniting separatists in the belief of the border's injustice, de Valera manipulated partition as an issue transcending divisions existing between separatist-nationalists. Before 1969 the rhetoric of reunification, together with studied prevarication, helped neutralise partition as a nation-building grievance. 'The state', judged John A. Murphy in 1976, 'was much more real than irredentism'…" (IHS, Nov. 2010, p269).
In 1972 the secret sessions of the Dail in 1921-2 were published, showing that Dev had contemplated partition. "No document did more to debunk de Valera's anti-partitionist rhetoric" (p271).
"…'The Northern troubles have given the final quietus to irredentism', Murphy adroitly observed in 1976, '[and] there is now a widespread Southern desire for non-involvement'. He continued: 'in this century… Irish identity has moved from a complacent assumption of one-nation Ireland, through waning irredentism to something like [its] outright rejection'. Aided by vox pop polls, Murphy anticipated Southern nationalism's direction, and with this in view two new textbooks appeared…" (p285).
"Irredentism" was an inert sentiment in Southern public life from 1923 to 1948. It was not De Valera who stirred it up in the late forties but Fine Gael when it returned to office after a long absence. Fine Gael propaganda of those years undoubtedly contributed to the IRA invasion of the North in 1956, which may be called irredentist with some degree of accuracy. The 1956 invasion met with little response within the North.
Jack Lynch's inflammatory speech of mid-August 1969 was mere bandwagon-jumping onto the insurrection in the North, a revolt that had nothing to do with irredentism but was the product of the systematically undemocratic mode of British government of the North.
The final fling of irredentism as a popular force in the South happened in 1972, in response to the Bloody Sunday killings by the British State in Derry. The Dublin Government flirted with the idea of a great national convergence on Newry, but then called it off. (This was the Lynch Government, which had purged itself of 'republican' elements!) Jack Lynch let popular feeling satisfy itself with burning the British Embassy.
The irredentism of 1970 and 1972—if it deserves that name—was not causative but responsive. It was only an echo of what was happening within the North as a result of the way that Britain governed the North.
Irredentism is the claim by a nation-state to territory lying outside its borders on the ground that it is inhabited by people of its own nationality. Two irredentist claims helped Britain to bring about its first World War—the French claim on Alsace-Lorraine and the Italian claim on the Trentino and other regions. These irredentisms were supported by John Redmond's Home Rue Party, and the War which they fed is now officially declared to have been Our War.
The French and Italian Governments asserted that the people of Alsace and the Trentino were oppressed by the German and Austrian States respectively, but the oppression consisted only of exclusion from the French and Italian states. Germany and Austria did not do what Britain did in its Six Counties region. Alsace and the Trentino were not excluded from the political life of the German and Austrian states or subjected to informal rule outside the political life of the state by a hostile local community. Au contraire. The means of participation were available to them, and they were encouraged to participate, and they did participate, and there was no insurrection in Alsace or the Trentino by the people on whom the French and Italian States made irredentist claims.
The insurrection in the North in 1969 was not made in response to Anti-Partition propaganda from the South. It was caused by the British mode of government. And those who made the insurrection were not motivated by Anti-Partitionism. The Anti-Partitionism came later for want of anything else. Is that properly described as irredentism?
Anti-Partitionism was not the cause of instability in the North over the decades. That instability was a function of the system by which Britain chose to govern the North, and it was the cause of the persistence of Anti-Partition sentiment in the South. If British democracy had not been closed to the Northern minority, and if that minority had participated in it and settled down, Anti-Partitionism would have become a dead issue in the South. This reckoning is so obvious that it is unrealistic in the extreme to suppose that it was not seen by Whitehall when it made its arrangements for the Six County region of its state.
Misrepresentation of the construction of the Free State as a development within Constitutional democracy, with the object of undermining the Northern insurrection, by historians following Lynch's demand for new history, deserves ridicule. What Regan delivers is quibbles about how the project demanded by the unmentionable Treaty ultimatum was actually put into effect. He takes issue with Dermot Keogh's denial that the Treatyites engaged in "extra-judicial killings". The Immaculate Conception killings of prisoners in December 1922 were indisputably the act of the Treaty Government without the intervention of a trial. Were they therefore unconstitutional—i.e., were they in breach of the Treaty? The British Government, the author and guarantor of the Treaty, didn't think so.
In July-August 1922 Collins renovated the Irish Republican Brotherhood to be a guiding force on the State he was constructing under the Treaty, and he ordered that the Parliament elected in June should not be assembled for the time being. Was this the establishment of military dictatorship, as suggested by Regan: "a diarchy made up of public Free State and secret IRB governments"?
Having made his separate private deal with Lloyd George and browbeaten the other delegates into signing the dictated Treaty in December 1921; having broken the unity of the Dail, which was sworn to the Republic established by two General Elections by getting it to sign up for the Crown; by having failed to carry the Army with him and having had to build up a new paid army alongside it, Collins still found himself in difficulty in June 1922 when the 'Treaty Election' was held. He made an Election Pact with the Anti-Treatyites in order to confuse the issue in the Election. He had promised to present a Constitution which those who baulked at the Crown might vote for. He was summoned to Whitehall and ordered to break the Pact and accept a Constitution that accorded with the Treaty. He returned on the eve of the Election and made equivocal statements about the Pact, but did not issue a clear repudiation of it. The Constitution insisted on by Whitehall was only published on the morning of the election.
Were MPs returned at this thoroughly confused election the Parliament of Southern Ireland, or the Dail, or whatever, to be assembled to decide the course of events mid-way through the Treaty crisis?
The crisis was not an internal one in the 26 Counties. It was a crisis in the enactment of the Treaty dictated by Whitehall, in which Whitehall remained the dominant player, with the threat of Imperial reconquest, if things were not done as Whitehall required, still active. Britain still had an Army in the South and was threatening to use it.
Was the new Parliament to be allowed to meet, with its confused mandate, a strong and persuasive Republican presence, and a new, queasy Labour element, and have the power to decide what should happen next? Is it likely that the Treaty would have survived the meeting of such a Parliament?
With the British threatening to take over if he failed to do so, Collins made war on the Treatyites in the Four Courts on June 28th. The Parliament met in September and was dominated by the war situation. Collins was dead by then, killed by his inexplicable behaviour in an ambush during his wild adventure into West Cork. The Parliament met without the Republicans. The Labour members whinged. The Provisional Government—which was very much a second eleven without Collins—marginalised the IRB. In the absence of its extra-parliamentary guidance, the conduct of the war became a miserable, pedantic affairs of revenge and terror, which was prolonged in politics long after it had been won.
The word 'democracy' is misused when applied to that whole Treaty situation. The driving force was the British threat of fundamental Imperial recconquest. The Irish Treatyites could only hope to carry the project through by guile, deception and force.
The contrast between "authoritarian" and "democratic" is not always valid in any case. Democracy is one way of conducting a system of authority Authority is usually prior—well prior—to democratisation. It seems probable that authority and democracy might have been established simultaneously in an Irish state, so that the two elements were scarcely discernible, if Britain had not used its power to prevent it. But the legitimacy of what Britain did after the 1918 Election seems to be unquestionable for Regan, as does Britain as the source of constitutional legitimacy in 1922. That reduces his criticism of Collins to evasive quibbling.