Opinions & Ideas

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AN ULSTER LOYALIST TELLS HIS STORY

Billy Hutchinson is the leader of the small Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and represents it on Belfast City Council. He was, for a time, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.  He has recently written an autobiography entitled “My Life in Loyalism”, published by Merrion Press.

Billy Hutchinson  played an important part, while in prison in the 1980’s and later on, in encouraging the Loyalist paramilitaries towards political accommodation, instead of violence. 

 Brexit creates a new, and potentially difficult, relationship between  Ulster Loyalism and the rest of Ireland.  So understanding Loyalism is more important than ever. This book is timely.

 Hutchinson contributed to the peace process.  As the leader of the UVF prisoners in Long Kesh, through   his contacts with Pat Thompson, his IRA counterpart,   he helped get  Catholic and Protestant clergy involved in exploring political ways forward.

 The UVF had been founded in 1965, and was a violent response to the  IRA threat in the late 1960’s. It  was one of a proliferation of Loyalist paramilitary groups. It was a rival of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). The UVF was the more disciplined than the UDA and operated through a cell structure, whereas the UDA tended to hold  public parades, and provide an umbrella under which several  Loyalist groups could shelter.

 The PUP, formed in 1975, became the vehicle the UVF used to move into politics and away from violence .

Billy Hutchinson had been born in 1955. He was a native of the Shankill Road and intensely proud of his locality. His father was a NI Labour supporter, with numerous Catholic friends, but his mother was a more traditional unionist.

 Billy was first drawn onto political activity through soccer.

 He was a supporter of Linfield FC. To get to Linfield’s ground at Windsor Park, Shankill supporters of  the club   had to cross the Falls Road  and walk past the nationalist Unity Flats. This fortnightly procession of Linfield supporters, before and after home games, became an occasion for mutual provocations between the two communities. 

This became especially acute when the sectarian temperature rose in the late 1960’s.

Hutchinson, then a tall teenager, older looking than his years, took a leading role in managing these confrontations.  He saw himself as defending his locality. He also saw the Civil Rights movement as a front for the IRA, and the IRA as attempting to force unionists into a united Ireland.

As he admits, the crude view of the UVF was that, if they killed enough Catholics, the Catholic community would pressurize the IRA to stop. 

This sort of thinking also had echoes in more “respectable “  unionism. Former Home Affairs Minister, Bill Craig, told a Vanguard rally in 1972, to 

“build up the dossiers on the men and women who are a menace to this country, because if the politicians fail, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy”. 

Of course, the IRA was equally brutal and indiscriminate. For example, Protestant families were being forced to abandon their homes in the New Barnsley estate when Catholics were forced out in other parts of the city.

Hutchinson and his friends felt that the RUC and the British Army were not protecting the Loyalist community from IRA intimidation. 

 Still a teenager, he  became an armed bodyguard for the UVF leader Gusty Spence. He also undertook offensive operations, and gave weapons training, while also holding down a day job.

 This book gives an insight into the life, and the infighting, within Loyalist paramilitarism.

 Many people were shot on the basis of suspicions, often unfounded.

 Hutchinson is a teetotaller, but much of the social life of Loyalism took place in pubs and clubhouses. 

The reader is introduced to many unusual characters. One was a Catholic, Jimmy McKenna, whose brother Arthur had been killed by the IRA. Jimmy was determined to get revenge. So he offered his services to the UVF. After some hesitation they accepted him.  He proved very useful because of his knowledge of republican areas. McKenna was eventually found to be working for the security forces.

 Although there was much indiscriminate violence, there was also some political thinking taking place among Loyalists as early as the 1970’s.

 For example, in January 1974, the UVF gave cautious support of a proposal by Desmond Boal, a former Unionist and DUP MP, for a federal Ireland , with autonomy for Northern Ireland . Boal had worked on the idea with Sean McBride, a former Irish Minister for External Affairs.

  At the time, Hutchinson did not dismiss it, but asked a reasonable question. How could concessions to republicans be considered, while the IRA was still in existence, and people were being killed?

THE AMORALITY OF ARMED STRUGGLE

 Then, at only 19 years of age, in late 1974, the law caught up with Billy Hutchinson. He was convicted of the murder of two Catholics, Michael Loughran and Edward Morgan. 

As he puts it;

“ Even though the evidence was pointing toward my involvement in the shooting, I tried to maintain an air of defiance,”

and  disingenuously added 

 “Loughran and Morgan had been identified as active republicans. How accurate the information was, I don’t know”. 

This amoral detachment about the ending of two young lives is chilling. 

 But this sort of amorality is intrinsic to all “armed struggle”. 

 If one does not want that form of psychological and moral deformation to occur, one should not start armed struggles at all, especially if other potential remedies had  not been exhausted.  One should never retrospectively justify or glorify such killings.  That applies equally to the events of 1916, 1919, and 1970. It applies as much to Kilmichael , as it does  to Greysteel  or  Narrow Water .

Billy Hutchinson spent a long period in jail in Long Kesh for his crime, from 1975 until 1990. 

PRISON LIFE

He gives an interesting account of prison life. 

Gusty Spence was the commander of the UVF prisoners and military discipline was maintained among them. A similar regime applied among the IRA prisoners. 

Hutchinson maintained a high level of fitness while in gaol, running 15 miles a day inside the perimeter of his compound.

 He had left school at 14 years of age but, while in prison , he passed his O levels and A levels, and got a degree in town planning,  a useful qualification for someone who is now a member of Belfast City Council!

After his release in 1990, he was involved with Gusty Spence and others, in the peace process which  led to the announcement, in October 1994,  by the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) , of a ceasefire. This acknowledged the hurt suffered by victims  of Loyalist violence, something the IRA has yet  to do fully. 

THE DEMOCRATIC ROOTS OF LOYALISM

One of the principles set out by the CLMC in this announcement was that 

  “there must be no dilution of the democratic procedure through which the rights of self determination of the people of Northern Ireland are guaranteed”.

 This vital issue of democratic procedure will take on a new relevance after Brexit. 

 Under the  Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Treaty, many  of the laws to be applied  the Northern Ireland will emanate from the EU, but without  a democratic procedure involving  elected representatives  of  the people of Northern Ireland . That will call out for a remedy.

In his treatment of the peace process, Billy Hutchinson gives much praise to the late  Irish American businessman, Bill Flynn, for his support for Loyalists on their journey. 

On the other hand, he is dismissive of Ian Paisley, quoting his late father as saying that Paisley “would fight to the last drop of everyone else’s blood”. 

Billy is self consciously a socialist in his political opinions, although this seems to signify as much a badge of identity as it does a precise political programme. 

He may not have won a large number of votes in recent elections, but Hutchinson represents a strand of Unionism that is open to change. 

The aftermath of Brexit will increase the importance of  understanding  the thinking of  people like him.  

While he acknowledges the help of Dr Mulvenna in preparing this autobiography, the text is very much his own, and will be of interest to future historians. So it is unfortunate that the book contains no index.

THE POWERFUL AND THE DAMNED

Over Christmas , I read the book with the above arresting title. It is by Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times for the past 15 years, who has just retired.

 It is a gallop through the last decade and a half  of economic and political history in the form of a diary.

Barber did actually not keep a  daily diary but  he did make notes on important events and meetings at the time  and  these  provide the  content  of the books.  Where his opinion has changed since, he includes a note in a different script, beside the original.

 The book is published by Penguin.

He gets to the heart of the economic crisis of 2008 quite early in the book.

He blames it on competition between banks, who used new and obscure forms of credit to increase their  revenues unsustainably, because if they failed to do so, the private equity firms, who wanted revenue growth for their clients, would desert them.

I am unsure that this structural problem in capitalism has since been solved, and we are now living through another rapid expansion of credit on artificially favourable terms. Let’s see what happens…..

As editor, Lionel Barber inherited a Blairite newspaper.

 The FT had backed Labour in the 1997,2001 and 2005 General Elections. He switched to support the Tories in the   2010 General election.

Under Lionel Barber, The FT even supported David Cameron in the fateful General Election of 2015 .

As Barber put it at the time;

“We are holding our noses over Cameron’s Europe policy and his planned referendum (on Brexit). On balance , the case for continuity  rests on the economic record of the coalition government”.

Given the FT’s strong support for EU membership, the FT got that call spectacularly wrong in supporting David Cameron in 2015.

 Ed Miliband, as the alternative Prime Minister, would not have led the UK to exit from the EU. Jeremy Corbyn would never have led the Labour Party.

Barber is right when he says that no British government had ever made a serious political argument for EU membership, but if you vote for politicians, like Cameron, who have a superficial understanding of the EU,  that should not be a surprise.

Under Lionel Barber’s editorship, the FT enjoyed commercial success, and adapted well to the digital media world.

 It hosted some spectacularly good columnists. Martin Wolf and Philip Stephens spring to mind but there are many others.

Looking forward, Lionel Barber sees unregulated competition between the US and China as the number one threat to the world.  I agree. The risk of military conflict between them remains real.

 He also sees risks to democratic representative governance, if democratic states are perceived to fail in managing problems like Covid.

There are lots of anecdotes, and indiscreet word pictures of global figures in this book. But the author remains the star in his own show!

SAVING THE STATE….A HISTORY OF FINE GAEL

“Saving the State, Fine Gael from Collins to Varadkar”, by Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan,  is a good example of a fruitful cooperation between a distinguished academic historian, and an insightful political journalist. 

Ciara Meehan is a reader in history in the University of Hertfordshire. 

 Stephen Collins is a long time political columnist in the “Irish Times”.

 Both have written numerous books separately, but their combined work on this occasion combines readability and rigorous judgement.  It deserves a wide readership.

Although I have spent my lifetime intimately involved with the ups and down of Fine Gael, I learned much that was new to me in this book.

 I had not known, for example, that in forming his government in 1973, Liam Cosgrave offered the Ministry of Finance to Brendan Corish, the Labour Leader, if Brendan Corish would agree to take it himself.

 Corish declined and opted instead for Health and Social Welfare, so Richie Ryan of Fine Gael got the unenviable job of navigating the oil crisis and implementing some very unpopular capital taxes. 

Fine Gael was formed as a political party in 1933.

It was of a merger of the old Cumann  na nGaedhael led by WT Cosgrave, The Centre Party led by Frank McDermott and James Dillon,  and the Blueshirts led by Eoin O Duffy. 

It was agreed between the three merging groups that O Duffy, although not a TD, would be the overall leader. This proved to be a mistake and it is a mystery to me that it was not foreseen at the time.

In making this choice, the new party displayed a lack of confidence in itself and what it had achieved and a desire to associate itself with ephemeral  contemporary political fashions, as  represented by O Duffy. 

In his favour, O Duffy had been prominent in the War of Independence and in the formation of the Garda Siochana. He had had executive responsibility. He had set up a movement and  had shown he could organize political rallies.

 He was seen, according to the authors    

” as a Michael Collins type, someone who could excite the party in the way that Cosgrave could not”. 

 If that was the reason, it was an odd decision, for a party which was, and is, deeply constitutionalist in its convictions and support base.  WT Cosgrave, the state builder, ought to be the iconic figure for Fine Gael, and ought to be its model in choosing a leader, then , now, or in the future. 

The title of this book, “Saving the State” summarizes very well for me  the core value that underlies Fine Gael. 

It is that value that has led it to enter government with its traditional rival, Fianna Fail, a decision that reflects credit on both parties.

The book is full of interesting detail, and brings us right up to the formation of the present government.

It is an insightful and readable account……well worth buying for Christmas, if you like modern Irish history.

BRITAIN AND EUROPE IN A TROUBLED WORLD

Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government in Kings College in London, has recently written a book on a very topical subject, “Britain and Europe in a Troubled World”.

Its publication by Yale University Press coincides with the likely agreement on a new future relationship between the UK and the EU, which the UK recently left.

The first part of the book is historical. 

It shows that the Attlee Labour government in London in the early 1950’s chose not to join the European Coal and Steel Community(ECSC)  because it had recently nationalised the British coal and Steel industry and felt that the ECSC would have too much of a private sector focus. It did not want a continental body telling Durham miners that their coal were surplus to requirements, or too costly.

Churchill favoured a United States of Europe, but with Britain in partnership, and trading, with it, but without being a member itself.

 He saw Britain as most comfortable as sitting in the overlap between three concentric circles –

  • Europe,
  • the transatlantic relationship with America, and
  • the Commonwealth ( or Empire as Churchill would have preferred to call it). 

 Churchill even went as far as envisaging 

“ a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship”

 among Europeans. He was right in this, but the goal is not yet achieved.

Churchill’s  successor as Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, wanted free trade with Europe, but no Customs Union and no political Union. He did not believe the six countries attempting to agree such a Union in 1957 would succeed in their goal.

 But they did succeed.

 Meanwhile the UK was losing its Empire, the links with the Commonwealth were weakening, and the Suez debacle of 1956 had reminded them that their alliance with the US was not based on equality. 

 So, in 1961, Macmillan changed his mind and made what he called the “grim choice”to join the Common Market, only to have the application vetoed by de Gaulle because he felt that Britain was too close the US, and was not wholehearted in its commitment to Europe. 

Eventually another Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath did succeed in persuading France to allow the UK to join the European Communities in 1973. In the recent Brexit debate, many Brexiteers claimed that the UK only ever wanted to join a common market, without any political strings. But at the time Edward Heath told the House of Commons in April 1975 that the European Communities 

“were founded for a political purpose, the political purpose was to absorb the new Germany into the structure of the European family”. 

Vernon Bogdanor identifies a number of issues that led UK public opinion to turn away from the EU. notably 

  • the rows about the UK’s financial contribution, 
  • the ejection of the £ from the European Monetary System, 
  • immigration, under the free movement provisions of the EU Treaties and
  • the upsurge in identity politics in the wake of the financial crash of 2008.

He has a final chapter in the book entitled “Never Closer Union” in which he attempts to say what will happen to the EU after Brexit.

 It contains a number of contestable statements like

  • “ few in Europe had heard of Juncker” before he became President of the Commission,
  • Germany has “no desire for fiscal union”, and even that
  • there is a “very real possibility that the EU could disintegrate”.

Of course , nothing can be ruled out but the decision, after the UK had left, to allow the EU to borrow on its own account to boost the  post Covid economic recovery suggest that the European Union is in  much better health than the author believes.

Indeed his sentiments illustrate why Britain was never fully comfortable as a member of the European Union. It had joined with its head, but never with its heart or its imagination. In that sense Brexit was inevitable.

THE IRISH TRAPPED IN FRANCE BY THE SECOND WORLD WAR.

I had a personal reason for wanting to read “No Way Out, the Irish in Wartime France 1939-1945” by Isadore Ryan (Mercier Press).

This is because my aunt, Hilda Delany (1916-1956) from Culmullen was one of the Irish trapped in France, when the German Army  quickly over ran, and occupied the country in the summer of 1940.

Hilda had joined the Bon Sauveur Order of nuns in 1938 and was sent to France for training.

She spent the entire war in France, only returning to her convent in Holyhead in Wales in September 1945.

She died when I was only 9 years of age, so I did not get to know her well, although I do remember my mother bringing me to visit her in Holyhead on the Mail Boat. Conditions seem to have been very difficult in occupied France and food was scarce, and these privations may have contributed to her death at such an early age.

While my aunt is not mentioned in Isadore Ryan’s thoroughly researched book, there are many stories of other individual Irish individual people (including nuns), who found themselves trapped in France with minimal means of communication with, or receipt of support from, their families or communities back in Ireland.

The Irish Legation in Vichy France did its best to provide support but there were limits on what it could do. There were advantages in having a neutral Irish, rather than a British, passport at this time. The British passport holders were liable to be interned, whereas the Irish enjoyed some internal freedom of movement.

But the only way the Irish could get home to Ireland was by land to Spain and then by air or sea from Portugal to Britain. This was expensive, slow, and hazardous so very few attempted it.

Isadore Ryan ‘s book provides glimpses into the lives of many of the Irish, some of them well known like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. He also describes the lives and troubles of others who were priests, businessman, teachers of English, governesses, entertainers and nurses.

Some, like Beckett and Janie McCarthy were active in the French Resistance. A small number fraternized with the Germans, to the extent that they were suspected of collaboration with them. 

Interestingly, very few returned to Ireland when the war was over, a sign of straitened condition of this country in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.

Many Irish readers will find mention of families they know in this book.

It gives a glimpse into a more difficult time, which will put in proper proportion some of the constraints now imposed by the battle against Covid 19.

DE VALERA …..A TWO VOLUME BIOGRAPHY

I have recently completed David McCullagh’s two volume biography of Eamon de Valera, entitled “Rise 1882-1932”, and “Rule 1932-1975”.

 Both volumes are full of anecdotal detail that gives a good sense of the sort of person de Valera was. They are also the result of a thorough study of the archives.

De Valera was a man of apparent contradictions. 

He was infinitely charming and polite, but also wilful and self centred.

He  was creative, but wanted things done his way. He procrastinated, and obsessed over detail.

He was a magnetic personality, who could give a very dull speech, but still hold his audience in rapt attention. 

His personal story is a remarkable one.

Born in America, he was sent back to Limerick to be raised by his uncle and grandmother. A studious boy, he won a scholarship to Blackrock College and was to remain loyal to that college, and its rugby playing tradition, all his life.

He was introduced to physical force nationalism through the Irish Volunteers, established initially as a counterweight to the anti Home Rule Ulster Volunteers. 

He was condemned to death for his part in the 1916 Rebellion, but his sentence was commuted on 10 May 1916, two days after strenuous objection to continuing executions had been raised in the House of Commons by John Redmond and John Dillon, something de Valera never forgot.

He emerged as a major political figure through his role as a leader among the  post 1916 prisoners and as the successful Sinn Fein candidate in the East Clare by election.

When Dail Eireann was established, following the Sinn Fein success in the December 1918 General Election, de Valera became Priomh Aire (President of the Dail government) in April 1919. In this capacity, he left for the United States in June 1919, in an endeavour to win US support for Irish independence. His 18 month tour encountered some opposition from the American Legion, who resented the alliance of the 1916 rebels with Germany in the Great War.

His primary concern, in his political career, was sovereignty and independence from Britain. His secondary one was opposing partition and achieving Irish unity. He achieved his primary objective, but made little progress at all towards his second.

McCullagh deals extensively with de Valera’s role in the Treaty negotiations and the subsequent Civil War.

He presided over a chaotic Cabinet meeting to consider the British proposals on 3 December 1921, at which the exhausted negotiators got ambiguous instructions. When the negotiators were back in London, de Valera went touring his constituency and was substantially out of contact. 

When the negotiators came back with a Treaty he could not accept, he drew up an alternative to the Treaty (Document number 2), but did not address how it might have made been acceptable to the UK at that time.

De Valera had substantial moral authority in 1922, and if he had remained neutral or supported the Treaty, a Civil War might still have taken place, but it would probably have been much shorter.

When de Valera came to power in 1932, he built on the Treaty and the work of his predecessors in the 1920’s in enhancing Irish independence.

His major successes were the enactment of the 1937 Constitution, and the 1938 Agreement with Britain, which ended the Economic War and secured the return of the Naval Ports at Cobh and elsewhere to Irish jurisdiction.

This latter success enabled him to maintain Irish neutrality from 1939 to 1945. If Britain still had naval facilities on Irish territory, neutrality would have been very hard to sustain.

When he was Leader of the Opposition in the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, de Valera devoted a lot of time to campaigning around the world against partition, but he did not come forward with any concrete proposals that would have been likely to reconcile Ulster unionists, with their British heritage and allegiance, with the nationalism of the rest of the island of Ireland.

 Overseas public opinion was never going to unite Ireland. That work had to be done in Ireland by Irish people of both allegiances. It was not done by de Valera or his contemporaries because, like many Irish Nationalists, de Valera believed it was for the British government to press unionists to come into a united Ireland.

 That was not realistic in 1914, and even less so in 1948. There is little evidence that he thought this through. 

De Valera’s economic policies have been criticised. He did not see economic growth, or the accumulation of wealth, as ends in themselves.

 He wanted to build a harmonious and self respecting society in Ireland. This is why he prioritized independence over growth.

He wanted comfort to be distributed widely, hence his wish that all should live in “frugal comfort”, a phrase he used repeatedly and which has been unfairly mocked. His priorities were spiritual and moral, as much as economic, and drew on his religious convictions.

I met de Valera once, in 1973, as his guest at a dinner he gave in Aras an Uachtaran for Liam Cosgrave and the members of the incoming Fine Gael/Labour government. He was exceptionally courteous and aware of the significance and role of each guest.

These two volumes tell an engaging human story and deserve to be widely read. 

“Freedom is a Land I Cannot See”

Peter Cunningham’s latest novel “Freedom is a Land I Cannot See” is due for release by Sandstone Press on 24th June. It is one of his best. He shows great skill and sympathy in evoking living conditions of a century ago.

 The novel is set in the Baldoyle/ Sutton area of Dublin, 1924 when the new Irish Free State was coping with their aftermath of the successive internecine in wars of the 1919 to 1923 period.  To explain why the characters were as they were in 1924, the novel then switches back to 1920. This is at the height of the fighting between the IRA and the Army, Police and Black and Tans. The killings that happened then left a mark on the surviving characters that remained in 1924.

 The central character, and narrator in the book, Rose Raven, is the daughter of a Presbyterian, English born, ex soldier, who is married to an Irish Catholic woman and living in a cottage in Sutton. 

Rose’s mother believes Ireland would be safer staying in the Empire. Her father tries to keep his head down, but Rose’s friends are all nationalists of various hues, who want out of the Empire and are prepared to act in varying degrees to achieve that.

 In 1920, the risks run by  mixed allegiance families like the Ravens in 1920 are substantial. People were suspected of being “informers” on the strength of their religious beliefs and/or past service alone. Many left the country out of fear.

By 1924, the Free State had finally been established and was trying to stay afloat financially. It was highly sensitive to its credit rating, and worried about the dissemination of bad news that might damage confidence in the State’s creditworthiness.

 The plot of the novel revolves around the involvement of some of Rose Raven’s friends in endeavouring to pass some such damaging information, about conditions in the West of Ireland, to a US newspaper.

Peter Cunningham makes the reader feel he or she is living in North Dublin, alongside the book’s characters, as they navigate the successive crises of the 1920’s.

 Peter spent much of his own early childhood in Sutton and has a great eye for local detail. That said, the characters  he describes remain something of a mystery. This a good book and I recommend it.

IS IT TIME TO REASSESS THE ARMS TRIAL, AND THE ROLE OF JACK LYNCH?

“The Arms Crisis of 1970….the plot that never was”, by Michael Heney, published recently Head Zeus, challenges the received historical interpretation of the attempt IN 1970 to import arms to Ireland for possible use in Northern Ireland . 

Rather than seeing it as a plot undertaken by a faction within the then government, without proper authority, Heney argues convincingly that this was in fact an informally authorised operation. 

He believes that the then Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, knew what was going on, at least to the extent that he wanted to know.

 Heney is able to make this case by relying on state papers which were sealed from view until 2000, under the 30 year rule. 

He shows that Jack Lynch had been told by the then Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, as early as October 1969, of offers of arms, or of money to buy them, being made by a serving Irish Army officer to nationalists from Belfast some days earlier at a meeting in Bailieboro.

He reveals that the Chief of Staff of the Irish Army minuted that, on 6 February 1970, he  had received a direction from the Cabinet to

 “prepare the Army for incursions into Northern Ireland”

 and to have arms

” in readiness to be available in a matter of hours”

 to be given to Northern nationalists for their protection.

The legal position was, however, that under the Firearms Act of 1925, arms could not be imported to Ireland without a licence from the Minister for Defence of the time, Jim Gibbons. No such licence was ever issued.

 That was the basis for the prosecutions in the Arms Trial of Charles Haughey, Neil Blaney, Captain Jim Kelly, John Kelly and Albert Luykx. 

Strangely, the decision to prosecute these men was taken by the Attorney General, Colm Condon SC, before all the relevant witness statements had been gathered, notably the witness statement of the Chief of Army Intelligence, Colonel Heffron.  Heffron’s testimony was to blow a big hole in the prosecution case. 

There is much forensic detail in this book to which this summary cannot do justice.

 The conclusion I draw is that, from mid 1969, the Lynch government was pursuing a twin track strategy,

+  a diplomatic one, that was openly acknowledged, seeking reforms in Northern Ireland. Jack Lynch’s Tralee speech (eschewing coercive means to achieve a united Ireland) was part of this and

+  a parallel , covert and deniable, strategy to give military aid to the nationalist minority for “self defence”,  in the event of a further intensification of Loyalist attacks on them. The attempted arms importation was part of this second track.

The Secretary of the Department of Justice, Peter Berry, saw the danger in the second track approach, hence his warning to Jack Lynch in October 1969.

 The notion that weapons, once supplied, would or could only be used for “self defence” was ludicrous. The Irish State would have had no control over how they might be used, once outside the jurisdiction.

 Such an involvement by the Irish state in military actions across the border would have exposed to attack isolated nationalist communities far from the border. The situation would have become far worse even than it became.

 The effect on relations with the UK would also have been potentially disastrous. Imagine how one might react if the British Army was supplying arms to a political group in this jurisdiction!

 Jack Lynch did not seem fully to see these risks, until Liam Cosgrave went to see him on 6 May 1970 with information he had received from an anonymous Garda source naming the Ministers supposedly involved in the plot to import arms (including the Minister for Defence, Jim Gibbons).

 Michael Heney argues that this second track approach (of the Irish state preparing to arm Northern nationalists) might, by reassuring them that they were not alone, have forestalled the re emergence of the Provisional IRA.  I do not believe this at all. It is dangerous historical nonsense.

 The Republican ideology, dating back to the Fenians, is based on the false idea that Unionists can be coerced into united Ireland, and that nationalist have a moral right to use force to that end, and that only pragmatic considerations should inhibit them from doing so. 

This is  still a widely held view among “Republicans”, so the Provisional IRA Republicans would have gone down the cul de sac of violence, no matter what the Irish state did, or did not, do in 1970.

Michael Heney does show, however, that the prosecutions in the Arms Trial of 1970 were unjustified. This is principally because the accused believed sincerely that they were acting with formal or informal government authority. 

How then ought the matter have been resolved, if not by the Arms Trial?

 Jack Lynch should have put a stop to the whole arms importation exercise much earlier, when first warned of it by Peter Berry in October 1969. He should have done so long before May 1970, when he did eventually act by sacking some of the Ministers involved.

 After all, Jack Lynch had already won an overall majority in the Dail in June 1969, and had the political authority to assert himself. By October 1969, reforms in Northern Ireland were under way. The B Specials were being disbanded and effective security powers were being withdrawn from Stormont.

 He should have concentrated all his efforts on the diplomatic track, in the United Nations, the United States and among the Irish in Britain, in pushing for much more rapid reform in Northern Ireland. Instead he allowed the covert strategy to continue in parallel…….a big mistake.

The use of weapons, by whomsoever supplied, and for whatever ostensible purpose, was always a waste of time and of lives.

“SAY NOTHING”

….THE DECEITS THAT FLOW FROM THE USE OF VIOLENCE FOR UNACHIEVABLE ENDS

“Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe was recommended to me by two friends whose judgement I respect.

Radden Keefe is a writer with the “New Yorker” magazine.  His book is published by William Collins. A native of Boston, Keefenow lives in New York. He has an arresting writing style.   It is hard to put his book down.

 It starts with the 1972 murder of Belfast widow, and impoverished mother of ten small children, Jean McConville. It ends by naming the female IRA member the author believes shot Mrs McConville.

 Jean McConville was suspected, on flimsy grounds, of having given information the British Army. She was a Protestant, married to Catholic and living in Divis tower, in the heart of Republican Belfast. 

Her religious background would have drawn suspicion upon her.

 The author names the senior Republican, who claims never to have been in the IRA, who ordered her murder, and the “disappearing” of her remains across the border.

“Say Nothing” expands from this sad story to delve into IRA violence in Belfast and the response of the security forces to it. 

Things need not have turned out as they did.

 In 1968, the IRA had actually sold off some of its remaining weapons to the Free Wales Army. 

Then came the Loyalist attacks in 1969, and the start of an intense cycle of violence that lasted over 30 years, and which was only ended by a series of convoluted ambiguities that satisfied no one.

It all had its origin in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic on Easter Sunday 1916. 

The terms of this Proclamation made compromise by its sincere adherents impossible.

 The Proclamation claimed a “fundamental right” to a 32 county Republic. No one had a right to compromise that right.

 As the author of the Proclamation, Patrick Pearse, wrote, justifying the rebellion;

“We go in the calm certitude of having done the clear, clean, sheer thing”.

He said on another occasion;

“We have the strength and peace of mind of those who never compromise”.

It is remarkable that the 1916 Proclamation is officially celebrated in Ireland , given that the Irish State is BASED on a compromise, and  that the Good Friday Agreement IS a compromise.

 The  ritual annual incantation of the words of the Proclamation every Easter, gives a false  and deeply misleading message to Ireland’s school children, and to future generations.

The absolutist and uncompromising nature of the 1916 Proclamation went against human nature.

 It helped make compromise by the Four Courts garrison impossible in 1922, and it made decommissioning of weapons, in more recent times,  much more difficult to acknowledge or admit by those who based their republicanism of the Proclamation. 

 There was nothing that was “clean, clear or sheer” about the civil wars in Ireland from 1919 to 1923.

Nor was there much   that was “clear, clean or sheer” about the so called Armed Struggle of the IRA in Belfast, as Radden Keefe’s book shows.

 And there was nothing clear or sheer about the British security forces response to it, either. They were mirror images of one another.

Radden Keefe’s claims the IRA hunger strikes of the 1980’s were deliberately prolonged by the IRA leadership, because they were yielding electoral dividends for Sinn Fein.  An offer acceptable to the prisoners had been made by the authorities, but the outside IRA leadership vetoed acceptance of the offer, and six more prisoners died, all for electoral considerations the author claims.

He also explores why many ex IRA people had difficulty with the peace process.

 He says that Dolours Price, who was involved in many IRA actions including the abduction of Jean McConville, felt a sharp sense of moral injury from the peace process and the compromises it required.

 He says she believed that it had

“ robbed her of any ethical justification for her own conduct”.

This is the sort of sadness that inevitably flow from the use of force to obtain goals on which there can be no compromise.

NOT QUITE SUCH A DECADENT AGE, 1880-1914

“The Age of Decadence, Britain 1880 t0 1914” by Simon Heffer is an ideal book to have tackled during the Covid 19 lockdown.

It consists of almost 900 closely typed pages, and covers every aspect of this eventful period, from the rise of organised labour to naval rearmament, from the campaign for votes for women to that for Home Rule for Ireland.

An overriding political constraint on elected governments in this period was the veto the unelected and unrepresentative House of Lords had on all legislation. A Crisis over this had been avoided for many years by the Lords exercising restraint in its use of the veto. Once the Liberal Party came to power in 1905, a clash between the Commons and the Lords was inevitable.

The crisis came in the 1910 to 1914 period, as a result of a combination of two phenomena.

 The first was the fact that the Irish Party, demanding Home Rule, held the balance of power in the House of Commons from 1910 on.

The second was the contents of Lloyd Georges’s budgets of 1909 and 1910, which proposed very progressive taxation (to pay for naval rearmament). 

A  majority of Lords took violent objection to both Home Rule and the tax policies.

 The Lords saw their property in Ireland under attack from Home Rule, and their investments in England under attack from the budget.

 They wanted to stop both.

 Eventually the King had to threaten to appoint hundreds of new Lords, drawn from the Liberal Party, to overwhelm the Conservative majority in the Lords. This forced  the Lords to climb down and pass the legislation.  Home Rule became law on 12 September 1914.

But this is a social history as much as it is a political history.

 Simon Heffer draws on the novels of authors like John Galsworthy, Virginia Woolf and HG Wells to show how different classes of society inter acted with one another.

 I am not sure he justifies the claim in the title of the book that this was an age of decadence.

 Certain members of the aristocracy did indeed live idle and extravagant lives, but there were major advances taking place in medicine, housing standards, social welfare. Old Age Pensions and the Social insurance were introduced.

 It could be argued that more radical social reform was made by the Liberal government before the First World War, than by the Labour government after Second World War.

 People could imagine the future. The writings of HG Wells in this period foresaw many of the technological developments of the following hundred years. Eugenics were advocated by George Bernard Shaw and opposed by GK Chesterton.

Heffer’s book is full of pen pictures of the interesting characters who populated this period of rapid change.

 He tells their story well and holds the reader’s interest.

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