Ireland and the left

Peace of a kind may be coming to Northern Ireland. But, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft, it is no thanks to the soft-headed indulgence of the republican movement by the old British left
June 19, 1998

As Gerry Adams was on his way to visit Downing Street for the first time last December, he stopped to sign copies of his latest book at "a socialist bookshop in Bloomsbury Street." Reading these words, I thought of Joe Hendron, physician and former SDLP member for Belfast West, and of John Banville, novelist, critic and literary editor of the Irish Times.

In the spring of 1996, a year before the general election in which he lost his seat to Adams, Hendron denounced Sinn Fein as "a sectarian and fascist organisation." And earlier, in September 1994, when asked his reaction to what proved a temporary IRA ceasefire, John Banville replied more coolly: "Those of us who have always thought of the IRA, and indeed Sinn Fein, as neo-fascist, are deeply worried by the respectability they have won now in Dublin, London and Washington."

What is it with the left and Ireland? Leave aside what the Sinn Fein leader was doing at Downing Street. What was he doing at that bookshop? If Hendron and Banville are right-and they are, after all, both Irish, one of them an honourable Belfast nationalist, the other a Wexford man who is perhaps the most distinguished Irish writer of his generation-then English socialists were f?ting a fascist leader. In what other context could this happen?

Why do there persist what Fred Halliday calls "left platitudes about the IRA," a tenderness (which is a blindness) towards Irish republicanism-and a venomous hostility to the Ulster Unionists? Kate Hoey is an Ulsterwoman, and a Labour MP (a combination she can only achieve, of course, by sitting for a London constituency). She has said that contempt for Ulster protestants is the one remaining respectable form of racism; it is hard to deny what she says. Ulster is the one place where the left comes close to racial hatred, and the one where self-styled socialists support a fascist movement.

This strange and unlovely phenomenon can be seen regularly in the Guardian, our most eminent left-liberal newspaper, and a very rum mixture it is. On the one hand are some fine correspondents, including David Sharrock (now in Jerusalem but for years in Belfast), as well as outstanding columnists such as Martin Woollacott and Hugo Young. None of these is particularly sympathetic to Unionism, but they have all written sanely about Ulster.

On the other, quite apart from a core of readers who (if the letters page is any guide) would still revere Adams and McGuinness as noble martyrs if they fire-bombed an orphanage in Bosnia, there are Guardian writers who barely disguise their sympathy for Sinn Fein. There is Decca Aitkenhead, who believes that the reason why people dislike Adams is because of "his intelligence and socialism." There is Jeremy Hardy, who is said to be a comic, although there is nothing funny about his sneering at those who consider Northern Ireland British, "even though an aerial photograph tells us something different."

The politics of aerial photography would make an interesting study. An aerial photograph says that Portugal and Spain are one country, so are Norway and Sweden. Aerial photography told Mussolini that Italy's frontier was "the line of the Alps," and Hitler that independent Czechoslovakia was a dagger pointed at the heart of the Reich. The thing about aerial photographs is that they don't show actual people, or their political wishes, or their sense of national identity.

As part of the same appeal-to-younger-readers, there is (where does Alan find them?) the unbelievable Mark Steel. A recent column by him would have been spiked by Private Eye as a spoof of a half-witted Spartist piece about Ulster. "Sinn Fein seems to be the only major group that genuinely wants peace," Steel claimed, "the least combative party" in Northern Ireland. Too many British people, he wrote with what must pass for smartness among younger readers, "see Sinn Fein and the loyalist as equally atrocious factions. There is however an immense difference between the two. Republicans do not have any wish to go marching through protestant housing estates talking in Latin and setting fire to condoms."

To the limited extent that any sense can be made of this witless drivel, it is simply wrong: Irish republicanism has indeed "burned condoms." You might think even Mark Spart knew that the independent Irish state rigorously imposed the teaching of the Roman Catholic church by force of law. The sale of contraceptive devices was legalised in the Irish Republic less than 20 years ago, divorce became possible in limited circumstances only two years ago, and abortion is prohibited under any circumstances to this day.

Then there is Roy Greenslade. He too combines enthusiasm for republicanism with ignorance of Ireland's history, to an even more alarming degree. In an article last year he complained about Tony Blair's even-handed approach to Ulster. The root of the problem, he parroted, was partition and the existence of a Northern Ireland with a Unionist majority. (It always seems to shock some people that the partition of Ireland produced a northern segment with a protestant majority. That was indeed the object of the exercise, just as the partition of Hungary was intended to produce a Slovakia with a Slovak majority.)

"From this sense of hopelessness, a deep-seated sense of a wrong that cannot be righted through the normal means (the ballot box) springs the continuing support for the IRA." Greenslade helpfully added that republicans "do not, in spite of Blair's apparent belief, support the principle of consent." It is useful to be reminded from someone who sympathises with them that republicans reject democratic principles.

Everything Greenslade says in extenuation of Adams and McGuinness could also extenuate Karadzic and Mladic. Quite apart from the facts that the sufferings of the Serb people this century have been much greater than those of the Irish, and that the historical case for a Greater Serbia, although not particularly good, is better than the historical case for a United Ireland, they too are unable to achieve their ends through the ballot box, and they do not "support the principle of consent." No one who defends Irish republicanism is in any position to condemn its Serb equivalent.

The left's illusions about Ulster are connected with illusions about Ireland as a whole, which are sometimes found even in Ireland itself. It is almost touching when the veteran Derry activist Eamonn McCann writes that the aim of a 32-county socialist Irish republic should not be abandoned. Although I am not Irish (or a socialist), and I may not know Ireland as well as he does, I know it better than most Englishmen. I have visited Ireland every year for 30 years, know most of its provinces and counties, write regularly for the Sunday Independent and broadcast for Radio Ireland, both in Dublin, have many friends and enemies of all religions (and none) on either side of the border. And I can tell McCann one thing: partitioned or united, Ireland will become an Islamic republic before it becomes a socialist republic.

One man who learnt that the hard way is Noel Browne, who died last year in his cantankerous 80s after a chequered but mostly thwarted political career on the socialist fringe of Irish politics. Its high point came nearly half a century before his death. As minister of health in the 1948-51 Irish coalition government, Browne (a physician like Hendron) introduced a modest plan for state maternity welfare. It was vetoed by the catholic hierarchy, and Browne never held office again.

For the rest of his life he fulminated with understandable rage against what Ireland had become. Not long before his death, Browne contrasted the two parts of Ireland: "With all its warts the North represents the Europe of the Refor-mation, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the French revolution, the industrial revolution, and much else." This was said to tease conventional nationalist opinion in Dublin, but it was not simply paradox-mongering; it is relevant to the British left's confusion about Ulster-and Ireland.

The Irish historian Roy Foster has described those confusions and evasions. As he drily says, they are understandable enough: "It is difficult, if not morally impossible, for the left to admit that an independent Irish state has become so decisively different from the left's vision of what it should be."

Labour inherited the liberal and radical sympathy for Home Rule, although after the Free State was born in 1922 its Irish policy became tangled and obscure. It was odd on the face of it, as Browne implied, that radicals should side with green against orange. From well before Marx, the simplest shorthand definition of "the left" in European history has been anti-clericalism and hostility to the Church of Rome. Hence the French gauchiste to whom the poet Derek Mahon once tried to explain the conflict in his native Ulster. "So," the Frenchman said, "these 'loyalists,' they must be the catholics, and the 'republicans' are the protestants, non?"-which is what continental history and terminology would lead you to expect.

We all use the word fascism too lightly, but it retains a useful sense in political science. Fascism may be defined as a tendency combining fanatical nationalism, a contempt for democracy and a cult of violence for its own sake.

And that definition fits Sinn Fein like the proverbial glove. What are republican marches and funerals if not fascistic? What are the mystical rantings of An Phoblacht? What is the very name "Ourselves Alone" or "We Ourselves" (the alternative translations of the name "Sinn Fein" from "the first official language" of the Irish Republic, which is spoken as an everyday language by less than 1 per cent of its inhabitants)?

Although I cannot claim to speak to the left from the left-that concept little more than 200 years old-I would like to claim the inheritance of the Enlightenment and its English precursors. That is what Noel Browne meant; and what Tom Paulin meant too, when he said that "Closer links with the Irish Republic should not diminish the values which those of us who adhere to the principles of the Glorious Revolution hold dear. It is time to stop harping on the acknowledged failures of Northern Ireland and to start seeking ways of reforming the Irish Republic." You don't have to share Paulin's politics to agree with that.