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Review: A farewell to arms? Edited by M Cox, Adrian Guelke, Fiona Stephen, Manchester University Press

On first sight this book is promising. It brings together both social scientists and political practitioners to explain the remarkable changeover from war to peace in Ireland . The three editors have bound together some twenty essays plus a short introduction and conclusion to help students come to a comprehensive understanding of the Irish peace process.  Many of the social scientists are by now familiar names.  Included are seasoned vets like Paul Bew, Arthur Aughey, Martin Mansergh and  Sean Farren, but also included are several recent arrivals such as Kate Fearon and John Dumbrell.

The presentation of the book is professional and academic in style, with an emphasis on development and details. As a type of writing it might be loosely described as ‘contemporary history’. This is a sort of writing that falls somewhere between journalism and history proper. All of the authors try to guard against being overtly partisan, to not let it come across as obvious that they ‘personally’ are committed to one or other of the political factions involved in the conflict. However this in itself is a problem. All too often political presentation without personality and allegiance results in blandness or intellectual dishonesty and sometimes both.

In reality the editors of the book and most of the authors are soft spoken yet firm supporters of a very conservative not to say reactionary ‘peace settlement’. Sure they have reservations, some are more sceptical than others especially about ‘paramilitary’ promises to end their violence. Yet all seem to agree that the Belfast Agreement at the very least offers a good chance for a much needed period of political stability.

The book is therefore marred by an unexamined consensus which too easily assumes that the Belfast Agreement holds a potential for progress better than anything else on offer. It at least makes the most out of a difficult set of circumstances. The conclusions are that the Agreement is a just settlement because it is based on a negotiated compromise, that it is a democratic settlement because a majority voted for it, that it is a realistic settlement because there is no other alternative and finally that it offers a rational model for peaceful resolution of other conflict situations. But no real argument is made to persuade the guarded reader that the above is really the case, it is mostly taken as self evident This means that there is little that raises up the opinions of the authors above the average jottings of mass media journalists. The argument for example over whether the vote in favour of the Belfast Agreement constitutes a genuine exercise in self determination is dealt with by the editors in one throw away line on page 291.Political argument has been replaced by the self evidence of  ideological conformity.

The editors believe that in this book they have done something different by giving over the best part of it to the international dimension of the conflict, eight of the essays are devoted to the international context and impact of the Irish peace process.

Two essays develop the notion that British-Irish relations have substantially changed for the better over the last twenty years. Paul Gillespie an Irish Times correspondent believes that the two governments now have an equal partnership approach to dealing with the conflict. Both he and Elisabeth Meehan tend to put the improved relationship down to their common membership of the European Union. EU membership require governments to work together on a co-operative basis and be guided by Treaty and law. Both authors contend the friendlier British-Irish relations made it possible for the ‘warring factions’ in the north to reach an accommodation. Both authors deploy the relatively under-theorised notion of ‘pooled sovereignty’ in their political descriptions of the EU. Is there really such a political phenomena as pooled sovereignty? How does pooled sovereignty sit with article one of the Agreement when it asserts ‘Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom’.

In a short contribution Adrian Guelke makes a few perceptive remarks about Sinn Fein’s use of the South African peace settlement’s zeitgeist to develop a peace strategy of its own. He suggests that the South African analogy has been preferred in republican quarters to the Middle East one only because the outcome has been more successful for the ANC than it has been for the PLO. Also the ANC’s dominant position in the South African situation is an analogy ‘attractive to Sinn Fein since it suggests a much larger role in the future of Irish politics than the republican movement is likely to achieve.’

One of the main goals of this book is to put the Irish peace process into a wider international setting. Fred Halliday an influential professor of international relations at the London School of Economics who views things from a vaguely leftist perspective offers a global comparative study of other conflict zones. His conclusion is a sobering one for Irish peace enthusiasts, that they must anticipate the probability of failure as much as success. His survey of UN inspired initiatives would hardly fill a body with confidence, it seems it is generally a wise ploy to try and keep the UN out of your political conflict. One of the most favoured political resorts of UN peace makers like the august Lord Owen is based on drawing up artificial lines of ethnic division with a view to partitioning neighbours from one and other. In international affairs this is referred to as realism.

The direct impact of the end of the cold war on the Irish peace process is tackled by Michael Cox editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s journal Irish Studies in International Affairs. Professor Cox contends that if one tries to understand the Irish peace process by ignoring the external causes you are bound to end up with a distorted picture of what really brought the historic peace settlement into being. While in no way ignoring the internal factors such as war weariness, military containment and inter-state co-operation, ‘it is argued here that the winding down of the armed struggle was also the result of transnational pressures upon the most immediate reason for the conflict: the provisional IRA.’  Cox’s essay has the merit of homing in on the most immediate reason for the peace process; the decision taken by the republican movement to wind down its armed struggle and enter into a negotiation process resulting in a political settlement that by every standard is well short of the traditional goals of the Irish republican movement. Cox points out how unexpected a fundamental change in republicanism seemed to be when he recalls how at a meeting of the great and the good hosted by Chatham House in London a few weeks before the Belfast Agreement was signed almost the entire audience greeted with scorn the idea that the IRA was ready to end its struggle.

How does Professor Cox explain the rapid transformation in the republican movement? The most telling symbol of the end of the cold war was the smashing of the Berlin war in 1989. The IRA was not an organisation directly beholding to the Soviets but it was indirectly because many of the other national liberation movements like the South African one were dependent on significant Soviet support and Irish republicans believed themselves to be part of this wider struggle against imperialism. The end of the cold war forced many of the leaders of the national liberation fronts to the negotiation table. If the IRA had simply just continued as before they would have become more and more isolated, with fewer and fewer political friends around the world. Even more critically  those who earlier had made solidarity with their Irish brothers and sisters now began to advice them to follow the path of peace.

Events in the wider world not only left the IRA isolated they refuted the ideological justification of the IRA armed campaign. The republican analysis of why Britain stayed in the north of Ireland was that it needed to secure one part of Ireland for NATO and to prevent the creation of a united and neutral Ireland outside the NATO alliance. The collapse of the Berlin wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union posed an enormous challenge for the republican analysis as to why the British clung on to a part of Ireland. This lacuna in the justification for armed struggle opened up an intellectual space for John Hume to expose. In a quite deliberate move designed to support Hume the secretary of State Sir Peter Brooke in a speech in November 1990 let it be known that the British government had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.’ The cold war argument that the British needed to retain a part of Ireland for its own national security was no longer credible in the era of a new world order. Influential republicans like Martain McGuinness used this very argument to bring the republican hard-liners on to the peace train.

However just at the moment when the republican leadership was preparing for a deal they were faced with a weak British government unwilling to take a risk for peace. It was at this juncture that getting the US involved became a crucial diplomatic task for Sinn Fein. The decision of the IRA to declare a cease-fire was decisively influenced by the need to win diplomatic support from Clinton for peace. Cox contends that US involvement was tough for the British to swallow and it was a break with tradition. Cox does not depart much form the usual journalist opinion on emphasising Clinton’s importance : ‘it was only a last minute appeal by Clinton to the Irish PM, to Trimble and finally Gerry Adams, that broke the deadlock on April 1998 and made the Good Friday Agreement possible’

Briefly Professor Cox could have got much closer to the truth if he had given some time to examine the class character and allegiance of the IRA and Sinn Fein. The self understanding of republicanism is that it is a national movement untouched and unsullied by the social division of classes that undoubtedly inhere in Irish society. But the self understanding of individual republicans is not the best guide to understanding the political practice of the republican struggle. Republicans are not trade union militants or schooled socialists brought up in the ideology of ant-capitalism they are national freedom fighters. But what happens when the armed struggle gets stuck in a rut? What do republicans do to get themselves out of a rut? The answer is there in the track record of republicanism over several decades. They go into politics, but in going into politics they carry their nationalist and non class approach right into the parliamentary political arena. This is what has happened to the contemporary republican movement, it has entered the political arena in a period of working class industrial quiet and socialist retreat. The politics the leadership of the republican movement has embraced is that of the current dominant mode in Ireland which is pro-capitalist and neo-liberal in outlook.  The willingness of  the republican movement to endorse a peace settlement well short of  its historic goals is a consequence of the lack of class consciousness of its supporters and the balance of class interests in Ireland and in Britain today, tilted very much in the favour of big business. Professor Cox is wrong when he argues that the change in republican strategy away from armed struggle came suddenly, in fact it developed like an epilogue to the 1981 Hunger Strike. The Hunger Strike is a catalytic event that most students of the peace process pass over all too quickly.

Much of what is in this book is too superficial to persuade wholly engaged political beings, moreover much of it is uncritical of things that deserve to be criticised. It is contains some useful information and documents for beginners but cannot be recommended.


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