`New unionists', racism and the RUC
Rethinking Northern Ireland
Edited by David Miller
Published by Longman
THIS COLLECTION of essays, largely but not exclusively by academics, has been gathered together under a title which in three words manages to load itself with contradictory meanings.
Firstly, `Northern Ireland' is a geographical and ideological construct which, on one level, needs to be rethought continuously as the political situation shifts almost daily. At the same time, it is also one which actually needs no rethinking at all since the underlying problem is the same one which has plagued Ireland for the best part of a millennium and is the point from which all debate inevitably flows - British occupation.
`New unionists' see themselves as in loco parentis, teaching Irish nationalists the merits of citizenship in the UK, economic lessons and even the advantages of harmless expressions of Irish culture suitably detached from power and state.
Secondly, it is a little ironic that a book which claims to be ``a major challenge to the shibboleths of contemporary debate on Northern Ireland'' and has as its premise a desire to subvert traditional British and unionist interpretations of the conflict, nevertheless insists both in the title and throughout in calling the place by its British colonial/unionist name.
That said, Miller is entertainingly scathing about what he calls the ``abysmal'' standard of both academic and more general discourse on `Northern Ireland' (although this sweeping statement overlooks the excellent work already done by some of his own contributors). ``Specifically,'' he says, ``British propaganda, unionist ideology and revisionist `scholarship' inform most of it.''
ACCESSIBLE AND INTERESTING
The book is divided into three sections: `Explanations, Ideologies and Strategies'; `Spaces, Structures and Struggles'; and `Culture, Conflict and Representation'. Do not allow these post-structuralist-sounding headings to put you off, however, because the majority of the 13 essays are eminently accessible and interesting.
Miller's own, `Colonialism and Academic Representations of the Troubles', is amongst the best of them and carries on the work done by Robbie McVeigh and others in examining the colonialism which was and remains the nexus of the relationship between Britain and Ireland.
Most interestingly, Miller investigates the intellectuals and academics who write on `Northern Ireland' and concludes:
``The vast bulk of research on Northern Ireland is either supportive of the military actions of the British state or sees it as some form of neutral umpire. Some elements of this orientation speak of more than the self-evident superiority of the British case. The British view on Northern Ireland is dominant and might be described as hegemonic.''
The practical consequences of this hegemony for researchers are also highlighted. For example, anyone preparing a thesis on the RUC must submit it to them in order to, in the RUC's words, give them ``the opportunity to comment on, and seek modification of any part of the text derived from official sources''. Miller also includes the accounts of several individuals carrying out research on the RUC who have been subjected to harassment, obstruction and blatant threats.
SECTARIANISM AND RACISM
Other contributions meriting attention are a long-overdue theorisation of the inter-relationship between sectarianism and racism, by Robbie McVeigh, and Liam O'Dowd's fine exploration of `new unionism', which contains the following thought-provoking passage.
```New unionists' see themselves as agents of a superior political idea in Ireland - an idea of British state and citizenship - which they claim to be integral to their own survival as a distinct community. `New unionists' see themselves as in loco parentis, teaching Irish nationalists the merits of citizenship in the UK, economic lessons and even the advantages of harmless expressions of Irish culture suitably detached from power and state.
``The tone of the argument is sometimes patronising and marked by a kind of insecure supremacism which is antithetical to genuine dialogue. `New unionists' consistently demand from Irish nationalists that which they reject for themselves: the separation of culture from politics and the shelving of their national rights and aspirations.''
BY FERN LANE