John A. Hall reviews Brendan O’Leary’s Treatise on Northern Ireland, which covers both analytic questions of the historical record and the political calculations and details of constitutional arrangements. He concludes that the three volumes will be with us for years.
A Treatise on Northern Ireland, Volume One: Colonialism. The Shackles of the State and Hereditary Animosities, £75, xxxv + 522 pp, ISBN: 978-0199243341
A Treatise on Northern Ireland, Volume Two: Control. The Second Protestant Ascendancy and the Irish State, £75, xxv + 260 pp, ISBN: 978-0198830573
A Treatise on Northern Ireland, Volume Three: Consociation and Confederation. From Antagonism to Accommodation, £75, xlv + 458 pp, ISBN: 978-0198830580
All by Brendan O’Leary and published by Oxford University Press. The below review was first published on the Dublin Review of Books and is reposted here with thanks.
Nobody in Ireland of any intelligence likes Nationalism any more than a man with a broken arm likes having it set. A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again. It will listen to no reformer, to no philosopher, to no preacher, until the demand of the nationalist is granted. It will attend to no business, however vital, except the business of unification and liberation.
George Bernard Shaw
There is much truth in Shaw’s comment, taken from the preface to John Bull’s Other Island (1930). Denmark’s highly consensual politics rest on a national homogeneity of which it is blithely unaware. Equally, Irish politics, North and South, have been traumatised by the break of partition, even if some have sought to ignore this. Perhaps the most helpful way of understanding Ireland is negative: the settler colonists in Algeria returned to France, in absolute contrast to the Irish situation, where they stayed in a discrete area in which they exercised near total control within a putatively larger liberal political entity. That raises a crucial problem not faced by the Danes, who lost all their national minorities through continual defeats in war. Is it possible to find a sufficient sense of shared identity to allow minority nations to prosper within a larger political frame? Can one have double or indeed multiple identities, for example as Canadian and Québécois ‑ perhaps too as a Montrealer? Can the health of nations take different forms? No one is better able to answer these questions than Brendan O’Leary. He is an acknowledged expert on federalism, and still more so on consociationalism ‑ that is, systems of government that allow minorities to be protected from the tyranny of majorities, principally through creating some form of power-sharing. This book is his life, filled with passion as well as with understanding.
The author’s perspective
Readers will benefit from knowing a little about the author, most of which he reveals in the general introduction to the whole work. He was born in Cork, but spent his early childhood in Nigeria, where he was schooled with English children. But the largest part of his education took place in the Eden Primary School near Carrickfergus and in the Kirskistown Primary School in the village of Cloughey. “[My] sister and I were the sole cultural Catholics to attend these schools in very Protestant neighborhoods, placements that flowed from ‘mistakes’. Upon returning from Nigeria my southern Irish mother, not fully aware of the nature of local divisions, sent her two eldest children to the nearest state schools, which were ‘Protestant’, and where we had to look after ourselves as minorities of one in each of our classes.”
Undergraduate studies at Oxford then introduced him to the scions of the English ruling class, for many of whom he has justified contempt and disdain. This was followed by doctoral studies and twenty years’ employment at the London School of Economics. He brought questions to do with nationalism with him, but the years in London were clearly marked by interacting with Ernest Gellner and Elie Kedourie. A negative view of the latter was markedly in contrast to admiration for and stimulation provided by the former ‑ who summed up the difference between Czech and Irish history when comparing the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 to that of the Battle of the Boyne in 1690: in the Bohemian case “the other side won”. (Full disclosure: writing my biography of Gellner led to many conversations about nationalism with O’Leary.) In these years he became an expert on Northern Ireland.
There were two strands to his work. First, he was a policy adviser to the Labour Party, and a political adviser more particularly to Mo Mowlam, who served as secretary of state for Northern Ireland in 1997-’98. Second, in a stream of publications, often written with his close friend John McGarry, he sought to understand the conflict, not least by means of a series of interviews with key participants. The conventional wisdom in the 1980s considered itself to be realistic when insisting that nothing could be done. McGarry and O’Leary showed various ways in which ethnic conflict could be managed, and they did so with reference to conflicts throughout the world. O’Leary left London for the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia nearly twenty years ago, where he has added to his academic portfolio specialised knowledge on terrorism, “right-sizing” states, the “understated” nations within the European Union, and above all the Kurds of Iraq ‑ to whom he has served as a constitutional adviser. All of this shows in the current treatise, as does his increasing importance as a public intellectual (not least when recognising early on the consolidation of white voters for the Republican Party in an article on the 2008 US presidential election for this review. All of this can easily be summarised: he is blessed with a mixed and diverse set of experiences and is able to see far as he lacks any single settled abode.
O’Leary has written about Northern Ireland for thirty-five years, keeping abreast of every development, always pushing the politics of accommodation. The half million words that he has given us in this treatise is a complete synthesis of everything he knows, whether from his own research or from that of others. The detailed coverage is astonishing, the range immense. The book exemplifies best practice in social science and history, combining both disciplines, asking analytic questions of the historical record and widening the remit of social science ‑ above all by looking carefully both at political calculations and the details of constitutional arrangements. It is important to stress that he offers us an analytic history of Ireland as a whole, paying special attention to developments in the Irish Free State and to the Republic thereafter.
Finally, the last chapter of the final volume, written in December 2017, together with a preface to the same volume written in October a year later spells out in exceptional clarity the varied potential consequences of what he prefers to call UKEXIT from the European Union. The extension of the date of leaving from March to October 2019 came after the book went to press, but the analysis has lost none of its cogency. All of this is to say that this is a heavyweight performance, in my view one of the few classics of modern social studies, certain to be seen as a major contribution. A firm word of warning is called for immediately. Neither the judgement given nor the length of the whole should provoke fear, a refusal to open these volumes. For they are easy to read, at times having the pace of a novel. The writing is elegant, democratic and nicely acerbic on occasions when the behaviour of politicians is particularly egregious. But at present the books are expensive; they should be issued in paperback format immediately for never has the hackneyed expression “deserving a wide readership” made more sense.
An overview of the three volumes
The story told in the three volumes is straightforward. The stage is set by an eighty-page chapter auditing levels of violence in the North since 1966. This is a tour de force, blessed with superlative graphics of all sorts, containing discrete sociologies of the contending parties, unionist, republican and military, detailing the why, where, when and how of death and destruction. The scale of the conflict is highlighted by noting that an equivalent proportion of deaths occurring in the United States would have amounted to something like half a million people. The treatise then rests on three main guiding theoretical concepts, colonialism, control and consociationalism, with lesser attention paid in the final volume to a fourth, confederation. The central contention is simple, namely that one cannot understand Northern Ireland without knowledge of the historical roots of the conflict.
As a constitutionally sophisticated political scientist O’Leary loves tight definitions, and follows a German historian, Jürgen Osterhammel, in stressing four components of colonialism: control of one society by another, thereby blocking the possibility of autonomous development; unwillingness of the rulers to make cultural concessions to the natives; an ethos of superiority amongst the colonisers; and a contrast between an indigenous majority and a minority of foreign invaders. It is important to note that these components are utilised in the analytic history of this volume, running from 1603 to 1922 ‑ and ending with a brilliant comparative account of the nature of partition.
The second volume on control similarly distinguishes segmentation, dependence and co-optation as key elements within control, and uses them in recounting the Second Protestant Ascendancy in the North ‑ adding to them a brilliant account of the anxiety of unionists, a majority in the North but a minority within the island. Of course, colonialism itself can be seen as a form of control; hence the guiding concepts are not restricted, as the author makes clear, to specific volumes. He is in fact utterly precise as to the dates at which colonialism ends: in 1937 in the independent state, albeit with important details later (the return of the Treaty Ports, leaving the Commonwealth), and in 1998 in the North, that is, at moments when control from the outside is relinquished, thereby allowing for autonomous decision-making and development. Such moments allow for recovery, for the possibility of creating healthy nations.
The third volume opens with a brilliant account of consociationalism, at both normative and practical levels, drawing on and developing the work of the Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart. One powerful criticism directed against consociationalism is that it can make division permanent. O’Leary accepts that this can be so but insists that it is not inevitable; after all, the “pillarised” politics of the Netherlands faded over time, allowing for what we take to be “normal” left-right politics. Just as importantly, O’Leary rejects the view that consociational arrangements are necessarily anti-democratic; to the contrary, a measure of elite agreement can be combined with oppositional parties.
Finally, a short technical discussion explains why he has become convinced, against Lijphart, that a system of single transferable votes based on proportional representation is the best support for consociationalism. A very great deal of attention is given to the involvement of Westminster and Dublin in the creation and maintenance of the Good Friday peace agreement because this makes this particular version of consociationalism unique. At this point great praise is given to politicians in the two capital cities ‑ not least to Tony Blair ‑ as well as to those in the North, showing that courage, skill and determination can succeed. The role of the United States in the form of talented arbitrators is addressed as well, while the contribution of the European Union is seen as immense even though it had no direct role in making the accord. For one thing, entry into Europe took the Republic out of the shadow of the colonial power, thereby giving it a wholly different political economy. For another, shared membership of the confederation dissolved the border, playing its part in the creation of economic prosperity.
This is a good point on which to underline the negative side of his view of British politicians. I met O’Leary on the evening Peter Mandelson, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, unilaterally suspended the Northern Ireland Assembly, thereby ignoring, and indeed breaking, the 1999 intergovernmental agreement: I have never seen such cold fury in a human being ‑ although he now notes that the suspension was at least designed to save the situation. His comments about Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are more scathing still, and amusing too: they are held, properly, to be “symptomatic of a crisis of professional gravitas among the current Conservative leadership”.
The first volume: from 1603 to 1922
The most notable feature of the first volume of about four hundred pages is the energy with which O’Leary defends the colonial perspective, always on the basis of an impressive command of recent historical research. The story he tells is familiar. A chapter covering the period from 1603 to 1800 begins by describing the character of the conquest and the introduction of the plantations. He follows what is now the well-established view of the “English Civil War” as one between three kingdoms, and makes much of the Catholic Confederacy. He refuses to treat Cromwell’s incursions as genocide, but describes the appalling population movements, land transfers and penal laws by means of excellent graphics. He does not consider the eighteenth century patriot national exemplified by Henry Grattan as outside his colonial mode of explanation. Just as the German-speaking nobility of Bohemia in the nineteenth century looked to Vienna when challenged from below, so too did this Anglo-Irish aristocracy look to London. The United Irishmen matter to him both for the ability to join dissenters with Catholics in a common cause and as a refutation of Elie Kedourie’s insistence that nationalism was “invented” at a later stage, by German romantic writers.
A second chapter, taking the story from 1801 to 1857, suggests that the aftermath of vicious repression and the spread of new ideas politicised the country earlier than has often been realised. The account of Catholic Emancipation is followed by description of the latest research on the Famine. 1858 to 1914 are then seen as the years in which anti-colonial nationalism gains decisive support both because of blocked Catholic mobility (on which O’Leary has interesting figures), limited economic development and the inability of British politicians to push through Home Rule ‑ through vacillation on the part of the Liberals and by the Conservatives first opportunistically playing “the Orange Card” and then hinting at the possibility of civil war.
A final historical analysis taking the story to 1922 first describes the Easter Rising and its brutal suppression, the decisive election of 1918 and the war for independence. In the midst of war, Westminster partitioned Ireland and set up elections for the two entities. It thus created Northern Ireland before negotiation with Sinn Féin, and further insisted on the following settlement: the Irish Free State had the right to leave the United Kingdom, provided that Northern Ireland had the right to secede from the Irish Free State, subject to a boundary commission if it did so; the Irish Free State, however, did not have the right to secede from the Commonwealth/Empire or from the Crown, and Britain insisted on supervising its constitution.
Two initial reflections are offered on this history. O’Leary asks first why it was so difficult to establish Home Rule. The fact that Dominion status was given to Canada and Australia, to a larger Britannic nationalism, leads O’Leary to emphasise the sheer racism of British rulers. In the first Home Rule debate, Lord Salisbury declared the Irish to be as prepared for free representative institutions as “the Hottentots”. He adds to this awareness of political interests, strategic considerations, elements of political economy and imperialist ideologies. I wonder if he might have given more emphasis to the latter. Geopolitical competition was intense at the start of the twentieth century. All the great European empires had seen what had happened to the Ottomans, all were wary of anything that might undermine their power. The second reflection follows closely. In the field of nationalism studies there has been a tendency to see nationalist movements as illiberal, reactionary and exclusionist. O’Leary will have none of this, in general or in this particular case. The empires were far from democratic, with most possessing rulers prepared in 1914 to take extraordinary risks with their peoples. Irish nationalism was democratic, populist and anti-imperial, and it offered, not least in the ideas proposed by Arthur Griffiths, imaginative ways to deal with the unionist minority in the North ‑ all the Home Rule bills contained provisions designed to assuage the fears of the unionists. In contrast, there were many illiberal British, authoritarian monarchists and religious monopolists. The behaviour of this group made compromise impossible.
The anti-democratic arbitrariness of imperial behaviour, and the need to go beyond it, fuels the passion with which the book is written. The final chapter on partition adds a great deal more, showing O’Leary’s ability with careful definition at its best. Partition is not the same thing as secession, that is, the exit of a pre-established unit from a larger polity ‑ or indeed of the “separation” of Czechs and Slovaks, given the difficulty in deciding who was responsible for the split. Partition is rather a fresh cut through a prior entity. Justifications for partitions are discussed, but the weight of argument and evidence leans heavily in favour of those who oppose them. The questions abound: around what entities should new boundaries be drawn? Should there be opt -out for sub-units? How should popular preferences be determined, and should such preferences be the only consideration to count? And who should decide the final result? O’Leary notes the way in which Michael Collins was misled (or perhaps let himself be misled) by Lloyd George in December 1921 as to the actual cut to be made, an example of the trickiness of the very enterprise. But the key consideration is that partitions leave behind them moves towards ethnic cleansing, hatred and violence. It should be noted that partitions were particularly favoured by the British empire. The strategy of “indirect rule” favoured by the British contrasted with more direct, Jacobin-style rule in the French empire. Brilliant research by my colleague Matthew Lange shows the end result: much higher levels of post-imperial ethnic conflict in the new states of the former British empire than in those formerly ruled by the French. This is further evidence, as if it were needed, that the recent attempt by Niall Ferguson to praise the benefits of British imperial rule lack merit. O’Leary offers advice: “When partition threatens, the appropriate slogan should not be John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’, nor Edward Luttwak’s ‘Give War a Chance’, but rather ‘Give Power-Sharing a Chance’.” He is outraged by the irresponsibility of Westminster in this regard.
The second volume: The Second Protestant Ascendancy and the Irish State
The second volume is just two hundred pages long, fully a third of which concentrates on the South. A first chapter, “Not an Inch: Gaining Control in the North, 1919-1939”, describes the mechanics of domination: the gerrymandering of electoral districts and changes in electoral rules to ensure unionist majorities would block boundary changes, ethnic riots, discrimination in employment, in the police and the judiciary, and inequality in educational provision. The next two chapters concentrate on decolonisation in the South. There is a careful discussion of the treaty, followed by an account of the civil war that followed. The achievements that followed were remarkable. First, a democratic system was created. Second, O’Leary goes to very great lengths to demonstrate, against the work of Peter Hart, that the republic did not “ethnically cleanse” the Protestant community in the South. This does not mean, third, that he ignores the ways in which the 1937 constitution was offensive to unionists in the North. But the achievements of that constitution in consolidating democracy were immense, and O’Leary reconstructs the rationale of its actions in its earliest years. Fourth, he then suggests, following the work of the brilliant Irish economic historian Kevin O’Rourke, that the economic growth of the Republic thereafter is exactly what one would expect, given the prior history of other small European countries.
One of the treasures of the Republic is the presence of superlative economists and economic historians, so to disagree with this last point is a risky business. Nonetheless, several points must be made. Earlier work by O’Rourke on the nineteenth century noted the Danish takeover from Ireland of the English butter market. One element at work seems to be the contrast between a homogeneous country in which profits could be made only through greater specialisation and a divided society in which monies were more forthcoming through the land wars. This suggests something more general: cultural cohesion may have beneficial consequences for the economy. I went a little further in The Paradox of Vulnerability (Princeton 2017, written with John Campbell) in arguing that small cohesive states are likely to perform particularly well in the world economy because they feel vulnerable. This seems to apply to the Republic. For one thing, there is surely something to the view that the Republic’s progress was not entirely smooth, a case powerfully made by Tom Garvin (among others) in his Preventing the Future: Why was Ireland so Poor for so Long? (2004).
O’Leary has interesting things to say about vulnerability in general, and properly makes much of the fear of renewed conflict with Britain in the 1920s. But thereafter this was much less likely, vulnerability was much reduced, and it thereby allowed room for de Valera’s dream of a rural and Catholic Ireland, with policies in place to revive the language. This stood in total opposition to the culture of Britain ‑ a defence against the more modern English-speaking world. There was little pressure here for development or for institution-building. The work of Bill Kissane, O’Leary’s former doctoral student, suggests that such a period of relative stasis could never have been afforded by Finland, another agrarian former periphery of a great empire that had experienced civil war; the threats from both Germany and the Soviet Union were so great that fundamental change was mandated. For another, policies did change when a sense of vulnerability became pressing in the 1950s. A move was made away from import substitution to export-driven policies. Herein lay the seeds that later produced the Celtic Tiger.
One further point very much in line with the thrust of O’Leary’s general argument needs to be made in this connection as well. There is a noticeable difference in legacies of the two unions between Scotland and Ireland. The Scots retained many of their own institutions, whereas such institutions as Ireland had were, with the crucial exception of the Catholic church, effectively destroyed. This mattered enormously for the Republic in recent years because a very large part of its institutional portfolio was copied from the colonial power, including an Official Secrets Act, the Westminster model of managing the Dáil, the cult of the amateur, and much more. These played a significant role in both the guarantee of 2008 and the bailout that followed. Since then there has been a good deal of institutional change, best exemplified perhaps in the new professionalism of the Bank of Ireland. It is worth highlighting these comments: health does not come in a single moment, but rather in stages of process ‑ through thought and development.
The second volume finishes with two chapters on the North. O’Leary builds on the famous paradox of Alexis de Tocqueville that it is moments of reform that undermine authoritarian regimes ‑ because people start to hope, to imagine that there might be a new and different future. In this case he stresses the rise of generic social democracy in the postwar period, the rise of welfare that limited emigration and improvements in education that raised expectations (citing by name the biographies of the principal figures of the time). The weakening of control resulted in the Civil Rights movement. O’Leary then makes two firm judgements. First, he insists that violence was started by loyalists fearful of losing status and advantage. Second, complete escalation was the result of internment and biased military and judicial action (not least in response to Bloody Sunday), thereby providing community support for the IRA.
The third volume: 1972 to the present
The third volume is again lengthy at four hundred pages, and it is extremely dense, for the simple reason that if covers less than fifty years compared to the more than three hundred of the first volume. It is the fullest account available of de-escalating the conflict and its insights will always have to be considered, even though the continual release of government papers prevents its account being definitive. The chapters cover direct rule between 1972-1985, the making of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and its aftermath, the tensions that led to the making of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, a detailed appraisal of character of that agreement, and the renegotiations that have been required since its inception. Limitations of space do not allow coverage of this rich analysis; but some general points can be made. The volume is a masterclass on the nature of political calculation, showing that the agreement resulted from practical bargains far more than from abstract theory. Exceptionally insightful comments are offered on all the key players, perhaps especially on Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness ‑ whose strange alliance made the Assembly work well for an extended period. But the opportunity to go beyond something like a stalemate has not been seized, and Northern Ireland remains deeply divided socially and politically. O’Leary suggests that the obstacles to restoring the Assembly are very great, probably sufficient to prevent any resumption until after a general election.
The general situation has now become infinitely complex because of the vote ‑ of England and Wales rather than Scotland and Northern Ireland ‑ to leave the European Union, followed of course by the 2017 general election, which gave great influence to unionists due to the electoral success of the DUP. History is certainly on the move, as Arnold Toynbee once put it, but there is still much to be said for considering O’Leary’s carefully modulated guesses as the shape of future developments. He begins by suggesting that some things are not likely to change very much. A complete return to violence is judged to be unlikely, though an increase at a lower level on a reconstituted hard border is entirely possible. But the situation is fragile and so dangerous. If agreement to resume government locally is not forthcoming, direct rule may well be imposed again. This would seriously weaken the links between Dublin and Westminster, already much damaged by the events of the last three years.
But O’Leary does envisage substantial change. Electoral redistricting in the North is likely to diminish the salience of the DUP. Furthermore, it is hard not to imagine that they will be held to account for their actions since 2017. For one thing it was they who rejected the EU’s proposal to have customs checks in the Irish Sea, thereby potentially creating a UKEXIT in name only as all European institutions would remain in place, albeit there would no longer be any voice in policy-making. If this rejection leads to exit without a deal, with disastrous consequences for an integrated island economy (perhaps especially for farmers in the North), electoral retribution is very likely. Probably more important still is the growth in the proportion of the non-unionist population in the North. Northern nationalists/Catholics have not always pushed hard for reunification. As a majority witnessing the destruction of a much-improved world they may well act much more forcefully in the future, especially if the 2021 census shows that they have become the majority. O’Leary emphasises striking 2018 research results conducted with colleagues, further backed up by a YouGov online poll conducted for the BBC. Fully 70 per cent of the people of Northern Ireland now want to remain in the EU, an increase on the 56 per cent who voted that way in 2016. Identification with Britain has fallen below 50 per cent. Changes in the South are just as important. The recovery from the disasters that started in 2008 has been very remarkable, and the Republic is again the poster child of the EU. The prospects are excellent. An English-speaking country with high educational capital may well draw in substantial new investments, particularly from India. This is not to deny that there will also be great difficulties. But the Republic’s economy looks strong enough to survive them, and eventually to prosper. And the state does have the remarkable backing of the EU as a whole. Never have the benefits of a large confederation for a small state been better demonstrated.
In these circumstances O’Leary suggests that a new ministry for Irish reconciliation and reunification “would not be premature”. He outlines the wide range of possible futures, confederal, federal and unitary (some seen as stages to different healthy end points), thereby making it clear that the necessary discussion and political bargaining would take many, many years. He is very much against any immediate referendum on complete reunification. I am not at all sure that one reason he gives for this is correct, namely that a second Scottish referendum is likely to come first, and to succeed. Scotland has been angered by its future being decided in London, and this has increased and will continue to increase resentment and the possibility of secession.
But there are countervailing pressures. For one thing, the old dictum that the Tsarist Empire was “the prison house of the nations” now applies somewhat to the European Union ‑ reluctant to allow secessions to start in case they may have no end. For another, the 2014 Scottish referendum would have been marked by continuity ‑ in citizenship, and in both trade and customs union. The next time the question is posed there would be a hard border, and this could yet mean the rejection of independence. Ireland is of course better placed given the precedent of German reunification, but it may have to lead rather than to follow. One thing is for sure: these issues will be with us for years. UKEXIT without agreement would be followed ‑ almost the next day ‑ by urgent negotiations to paper over terrible cracks; discussions on trade will take years. Irish questions will not go away, and any new proposed agreement will be subject to veto in Dublin.
John A. Hall teaches comparative historical sociology at McGill University in Montreal. He is the author of several books, including a biography of Ernest Gellner (Verso, 2010) and The Paradox of Vulnerability (co-author John Campbell, Princeton, 2017), an analysis of the political economy of small nation-states, including the Republic of Ireland. He is currently completing a book on the interrelations between nations, states and empires.
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