In an obituary, Graham Walker wrote that David Trimble:
…was riveted, for example, by the pamphlets produced in the 1970s and 80s by the British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO) in which a ‘Two Nations’ interpretation of modern Irish history underpinned a belief in the greater progressiveness – or potential for such – of the UK from a left-wing standpoint.
Based in Athol Street, BICO managed to draw people like Paul Bew, Jeff Dudgeon and Henry Patterson into their orbit at various times in spite of BICO’s praise for Stalin and their opposition to Solidarność. One suspects that the organisation’s anti-Provisional IRA and anti-Republic of Ireland viewpoints were the real draws which, considering how the organisation boasted of their involvement in defending nationalist areas in August 1969, was some trajectory.
One of the pivotal figures of BICO was Brendan Clifford. Originally from Co. Cork, he moved up north and quickly established himself as a formidable Maoist and polemist, drawing praise from the likes of Bob McCartney and Liam O’Ruairc (quite the combination, I’m sure you’ll agree). In recent years, through involvement in the Aubane Historical Society, Clifford and the Athol Street crowd have gone back to their republican roots.
To some commentators, that isn’t a surprise. Writing on the Irish Republican Education Forum, Patrick Walsh argued that:
In developing The Two Nations Theory to explain Protestant opposition to a United Ireland at a time when Nationalist Ireland was caught up in the fantasy of the success of the Anti-Partitionist campaign, the B&ICO had, through necessity, presented Ulster Unionism’s best case. The B&ICO was both Catholic and Republican in origin and it was never Ulster Unionist. The events of August 1969 were its point of origin…But in seeking to explain Ulster Protestant resistance to Catholic Ireland Athol Street presented a more effective explanation for Unionist opposition to a United Ireland than anything coming from those who should have produced such a thing. Ulster Unionism never bothered to produce an intelligentsia or much of an academic wing and its middle classes largely preferred making money. It left useless non-materialistic things like thought and propaganda-making to the Fenians and it has been playing second-fiddle to them ever since in this department…The helping out of Ulster Unionism was never the objective of the B&ICO. It had entirely the opposite intention. The Two Nations Theory it advanced was aimed at Nationalist Ireland largely - to try and get it to desist in its illusions toward Protestant Ulster and adopt a more pragmatic approach to ending the division on the island so that, it could get a hearing amongst Ulster Protestants and perhaps, an all-Ireland state might come about out of it. That objective was never seen as incompatible with providing citizens of the Six Counties with the right to join and vote for the parties of State in the UK, which was also taken as having the potential to minimise the communal division that ‘Northern Ireland’ had entrenched in the province.
Ideologues or opportunists? It's clear that the argument will carry on.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s discuss the book, first published in 2007.
The title is certainly lofty in its ambitions and the blurb hits upon a contradiction in Irish politics that is rarely verbalised:
The opponents of the Treaty were utterly defeated in 1923 by the forces of the pro-Treaty party. Yet, within four years, the defeated party was equal in electoral support to the pro-Treaty party and formed the Government of the State five years later. Effectively, it has remained in power ever since with interludes of coalition governments formed around the pro-Treaty party which has never since won an election in its own right. This is a phenomenon that needs explaining. It appears to be taken for granted by most historians as if it was all in some way inevitable, even though nothing is inevitable in politics.
I couldn’t believe that at first but it’s completely true: the last time Fine Gael (then known as Cumann na nGaedheal) won a majority was in 1927. Any time they’ve been in power since has been with the help of others, usually Labour.
Beginning by discussing the foundation of The Irish Press by the likes of Eamon De Valera, it then moves through the Treaty, Civil War, Military Tribunal and sedition trials before Fianna Fail come to power, partially through the support drummed up by The Irish Press.
Quite an ambitious aim, and Clifford does a great job in debunking the idea that democracy was the prevailing force in Ireland at that time, as well as the belief that the Treaty was actually a treaty (it was actually a document forced on Collins and co. that did not recognise the Dail as a legitimate government nor the IRA as a legitimate force that threatened terrible violence if not signed). His contempt for the situation can be felt in this paragraph:
Cumann na nGaedheal was not merely a political party in the Free State system of government. It was the Free State. It had founded the Free State in war in order to avert an English military conquest. It acted on English authority, and with arms supplied by England, in waging that war.
Overall, the book reaches those lofty goals by demonstrating how ineffective Cumann na nGaedheal were at restraining Fianna Fail and republican sentiment. However, there are problems, with the main one being that Clifford is quite the rambler. He spends nearly five pages discussing British ‘false flag’ operations in Greece (leading to the Chanak incident in Turkey) while trying to contextualise the Treaty and the Civil War. Undoubtedly vital points, but it probably could have been summarised in two pages. Likewise, when quoting from Donal O’Sullivan’s book on the (then) Free State Senate, he devotes three pages to quoting lengthy portions it. Again, it seems like a fascinating read but would it have hurt to reduce the quotation to a page?
Another issue is pacing. The opening chapter is about the birth of the Irish Press in 1931. However, it then gives way to discussing the history of the Treaty, Civil War and the rise of Fianna Fail. As a result, there is no further mention of the Irish Press until chapter seven (90 pages in). While I understand that such discussions are crucial in order to set the scene, surely there could have been the odd little reference thrown in here and there to assure the reader that the subject hasn’t been abandoned altogether?
Regardless of where you stand on Clifford and his ilk, this is still a stimulating and intriguing read that will make you realise how much the Blueshirts have been an abject failure.
Brendan Clifford, 2007, Fianna Fáil, The Irish Press and the Decline of the Free State. Aubane Historical Society ISBN-13: 978-1903497333.
🕮 Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.
"the Blueshirts have been an abject failure"ReplyDelete
Au contraire Christopher, though they may never have held power alone since 1927, their stance has held sway. De jure nationhood has been abandoned by all their adversaries. The Soldiers of Destiny have sold out and Partitionist Sinn Féin have revealed themselves no better.
The Blueshirts, it could be said, failed brilliantly!