Parr for the Course

Mike Burke with a Review of Henry Patterson’s book Ireland’s Violent Frontier: The Border and Anglo-Irish Relations During the Troubles, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Mike Burke with an analysis of the outcome of the recent Northern talks. Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.

In this post, I’ll examine Henry Patterson’s book through the lens of Connal Parr’s recent review of it.

Parr reviewed Patterson’s book in the October 2014 issue of the academic journal Irish Political Studies. It’s a glowing and gentle review, with hardly a critical word to say about what Parr calls “one of Patterson’s key works.”[1] My reaction to Patterson’s book is very different from that of Parr. In my opinion, Ireland’s Violent Frontier is deeply flawed. And I think that Parr’s highly favourable review inadvertently points to many of the problems in Patterson’s analysis.

Parr’s account also points to the limitations of book reviews written by reviewers who share the same set of research assumptions and beliefs as the author whose book they are reviewing. The academy, like life, is enriched by diversity. Different sets of assumptions and beliefs about the way research should be conducted, often referred to as paradigms, should be welcomed. They have not always been.

Partition as Paradox

As Parr recognizes, the objective of Patterson’s book is to examine how the border and particularly the South’s reluctance to move decisively against the Provisional IRA extended the “Troubles.” For too long, Patterson suggests, current academic literature “almost completely ignored the significance of the border for understanding the conflict” and “tended to focus on the urban epicentres of violence” in Belfast and Derry, for instance (p. 2).

Parr does not seem to recognize what for me is a fundamental paradox of Patterson’s account: it is centrally concerned with the importance of the border yet essentially ignores partition. In the book, there is no sustained examination of the circumstances or implications of partition. In fact, Patterson’s account of partition is exceedingly superficial, with such innocuous and uninformative comments as “any border, however it was drawn, would be found deeply unsatisfactory by those who found themselves on the wrong side of it” (p. 3).

Patterson’s work is one example of a larger problem in much of the scholarly literature on the northern conflict. Margaret O’Callaghan understands the problem as a “scholarly ‘silence’” in which the circumstances of partition have been written out of Irish history, effectively normalizing partition and the northern state as “an historical inevitability”.[2] In a similar vein, Mary Burgess detects a scholarly reluctance to question “the legitimacy of the border” as part of a “project to naturalize partition”.[3] Patterson’s easy acceptance of the northern state, then, places him in the academic mainstream. But it also adds a contemporary political dimension to his research.

A Dispassionate Partisan?

Parr refers to Patterson’s work as a “dispassionate reading” of the Provisional IRA’s border campaign (p. 607). I disagree. One meaning of “dispassionate” is impartial. This book is anything but impartial. It is manifestly tendentious or partisan.

Parr himself is contradictory and vague on this question: while he uses the term “dispassionate” he also says that the book “is intended to shake things up and have an impact beyond a purely academic readership” (p. 606). How does the book attempt to shake things up and what is this intended extra-academic impact, which Parr fails to specify in his review?

Patterson is quite explicit about the matter. He is using his research as leverage to intervene politically in the contemporary and highly contentious debate about dealing with the past. His research is meant to emphasize the role of the Irish state in the “Troubles”: Dublin’s failure to take tough security action against the Provisional IRA’s use of the border as a “safety valve” for its operations had the effect of prolonging the conflict and magnifying the political influence of republicanism. Patterson then applies this research conclusion to his present-minded political purpose. The current debate about addressing the legacy of the past should be more concerned with assuaging unionist fears and the insidious role of Dublin than with “British state transgressions and collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries” (p. 199).

It’s inconceivable to me how such a clear taking of sides—for Britain, unionism and loyalism; against nationalism and republicanism—could be described by Parr as “dispassionate.” I’ll return to Parr’s use of “dispassionate” below, in the section on ethnic cleansing. For the moment, though, understanding how Patterson’s partisanship affected the rigour of his analysis is more important than Parr’s mischaracterization of Patterson’s research as dispassionate. 

A Tale of Two (Sets of) Quotations

Patterson’s political objective of supporting Britain and unionism infects his analysis. And again, Parr’s book review is unintentionally helpful in highlighting this weakness of Patterson’s analysis.

In the book, Patterson gives an account of Britain’s disappointed reaction to the appointment of Ruarí Brugha as Fianna Fáil’s northern spokesperson in 1973. Here is Parr’s rendition, with the passages from Patterson’s book enclosed in single quotation marks:
British officials recounted Brugha’s ‘very shaky grasp of realities in Northern Ireland’, with his Dáil interventions concentrating on ‘sectarian murders of Catholics in the North and allegations against the security forces’.[4]

Here, Parr conflates two sources: the first passage in single quotations (‘very shaky . . . Northern Ireland’) is from an official British source; but the second (‘sectarian murders . . . security forces’) is from Patterson himself, who appears to be paraphrasing that source.

Parr is to be forgiven for confusing these two sources. It’s very easy to do. In fact, a significant problem with the book is that it’s often difficult to determine where the official British voice ends and Patterson’s voice begins. To see the book as an analysis of “the border and Anglo-Irish relations during the Troubles,” to borrow from its subtitle, is misleading. It’s much more accurate to say that the book is a critique of the Irish position from the perspective of Britain. That is, Patterson’s analysis supports his political purpose.

A second set of representative quotations from the book confirms how closely aligned are Patterson’s politics and research. Patterson’s conclusion in his 2013 book is in fact indistinguishable from the British position in 1978. Patterson quotes an official British source to give what he calls “the central British contention on the centrality of the border for the Provisionals.” That source said: ‘The level of operations at present [1978] maintained by PIRA in the North would not be feasible without support from South of the border’ (p. 123). Compare this “central British contention” to Patterson’s own research conclusion: “Without the strategic advantage given them by the border, the IRA could not have maintained their campaign at such a level for so long . . .” (p. 198). Here again we see the merging of two voices into one: the official British voice becomes Patterson’s voice.

Patterson’s political purpose in writing the book is also evident in the method he uses. He employs what might be called “asymmetrical critique.” He fully engages his critical faculties when examining the Irish position but largely suspends them when analyzing Britain. To cite an analogy from journalism, Patterson generally gives a hostile interview to Dublin and a friendly interview to London. Throughout the book, Patterson seems impatient with various Irish governments’ lack of obeisance to British demands on border security. And he praises Irish governments only to the extent that they accede to those demands. That is, condemnation or praise is determined by the criterion of Britain’s perceived security needs.

In short, Patterson’s political purpose affected his methodology which in turn shaped his research findings. Given the salience of his political objective, those research findings could hardly have been otherwise.

I am very mindful of Patterson’s political objective and very dubious of his research method and conclusions. A less partisan purpose and more balanced approach to the evidence would in all likelihood yield a different conclusion. Gearóid Ó Faoleán, for instance, recently studied the explosive capabilities of the Provisional IRA in the 1970s and the measures taken by the Irish state to stem the cross-border flow of such weaponry. He showed that Dublin significantly tightened the availability of commercial explosives and enacted stricter penalties and longer sentences for republican-related offences. He concluded:

“The successful transportation of this product [homemade explosives] into Northern Ireland was an issue for both British and Irish governments and the porousness of the border posed difficulties throughout the ‘Troubles’ in this regard. Accusations of southern ineptitude or a reluctance in policing ignore the sheer number of opportunities the religious demography-inspired border offered to smugglers. Further, such accusations often fail to offer condemnation in equal measure of British shortcomings in policing the border. Given Provisional IRA ingenuity during the ‘Troubles’ has been acknowledged among all levels of the British Army, its sheer determination to prosecute an armed campaign ensured that its acquisition of the material to do so could never be entirely halted.”[5]

Ethnic Cleansing and Stormont Scholarship

In his review, Parr applies the term “dispassionate” specifically to Patterson’s findings on ethnic cleansing. Parr says: “Where Ireland’s Violent Frontier transcends the average academic text is in its central, dispassionate reading that there was a campaign along the border [by the Provisional IRA] which could safely be described as ‘ethnic cleansing’.” Quoting Patterson, Parr notes that the term ethnic cleansing held “an emotional truth for border Protestants” (p. 607).

Here we encounter a second and related meaning of the term “dispassionate,” in addition to the notion of impartiality discussed above. Dispassionate also means not influenced by strong emotion. On the face of it, Parr’s claim of dispassion is absurd. “Ethnic cleansing” is one of the most emotive, provocative, and inflammatory terms imaginable, and its use to describe the republican campaign along the border is vehemently contested. And, pace Parr, Patterson’s book is very far from establishing that there was any campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Perhaps we again need to cut Parr some slack, this time for his problematic representation of Patterson’s view on ethnic cleansing. For Patterson’s position on the issue of ethnic cleansing, based on his research along the border, is inconsistent, confusing and contradictory at best.

In two articles published in 2008, Patterson wonders how circumspect we should be in applying the term ethnic cleansing to the northern border, and is (sort of) inconclusive about the relevance of the label. He notes that the Provisional IRA rejects the term, that there was no “wholesale forced emigration of Protestants,” and that most of those killed by the IRA were members of the security forces. But he also notes that although what happened on the border was not “full-blown ethnic cleansing” “of Balkan proportions,” the term may still apply. And he concludes: “Yet that the killings struck at the Protestant community’s morale, sense of security and belonging in the area is undeniable.”[6]

In a 2010 article, he comes to a different conclusion. This time, he (sort of) unequivocally “rejects current attempts to label” the IRA’s border campaign “a form of ‘ethnic cleansing’.”[7] But in his book published three years later, he resurrects the ethnic cleansing thesis. What is going on here?

Patterson’s incoherence on the question of ethnic cleansing stems from the same jumble of partisan purpose, research deficiency, and predetermined conclusion that plagued his analysis of Anglo-Irish relations explored above. 

Patterson himself gives some hint of the causes of his difficulty:

The unionist narrative of ‘ethnic cleansing’ may be an extremely contestable one intellectually, but that it speaks to the deeply felt experience of these [border Protestant] communities is undeniable.[8]

 Recall that part of Patterson’s broad political purpose is to buttress the unionist/Protestant case in contemporary debates about northern politics. In this quotation, Patterson seems to recognize that the scholarly case for ethnic cleansing is shaky indeed but, politically, it’s a useful allegation to add to the repertoire of unionists and Protestants. Patterson seems to want to have it both ways, to question academically the relevance of the term ethnic cleansing but to keep the term alive so it can be used politically by the community he supports.

This quotation also points to an important research flaw inherent in Patterson’s discussion of ethnic cleansing. His analysis involves the ontological privileging of unionists in the sense that, for him, the unionist view contains historical truth in a way that the nationalist or republican one does not. In both the book and the articles, Patterson’s entire account of ethnic cleansing relies on a simultaneous dismissal of republican views and elevation of unionist perspectives. I understand the political reason for Patterson’s privileging of unionism in his research. But I’ve yet to hear an ontological justification for it.

Once more, Patterson’s research findings are shaped by his partisan analytical purpose and his politically-inspired method.

It is easy to understand why so many nationalists and republicans continue to respond negatively to the kind of revisionist scholarship exemplified by Patterson. During the 50-year existence of the old Stormont regime, nationalists and republicans experienced institutional discrimination from a sectarian polity that relegated them to the status of second-class citizens. The legacy of that regime lingers on today. One part of the legacy is that the Stormont regime spawned an associated Stormont scholarship that relegates nationalist and republicans to the status of second-class research sources, whose views can be ignored or otherwise marginalized in emerging narratives of the nature of politics in the north. The “hierarchy of citizenship” of the Stormont regime and the “hierarchy of victims” of contemporary debates about the past have as an academic corollary the “hierarchy of research subjects.”

Parr, Patterson and Paradigms

Parr and Patterson seem to share a common set of assumptions and beliefs about how research should be conducted. Parr’s review of Patterson’s book is what one would generally expect when reviewer and author move in the same paradigm. To be sure, not every such intra-paradigmatic review will be as wholly favourable as that of Parr. Some are more critical of the author they are reviewing than is Parr. But even critical reviews from within the same paradigm rarely challenge an author’s fundamental beliefs about the proper interpretive framework to use, the kind of historical evidence that is appropriate to cite, and so on.

The real value of multiple paradigms is that authors are challenged to reassess some of their central assumptions and taken-for-granted views about the nature of research. Debate across paradigms will generally enhance our understanding of historical and contemporary events. One reason why I see the flaws of Patterson’s analysis that Parr apparently does not, and he sees the virtues that I do not, is that we are immersed in disparate paradigms. Having both flaws and virtues in full view gives readers a wealth of information on which to make up their own minds.

With the benefits of diversity in mind, it’s unfortunate that, from the very beginning of the revisionist debate in Ireland, revisionist scholars displayed a rigid intolerance towards alternative viewpoints and defined nationalist-republican interpretations as beyond the academic pale. Revisionists employed a binary logic that set revisionist history against nationalist-republican myth, fact against faith, complexity against simplicity, and reason against emotion, to name but a few of the favoured oppositional categories . This dismissive logic is part of many revisionist analyses but is most evident in the exclusivist polemical excesses of Roy Foster.[9]

It’s a sad comment on the state of the literature on the Irish conflict that some authors reach well beyond the evidence to draw conclusions about republican sectarianism, and some eschew a sectarian explanation for unionism or British intervention where there is overwhelming evidence to substantiate it. This imbalance can be best righted by expanding the academic space for the articulation of alternative paradigms.[10]

  • References:

[1] Connal Parr, review of Ireland’s Violent Frontier: The Border and Anglo-Irish Relations During the Troubles by Henry Patterson, Irish Political Studies 29:4 (October 2014): 607. Cited below as Parr. The only slightly critical comment Parr makes is that Patterson did not engage the works of journalists, novelists and playwrights who wrote about border life during the “Troubles”. Parr is very understanding of this limitation: “Perhaps this is for another book,” he suggests (p. 607).

[2] Margaret O’Callaghan, Genealogies of Partition: History, History-Writing and ‘the Troubles’ in Ireland, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 9:4 (December 2006): 619 and 622, respectively.

[3] Mary Burgess, Mapping the Narrow Ground: Geography, History and Partition, Field Day Review 1 (2005): 128 and 130, respectively.

[4] Parr, 606. The book passages quoted by Parr are from p. 111.

[5] Gearóid Ó Faoleán, Ireland’s Ho Chi Minh trail? The Republic of Ireland in the Provisional IRA’s bombing campaign, 1970-76. Small Wars & Insurgencies 25:5-6 (September 2014): 987.

[6] Henry Patterson, “War of National Liberation or Ethnic Cleansing: IRA Violence in Fermanagh during the Troubles,” in Brett Bowden and Michael T. Davis, eds. Terror: From Tyrannicide to Terrorism (St. Lucia, Queensland: Queensland University Press, 2008), pp. 242, 241, 240 and 242, respectively. See also Henry Patterson, “The Republican Movement and the Legacy of the Troubles,” in Iseult Honohan, ed. Republicanism in Ireland: Confronting Theories and Traditions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), pp. 147-163.

[7] Henry Patterson, Sectarianism Revisited: The Provisional IRA Campaign in a Border Region of Northern Ireland, Terrorism and Political Violence 22:3 (June 2010): 337. This quotation is from the article’s abstract. In the actual text of the article, Patterson is not as forthright in his rejection of the ethnic cleansing label (see p. 353).

[8] Patterson, The Republican Movement and the Legacy of the Troubles, 160.

[9] Here is what Willy Maley has to say about Foster: “Foster's language in alluding to those with whom he disagrees—‘zealots’, 'naively hilarious', 'amateur', 'cruder', 'half-baked'—is far from dispassionate, and does not suggest tolerance, liberalism, pluralism or anything of the kind. These terms are discriminatory.” See Maley’s Nationalism and Revisionism: Ambiviolences and Dissensus, in Scott Brewster, Virginia Crossman, Fiona Becket and David Alderson, eds. Ireland in Proximity: History, Gender, Space (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 15. Terry Eagleton notes of Foster: “his liberal inclusiveness has managed to exclude [from credibility] journalists, republicans, post-colonialists, post-structuralists, left-wingers, theorists, polemicists, ‘born-again newly Irish Eng Lit academics’ (that's me), anyone who holds the eminently plausible view that Bloody Sunday was probably planned by the British Army, and anyone in Ireland nostalgic for anything apart from the heyday of Anglo-Irish liberalism” (no page number). See Eagleton’s Welcome to Blarneyworld Guardian, 27 October 2001, a review of RF Foster, The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making it up in Ireland; online at

[10] Unfortunately, there is little evidence that revisionist scholars are open to granting some academically credible space to the nationalist-republican paradigm. Some revisionists summarily dismiss the very notion of paradigm, which is widely accepted and usefully applied across the social sciences. For them, paradigms are simply another myth of nationalism-republicanism. To suggest that paradigms are a useful analytic category is not to say that all revisionists are “paradigm-primed political pawns or plotters,” in David Fitzpatrick’s alliterative caricature. But it is to suggest that there are limitations to every paradigm and each paradigm faces anomalies that cannot be explained within its parameters. The revisionist rejection of the term paradigm is related to its rejection of the term revisionism. Some revisionists dismiss as a conspiracy theorist anyone who argues that there might be a common set of elements that link together a revisionist school of thought. See David Fitzpatrick, Dr Regan and Mr Snide, History Ireland 20:3 (May/June 2012), no page numbers on the online version; online at On “conspiracy theory,” see Michael Laffan, The Sacred Memory: Religion, Revisionists and the Easter Rising, in Judith Devlin and Ronan Fanning, eds. Religion and Rebellion (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1997), p. 185. RF Foster is very direct in asserting that there is no difference between a school of thought and a conspiracy: see, for example, his Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History (London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1993), p. xiii.


  1. I have read the sophisticated drivel which is 'Ireland's Violent Frontier' and it merely pushes the Loyalists' relatively recent argument that Republicans were as sectarian as themselves.

    At least during the Troubles Loyalists with their 'yabba dabba do, any fenians will do' were honest.

    Statistics betray the falsehood of the ethnic cleansing term.

    The use of the phrase 'ethnic cleansing' although it's about a serious matter trivialises the concept.

    There were sectarian killings. There were war crimes. But 'ethnic cleansing'? No.

  2. The inevitability of partition is indeed a moot point Mike.
    The truth, at least to my mind, is that a viable, acceptable and sustainable proposal for a unitary independent state has not been convincingly presented to date. Partition was and is as much a product of miscalculations and failures by nationalist as it is of Unionist endeavours.

    That commentators on events are often biased in their positions is understandable. But that academic historians should allow personal preferences, whether they be republican or unionist ones, to taint their work is small-minded and unprofessional in the extreme.