Review by Henry Patterson: ‘This book about the border has a startling failure to deal with the role of the frontier in IRA terror’
Diarmaid Ferriter, The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics, Profile, pp184, £12.99
Diarmaid Ferriter is Ireland’s foremost celebrity academic and probably its best known historian.
Relatively young he has published a number of books on twentieth century Irish history including his much cited The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000 .
With a particular emphasis on the social, economic and cultural aspects of history he has been critical of the dominant political and ideological traditions in the Republic from a left-of-centre perspective.
The new book has been produced in relatively short order in response to the ongoing Brexit convulsion. It has been widely and generally favourably reviewed in Ireland and Britain.
In the British reviews the favourable notices seem at times in inverse proportion to the historical knowledge of the reviewer.
In his review in the Sunday Times, Max Hastings, described partition as ‘a crime and a folly’.
He quotes Jack Lynch, who was Taoiseach when the Troubles began, describing partition as ‘an imposed deformation whose indefinite perpetuation eats into Irish consciousness like a cancer’.
In fact Ferriter has little time for this type of traditional anti-partitionism and in this book, as in his earlier Judging Dev, he criticises Eamon de Valera for refusing to engage with or even recognise Ulster Unionism and for instead insisting that partition was imposed by Britain and could only be undone by a change of policy in London.
This critique of the anti-partitionism of successive Irish governments is not new, the key works by John Bowman and Clare O’Halloran were produced over 30 years ago, but there is no harm in repeating it at a time when the spectre of unity has been revivified by the massive shock that Brexit has delivered to the Irish state and Irish nationalism and republicanism.
However, in the two chapters that cover the period of the Troubles, there is a startling failure to deal with the role that the border played in sustaining the Provisional IRA’s campaign.
He gives short shrift to the complaint of the British ambassador, John Peck, who wrote in 1972 that the area south of the border ‘became on vast safe haven for gunmen on the run from the North, for IRA training camps and operational bases.’
As a response he refers to the arrest of IRA members in the Republic, the role of the Special Criminal Court and the substantial expansion in the strength of the Gardai. However, much of this activity was aimed at stabilising the Irish state from subversion and when it came to cooperation with the security forces north of the border the British continued to complain bitterly throughout the Troubles that the approach was niggardly and inadequate.
Of course there is no reason for the British narrative to be accepted, but for an even-handed account of the issue the British perspective needs a more serious consideration than it is given here.
The failure to extradite IRA members wanted in the UK – a contentious issue throughout the 1970s and 1980s is ignored. No use has been made of the mass of material on cross-border security cooperation that is lodged in the National Archives at Kew. I made extensive use of this material, as well as that in the Irish National Archives, in my book on the border during the Troubles.
There is no reference to Ireland’s Violent Frontier in the bibliography although he does use the book by former research student, Paddy Mulroe, on the Irish state and border security during the 1970s which contains numerous references to my book. As a result his killer argument against the British narrative is a quotation from an Irish document on IRA activities in Ireland sent by the Liam Cosgrave to the British in 1977:‘by far the greatest proportion of violence in Northern Ireland is indigenous.
In fact, of all incidents of violence there, only 2 per cent have any connection with the border.’
The British treated this claim with contempt pointing out that it only referred to IRA attacks in the immediate vicinity of the border and that, to give just some examples: the supply of weapons to the Provisionals was almost entirely by routes that passed through the Republic; many of the home-made mortars used in the North were manufactured in the South and much of the IRA’s training programme was conducted in the Republic: ‘The border is a major factor in providing shelter and supplies for the total Provisonal IRA effort in the North. This is much more important than its secondary role as a shield for short range raids along its length.’
There is more in the book on cross-border sporting cooperation than there is on cooperation between the Gardai and the RUC. The IRA’s campaign against part-time members of the UDR and the RUC and its devastating effects on border Protestant/unionist communities does not appear.
Interviewed on Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme on his book he gave a rather vague response to a caller who raised the issue of alleged ‘ethnic cleansing’ of border protestants.
The term is highly contentious and there are serious arguments as to its appropriateness in relation to Northern Ireland. But it would have been a better book if the dreadful experiences which gave rise to the use of the term had been at least acknowledged.
There is a danger in writing the history of the recent past that we can be too influenced by contemporary passions and currently dominant narratives.
One reviewer wrote that this is a ‘short angry book’. Brexit has, for understandable reasons produced much anger in the Republic against the British government and the DUP. It has produced the broadest nationalist consensus since the 1969-1972 period.
That period demonstrates the danger of a surfeit of righteous indignation no matter how justified. Ferriter has demonstrated in the past that he can transcend the polarised narratives around key periods in Irish history.
It is a pity that his account of our recent terrible history fails to do this.
• Henry Patterson is emeritus professor of Irish politics at Ulster University and author of Ireland’s Violent frontier: The Border & Anglo-Irish Relations During the Troubles