What a Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division, by Kevin Meagher

Summary: a fine and concise history of the bloody consequences of a failed state

With this book Kevin Meagher seems to have two principle objectives: to provide a concise history of the conflict in the North of Ireland, and to identify British Government culpabilities in this conflict.

He fulfils both of these things admirably. While never excusing the routine atrocities of the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries, or the intrinsic bigotry of wider unionism, he identifies successive points where political courage on the part of the British Government may have staunched at least some of the bloodshed.

It was the British government which deliberately created a sectarian Orange state in the North of Ireland. This led to, until recently, a parallel illiberal state in the South as the ideal of a plural Ireland, uniting “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irish”, was shattered by British policy. 

The British excuse for Partition was to avoid civil war. But that came anyway, both in the South until 1923, and, off and on, in the North for the next 80 years. 

Meagher identifies 1914 as the last year in which this protracted conflict might have been avoided, had the newly passed Home Rule Act been implemented. It is not unreasonable to imagine that this may have allowed Ireland to have had a bumpy evolution into modern statehood akin to that experienced by Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 

But that didn’t happen. Instead from 1921 onwards the British government was content to acquiesce in the establishment of a state which institutionalised a type of caste-based discrimination within the borders of the United Kingdom. Meagher shows how the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system was foundational to the gerrymandering of Northern Ireland in favour of bigoted unionism, just as FPTP is today foundational to corrupt Tory power in Britain.

Successive British governments, even under Irish-heritage Labour politicians such as Jim Callaghan and Dennis Healey, were content to let this apartheid-style system fester so long as it didn’t bother them. They were not even stirred to do something when the Catholic community in the North of Ireland, inspired by Martin King and the black civil rights movement in the United States, took to the streets to peacefully demand their most basic civil rights. 

The British government only reacted when their puppets in the Northern Ireland government embarrassed them internationally by turning civil rights protests on the streets of Derry into a re-enactment of the sort of nakedly bigoted police brutality seen earlier on the streets of Selma and across the US South. By sending in the troops the British government blundered into escalating civil unrest into civil war.

Thereafter, as the death toll mounted, British Labour and Conservative governments alike missed opportunity after opportunity to deescalate. But eventually, starting with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, a peace process began to be pieced together following John Hume’s blueprint of dealing with the “totality of relationships” – within Northern Ireland, North-South and between Britain and Ireland – within the context of common membership of the European Union. 

It was this painstaking and still fragile process that Boris Johnson – and I choose these words carefully – decided to shite over in his fevered scramble for the British premiership.

Meagher identifies a number of British politicians who made, on balance, constructive contributions to Irish peace – Whitelaw, Prior, Brooke, Mayhew, Mowlam, Major, Blair, even Thatcher, in spite of her inept handling of the 1981 hunger strikes which made her, in effect, the fairy godmother at Sinn Fein’s political rebirth. However, it is difficult to think of a politician since Lord John Russell who has been more damaging to Anglo-Irish relations than Boris Johnson. 

As Unionists try to celebrate 100 years of Northern Ireland, Meagher has commemorated this anniversary with this important book that shows why Northern Ireland has been such a disastrous political project.

And yet there are still those forlorn souls who bleat about the possibilities of a new “progressive” unionism for Northern Ireland’s second century. But, as Meagher shows, this is hardly a new idea. Terrance O’Neill as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland tried it in the 1960s and was destroyed for it. Every unionist leader since who has made even the slightest move towards equality has been dispatched. Most recently Arlene Foster was removed because she wasn’t homophobic enough, and Edwin Poots brief leadership was ended when he acquiesced in a British government move to give effect to his own party’s commitments regarding parity of esteem for the Irish language.

“Liberal unionist” is a relative term in a political ideology that is inherently reactionary. That is why unionism eats progressives raw, and always will. True progressives must instead turn their eyes to the prize of another of John Hume’s ideas: that of unity in the diversity of a New Ireland. 

As the ugly spectre of Johnson’s Blackshirt-hued politics continues to assert itself in England the prospect of a New Ireland will become ever more attractive to people of all traditions in the North of Ireland. For now, Kevin Meagher’s fine book shows why it’s time to put Northern Ireland out of our collective misery.

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