Towards a new Ireland: reflections on The Treaty, by Colin Murphy, and Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin

Summary: Unity in diversity requires accommodation not triumphalism

Towards the end of Colin Murphy’s gripping play, The Treaty, there is a scene in which Griffith and Collins present to the Irish cabinet the text securing partial independence that they have managed to negotiate. The minister of defence, Cathal Brugha, berates them brutally for the compromises they have been forced to accept and for failing to meet every detail of his impossible ideal of an Irish republic. As far as Brugha is concerned Griffith and Collins are traitors bought off by the British.

As discussions regarding the constitutional arrangements for a new Ireland are developed over the next few years this scene will be played out again and again across Ireland in households and communities, on social media and in elected forums. The heirs of Cathal Brugha, the self-appointed guardians of sacred flame of Irish republicanism, will denounce all those who propose any sort of accommodation with unionism as a means to secure Irish unity. Indeed, it’s happening already.

I recently commented on social media that, much as I like the Irish tricolour, a new Ireland might need a new flag. And, really, the only folk who should maybe be singing the Soldier’s Song these days are the national Defence Forces.

That was met with not inconsiderable fury from some folk. John Hume may have taught us that you can’t eat a flag, but Twitter teaches us that flag-shaggers are not just Brexity gammons. There are plenty in Ireland too whose communion with the patriot dead allows for no iota of compromise with their ideals of an Irish republic.

The questions of the compromises needed to obtain peace and unity led me to reread Playing the Enemy, John Carlin’s superb account of the end of apartheid. Many will be familiar with part of the story: the book, particularly its final third, provided the basis of the Clint Eastwood movie, Invictus.

Carlin’s outstanding book is much more detailed in its account of how the peaceful transition of power was achieved. It starts well before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. There, he had decided not just to endure, but to continue to struggle. And part of this struggle involved understanding his captors. Starting first with his jailers, then with the increasingly senior officials and ministers who came to negotiate with him, then with the far Right who he engaged with to stave off the risk of civil war, Mandela sought to build trust and demonstrate to them that they had nothing to fear from a democratic future in South Africa.

Part of this process involved understanding the power of symbols. He learned Afrikaans so that he could show his oppressors respect as human beings by speaking to them in their own language. He came to appreciate the importance of rugby to the Afrikaners and the passion they felt for their anthem and the green and gold Springbok jersey.

As negotiations progressed he made sure that these symbols, which for decades had represented oppression to the black majority of the population, were retained in the new South Africa. In the course of the 1995 rugby world cup he led his whole country to embrace and share them.

Mandela understood that peace in South Africa depended not on victory for one side over another but through accommodation of all. It was his country’s incredible good fortune that they had in Mandela a person with the moral and the intellectual grandeur necessary to lead his people away from more retributive ideals to a place to where they came to share his vision of unity in diversity.

Ireland does not have a Mandela. So, achieving a new Ireland will depend on much more contentious leaders, and other ordinary people making accommodations with each other and with unpalatable symbols of the past to create a new rainbow nation in the Northern hemisphere.

It is an achievable goal. But it is something that will be threatened not just by the Protestant Supremacists of the North. It will also be put in jeopardy by the absolutist heirs of Cathal Brugha, the hard-faced men and women unreconciled to the variety of the Irish nation, and disgusted by any mention of compromises that may be necessary to achieve a unity of this diversity.

Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro

Summary: some Johnsons know how to wield power

Master of the Senate is the third volume of Robert Carol’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson. Like the previous volumes, it is something of a history of his times as well as being a biography of Johnson.

So, Johnson is absent for large chunks of this biography as it introduces us to crusading economist Leland Olds, Hubert Humphrey, doyen of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Richard Russell, the leader of the Senate’s virulently racist Southern caucus, and, of course, Martin King.

Among other things this book is a study in power. It is fascinating to learn how Johnson transformed the hitherto irrelevant role of Senate majority leader into an office of incredible power.

There was little personally attractive about Lyndon Johnson. He was a bully, a serial adulterer, and a racist. But he understood power and he wanted to be president. So to obtain a viable presidential candidacy, Johnson destroyed Olds to keep his financial backers in the oil industry happy, and cosied up to Russell and his determined efforts to maintain state sanctioned terrorism against the black citizens of the United States across the South.

Caro observes in the course of this book, as he has in previous volumes, that Johnson’s life is composed of light and dark threads. However where Johnson’s instinct for compassion conflicted with his personal advancement, then his selfish interests won out.

But, in 1956 as he made his first attempt at the Democratic nomination, Johnson discovered that the support of corrupt oil interests and racist bigots was not enough. He needed support in the North as well. And Johnson revolted Liberal Democrats. So he had to do something to appeal to them. This led him to championing what became the 1957 Civil Rights Act, after first gutting it of all the substantive portions that Russell and his ghouls objected to. The negotiations and manoeuvring towards even this modest achievement provide a gripping climax to this volume, as compelling as anything in The West Wing or The Wire.

Caro argues that ultimately Johnson was by far the most important civil rights president since Lincoln. It is a remarkable aspect of his story how such an extraordinary narcissist was led towards this end from a beginning of overweening and selfish hunger for power.

The Women of Troy, by Pat Barker

Summary: continuing the story of Briseis, perhaps with diminishing returns

By any measure The Women of Troy is a fine novel. I just have a niggling wish Pat Barker hadn’t written it.

This book is set in the days following the fall of Troy, but before the Greek fleet has embarked for home, it’s departure delayed by inclement weather. However It adds little to the peerless Silence of The Girls, Barker’s retelling of the Iliad and Euripides’ Trojan Women. Instead, borrowing heavily from Sophocles’ play, Antigone, The Women of Troy deals with the conflicts arising around the burial of Priam. While gripping it has few of the arresting insights on war and slavery that made its prequel so powerful.

So, there’s a bit of a Jaws 2 vibe to the whole thing. Still, paradoxically, I will be waiting with bated breath for a further sequel: the character of Briseis is a superb creation and I feel invested in her well-being now.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary: in the tradition of War and Peace but maybe better

Half of a Yellow Sun is an incredible book. A sort of a 20th century War and Peace but, for me, carrying a heftier emotional wallop than Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

Thirteen year old Ugwu gets a job as “houseboy” for Odenigbo, a lecturer at Nsukka University in Nigeria. There he meets Olanna, Odenigbo’s posh, beautiful girlfriend. He doesn’t quite realise for some time, as he continues with his household duties, that the two have effectively adopted him as part of the family, ensuring that he goes to school, planning university for him, and, when they can, taking care of Ugwu’s blood relations.

Into the orbit of this non-traditional family, comes Olanna’s non-traditional sister Kainene, a business executive, and her English boyfriend, Richard, an academic drawn to this part of West Africa by his love of its art. None of these adults receives much approval from their other relatives and parts of their communities for their choice of lovers and the tensions that these bring allows for particular insight into the diversity of Nigerian cultures and British and Nigerian attitudes towards each other.

But all of these prejudices pale in the face of the bloodbath of civil war that engulfs Nigeria and leads to the establishment of the breakaway state of Biafra.

When I was growing up Biafra was still a by-word for famine and the punchline for knuckleheaded racist jokes. With Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie describes the horror of the war there through the eyes of this small group of young people.

As well as the specific details and dynamics of that half-forgotten war, Half of a Yellow Sun tells the universal story of the impact of war on ordinary people, shattering life and love and brutalising and breaking even the best of people.

It is a masterpiece and wholly deserved of its reputation as one of the greatest books of the 21st century.

William Wilberforce, by William Hague

Summary: an exceptionally fine and engrossing biography of a great humanitarian

In the sublimely brilliant film, The Ladykillers, the exquisite Katie Johnson’s character is called Mrs Wilberforce. In giving her that name the producers wanted to signal immediately to the audience that this little old lady represented the epitome of English decency and moral courage.

Her character’s namesake, William, is a rarity in British history: a hero who is celebrated not for their participation in conflict or colonialism, but for their role in a humanitarian campaign – the ending of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade was one of the worst crimes against humanity in history. Over the centuries the slave-trading European powers stoked wars in Africa and trafficked over 10 million human beings into brutal enslavement in the Americas, killing millions more along the way.

William Hague’s biography of this key parliamentary figure in the struggle against the slave trade is a richly detailed and elegantly written account of the man’s life. Along the way he makes some fascinating excursions into the wider history of the time, including 18th century parliamentary machinations, evangelical religious revivalism, and the dubious electoral politics of that era.

Hague is generous in his assessment of Thomas Clarkson, the towering anti-slavery campaigner, without whom Wilberforce’s parliamentary efforts would have come to nothing. Of course, Hague argues, without Wilberforce Clarkson’s campaigning would also likely have been fruitless. Instead he asserts the critical complementarity that these two brought as the cutting edge of a national movement brought into being by, more than anyone else, the Quakers.

Similar to Jenkin’s biography of Churchill, this book is enriched by Hague’s understanding of parliament and government gained over the course of his own senior political career. It is an exceptionally fine work of history and reminds the reader why the name Wilberforce remains such a resonant one.

The Afghanistan Papers, by Craig Whitlock; and Freedom, by Sebastian Junger

Summary: Why, long ago, the West lost again in Afghanistan.

On 18 August 2021, as the Taliban retook Kabul and the US prepared for full withdrawal from Afghanistan, Conservative MP and Afghanistan veteran Tom Tugendhat made a powerful and moving speech condemning the US “abandonment” of that country. Tugendhat suggested that the West had not shown sufficient patience to prevail in the conflict.

Tugendhat’s words, spoken in the context of the emerging vista of the Taliban’s renewed misogynistic rule in Afghanistan, struck a deep chord and drew considerable praise. Revisiting it in the context of The Afghanistan Papers, Craig Whitlock’s book based on the Washington Post’s reporting of successive US governments’ assessment of the war, suggests that Tugendhat’s speech was deeply mistaken.

The US went into Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda. Before this had been achieved it had also invaded Iraq. Whitlock details how this distracted military thinking and resources from the primary mission of killing or capturing bin Laden who was able to escape into Pakistan.

However, the hubris gained from the relatively quick overthrow of the Taliban led to the US deciding to set itself the goal of creating a liberal democracy in that country. That they decided on this goal was a testament not only to a remarkable arrogance, but also to the depth of their ignorance of Afghanistan. Donald Rumsfeld was not alone in plaintively asking the question “Who are the bad guys?”

In many American minds the Taliban were fellow travellers with Al Qaeda and so “the enemy”. However, while they had given Al Qaeda sanctuary and shared an Islamist outlook with them, the Taliban were a particularly Afghan phenomenon, a product of the diverse ethnic and tribal rivalries that have plagued this part of central Asia for centuries. They were disinterested in world revolution and so could have been co-opted by the US if the US had bothered to learn.

Instead, the US allied with a different bunch of murderous warlords and corrupt local politicians and started shovelling cash at them, and lead and high explosives at ordinary Afghan people. Three presidents, Junior Bush, Obama and Trump, kept this up, all effectively lying to the American people that things were going well while blundering from one misconceived approach to another.

For example, at one point under Bush, the US decided that the Taliban were being funded by the opium trade and decided to eradicate it by paying farmers to stop growing opium. This of course boosted opium production as farmers rushed to ensure they could claim the available cash. The US also got into bulldozing the poppy fields, but their Afghan allies made sure that this policy only applied to their rivals consequently ensuring little actual effect on opium production. However, those who were disadvantaged by the crop destruction were thereafter predisposed to allying with the Taliban who had actually banned the opium trade as un-Islamic when in power.

The Afghanistan Papers describes an ineffectual war fought for an institutionally corrupt and ineffectual government. The messy nature of the fighting which often sowed support for the Taliban by the “collateral damage” of horrendous civilian casualties, was described in memorable detail by Sebastian Junger in his book, War, an account of a period he spent embedded with one US army outpost in Afghanistan. Freedom is something of a sequel to that book. Ostensibly it is an account of a trek with some unnamed friends, some of them Afghanistan veterans, along the railway lines of the east coast of the United States. But really the book is a mediation on why the US was doomed to lose in Afghanistan. Drawing on sources as varied as the 1916 Irish rebellion, the Pacquiao-Mayweather title fight in 2015, and the Apache’s campaign in the US South-West, Junger explains why poor, weak opponents can so consistently defeat wealthier, more powerful foes.

Whitlock quotes a source saying, “Foreigners read The Kite Runner on the plane and think they are experts on Afghanistan.” I have never thought myself an expert on Afghanistan and left the place perhaps more confused about it than when I first arrived. But then I was only engineering water supplies, not trying to construct a new society. But the awful ignorance of Nato soldiers and policy makers described in the Afghanistan Papers seems one of the few constants in the past 20 years of war.

Perhaps Tom Tugendhat has read more stuff and is the man with the strategic genius to articulate the winning formula that has evaded every other military and political leader in Nato for the past 20 years.

The evidence instead suggests that defeat in Afghanistan was inevitable once the US embarked upon its hubristic goal of nation-building. So, while the final withdrawal of US forces could perhaps have been handled better, Joe Biden deserves respect for the moral courage he has shown in facing up to this stark truth.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

Summary: a spectacularly absorbing story of the collision between dreams and realities

Since its publication in 2000 Chabon’s Pulitzer prize-winning Kavalier and Clay has come to be regarded as a modern American classic. It is the story of two cousins, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Prague, and Sammy Clayman, who when then meet in New York in the late 1930s discover that they have just the complementary talents necessary to produce successful comic books. This includes one storyline featuring a Nazi-fighting superhero known as ‘The Escapist”.

The book skips back and forward in time, from Joe’s escape from Prague, up to the early 1950s taking leisurely excursions along the way into Jewish folklore, the legends of escapology, and the birth of the American superhero genre. 

It is a wildly entertaining piece of work, often funny, occasionally horrific, with central characters Joe, Rosa and Sam who you properly care about, aware that the brutal realities of the time may also consume them as they have so many others. 

Exquisite.

A Moment of War, by Laurie Lee

Summary: a haunting account of a fragment of the Spanish Civil War

A Moment of War is Laurie Lee’s memoir of his experiences of the Spanish Civil War.

His account is determinedly anti-heroic. Much of it deals with the bureaucracy of the Communist dominated forces that he is assigned to once it is accepted finally, after periods of incarceration, that he is not a spy and they did not have to shoot him after all. Ironically, he tells how he was subsequently assigned to what in the North of Ireland would have been called a “nutting squad” – a unit responsible for identifying and liquidating perceived threats, from deserters and saboteurs to little old men with lingering allegiance to the Catholic Church.

Apparently in sympathy with the anti-religious temperament of the Republican forces Lee relishes the sexual promiscuity he believes that this has bred. He describes an episodic affair with a young Spanish girl, Eulalia, who seems to represent to him a new spirit of sexual liberation in revolutionary Spain. Eulalia despite being at least five years younger than Lee calls him “very young” – perhaps what she has already lived though, like millions of women and girls before her and since, has aged her. So maybe what seemed like romantic abandon to someone as naive as Lee may have been a survival strategy for Eulalia. Lee’s English lover, presumably Lorna Wishart, a married woman with whom he was having an affair during this period, is also a recurrent, though mostly unseen, presence in the book, representing memories of humanity and normalcy away from the bleakness of war.

Towards the end of the book Lee states, almost in passing that he killed someone, blotting out the life of another young man in a confused skirmish during a hopeless battle that could have no bearing on victory or defeat in the war. Some have suggested that this is a fabricated incident, and that Lee was never actually a part of the International Brigades – assertions that Lee’s widow vehemently disputed. 

Both George Orwell and Tim O’Brien crafted elements of their experiences of war to sharpen literary effect. In The Things They Carried O’Brien is explicit about this, questioning whether a story describing how he killed a young man is a more honest accounting of his role in Vietnam than a description of his experiences in which he never personally pulls the pin on a fatal grenade.

Whatever the literal truth of Lee’s involvement in the International Brigades, A Moment of War is an atmospheric and haunting book, exquisitely written and deserved of its reputation as a modern classic.

The Shortest History of War, by Gwynne Dyer; and The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret Macmillan

Summary: War – good for nothing and may still be the thing that kills you

In The Shortest History of War, Gwynne Dyer, quotes, of course, Clauswitz’s maxim that war is the continuation of politics by other means. He does, however, conspicuously ignore that war has often been a continuation of racism by other means.

This considerable lacuna is most apparent when Dyer traces back only as far as the American Civil War the modern conception of “total war”- the making of war on the civilian populations of belligerent nations. It is true that Grant and Sherman practiced a version of this on the Confederacy. But total war has a more ancient pedigree. The sack of Troy, for example, is a story of how it was routinely practiced in ancient times.

Both Caesar and Genghis Khan also practiced versions of total war. And, while this may have gone out of fashion for a bit amongst the white nations of Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries, it was always the way in which “Great Powers” made war on those they regarded as inferior or subject peoples: Cromwell halved the population of Ireland in his campaign in the mid-17th century. Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt and Palestine was ferocious in its violence towards civilians. The US campaign against Native Americans was genocidal as was the British campaign against Australian Aboriginals. The British conquest of India was another racist exemplar of total war.

But it is not Paddies and brown people that Dyer is interested in here. Rather he is interested in the “Great Power” version of politics and how this has been manifested in organised violence since ancient times. Within this narrower scope it is still a fascinating book, packed full of interesting detail and disturbing conclusions. Dyer argues that only three countries fulfil the criteria to be “Great Powers” in the 21st Century: the US, India and China. Russia he argues lacks the population to contend. So it may be unsettling to learn how it will cope with its inevitable decline. Dyer doesn’t consider the possibility that the European Union may represent an alternative political model for a 21st Century “Great Power”.

More disturbingly he notes that between them Indian and Pakistan have enough weapons to unleash a “nuclear winter” upon the Earth should they ever blunder into a nuclear exchange. In other words, in the space of a few days, while the rest of the world could be preoccupied with other things, events could unfold in South Asia that would spell the end of all human civilisation .

If anyone thinks such a thing is unlikely, they would do well to consider Margaret Macmillan’s The War that Ended Peace, her painstaking survey of European “Great Power” politics at the start of the 20th Century. The complex array of alliances and egos that she describes shows how at critical moments inadequate and posturing leaders can lose control of situations that spiral out of control in the most appalling ways possible.

That some of the contemporary systems of planetary security are currently in the hands of Johnson, Modi, Khan and Putin should be of concern to all of us who like the thought of the next generation, and the one after that, living into peaceful old age with improving standards of human rights and a restored environment.

Towards that end perhaps someone could prevail upon Presidents Biden, van der Leyen and Xi to take steps not just to limit global warming, but also to promote détente leading to mutual nuclear disarmament between India and Pakistan.

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.