A Political History of the Two Irelands
A Political History of the Two Irelands: From Partition to Peace
Palgrave Macmillan 254pp £16.99
Those expecting that Brian Walker’s ‘political history’ will be yet another journey over well-trodden ground will be both pleasantly and profitably surprised by his account of Ireland’s 20th century history. In place of the familiar narratives Walker instead offers us a much wider definition of ‘politics’ by focusing on the deeper complexities and contradictions of British/Irish identity and how this clash has produced political division and violence since 1921.
Drawing on the wider literature of nationalism and ‘the invention of tradition’ he traces the changing forms and expressions of Irish and British identities in Ireland since partition, linking these developments to the formation of the new states in ‘the two Irelands’ after partition. Rather than viewing the development of the Irish Free State (later the Irish Republic) and Northern Ireland in isolation Walker shows how the two identities and the two states impacted on each other. Thus his account interweaves events on both sides of the border, arguing that ‘it is not possible to understand what happened in the north of Ireland without understanding what occurred in the south… [because] developments in the two parts of Ireland were similar in many ways … by looking at both parts together we get a better sense of the factors that influenced the political process’.
Seen in this light Walker reveals how it is only really possible to fully understand the consolidation of both Brookeborough’s ‘Protestant State and Protestant Parliament’ and De Valera’s ‘Catholic and Gaelic Nation’ in the 1930s, for example, as mutually reinforcing processes. He finds other parallels in the political history of the two Irelands for much of the rest of the 20th century. Thus, despite their different ideological projects and constituencies, nationalist and unionist leaders maintained their power by using essentially similar mechanisms to mobilise their supporters against both the enemy within and across the border.
This stress on these parallel and interlinked histories provides new perspectives and ways of understanding the dynamics of political conflict in 20th-century Ireland. Similarly, Walker offers us new ways of looking at Ireland as a whole by setting these conflicts of nationality and religion in a broader European context. Rejecting ‘special structural or historical arguments’ that see the conflict in Northern Ireland, in particular, as ‘abnormal and inexplicable’, he believes that ‘ a simplistic Anglo-American framework’ fails to understand both the importance of nationalism and religious division in general and the common experience that Ireland, in particular, has shared with many other European countries since the late 19th century.
Walker brings his history up to the present day by looking at the changing dynamics of identity politics and the impact of the Troubles and the Peace Process on conceptions of nationalism and Unionism. By close reference to themes such as commemoration and the shaping of popular historical memory he argues that identities have been significantly reshaped and reinterpreted since the 1960s on both sides of the border. In exploring the causes and consequences of this development he focuses on the importance of this new pluralist language of accommodation in both the political discourse and the institutions of the two Irelands. If you want to understand how these new frames of history and identity have produced a Unionist leader (David Trimble) capable of replacing exclusivist Unionism with a commitment to ‘a pluralist parliament for a pluralist people’ and an Irish president, Mary Robinson, who wanted an Irishness ‘capable of honouring and listening to those whose sense of identity and whose cultural values may be more British than Irish’, Brian Walker’s stimulating political history is the best place to start.
Kevin Bean is author of The New Politics of Sinn Fein (Liverpool University Press, 2007).
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