BY ANTHONY MCINTYRE (for Fortnight)
The Nationalists of Northern Ireland 1918-1973.
By Enda Staunton.
Columba Press. Dublin. Price #12.99.
This is a tedious work to contend with. Not conceptually daunting - the author is clear enough - but the reader still sweats to get through it. Some books are just crafted that way. Maybe the subject matter, if it is to be covered thoroughly, leaves little room for a touch of zest and a few trimmings of colour. The work lacks the panache of Fionnula O'Connor when writing about northern nationalists, but then it is a much more tightly detailed construction, robustly grounded in a dry academic `episteme' rather than lively journalism.
The key question of course is does it merit recommending that readers go out and buy The Nationalists of Northern Ireland? The answer can only be yes. For the student of history it is compelling, for the researcher, indispensable. In it Enda Staunton applies himself to the task of tracing the contours of northern nationalist development in the period 1918-1973. Its major components are examined - constitutional, republican and the more left wing labour tradition. Linked to these three strands are the activities of the wider overarching bodies within the nationalist socio-political ensemble - the Catholic Church and the Irish Government. How northern nationalism engaged with unionism takes up much of the work. And the `wild card' status is given to the British state which does not wriggle off the hook as easily as it might have wished.
A large portion of this book addresses itself to the career of Joe Devlin who wins sympathetic treatment from the author. Looking through the window that this work constitutes it emerges that no figure within Northern nationalism in the 65 year period covered looms as largely as this man, although the events of the last thirty years may allow historians to ease him out from that pole position. So one wonders just how definitively the focus will transfer from Devlin to Gerry Adams when a book covering the hundred years from 1918-2018 comes out, as it most likely will.
Staunton also covers all the main events and organisations including the formation of the state, the Craig-Collins pact, the anti-Catholic pogroms; the Nationalist party, the IRA, the Omagh Group and the Anti Partition League. While space and intellectual purpose denied him the means to micro analyse any of these he nevertheless presented a lucid account of the dynamic governing the relationships between each of them. Most crucially, a picture emerges in which northern nationalism exists as a largely autonomous force. This has far reaching consequences in the attitudinal sphere which in turn helps determine the scope of vision and the type of political strategies that would grow out of that.
Of special interest is the role of republicanism and in particular Belfast republicans. In 1933 An Phoblacht reported that nowhere was the Treaty supported `more scurrilously and venomously than in the six counties'. The paper also complained that more from there joined the Free State Army than from other regions. In 1922 and 1923 a couple of thousand Belfast republicans left the city to join the Free State Army. Up until the early 1920s the number of active volunteers in the Belfast IRA was `infinitesimal'. One republican veteran described many of the Belfast volunteers as `little more than Hibernians with guns.' Belfast delegates at the first meeting of the Provisional Government's North East Ulster Advisory Committee complained about how Sinn Féin in the city had grown to a membership of 1,000, many of whom `were `not in the firing line' during the War of Independence but who were now - once it was over - `prepared to die in the last ditch.' As radicalism decreased and the movement became more right wing the `belt and boot' brigade moved in and `enforced discipline along the lines of the European fascists.' More and more republicanism came to be presented as no different from nationalism - articulated by Moss Twomey the organisation's chief of staff.
The point is that these attitudes and behaviours are present today within republicanism as it has moved over the years to take up the gradualist position of constitutional nationalism before it. In drawing attention to the existence of two Catholic Norths Staunton could have been more vigorous in prosecuting this logic to the point of concluding more clearly that any attempt to have one Catholic North means that republicanism and any radical vestiges attached to it become subsumed within a more conservative nationalist project. Republicanism has never been able to radicalise northern nationalism but in it flirtations with it has compromised its own essence.
Ultimately, as the author claims, that Provisional republicanism managed so easily, internally, to take up the position it fought so long against is not to be wondered at `given the cultural and historical background which it operated in.'