Opinions & Ideas

Category: Book Review Page 1 of 2



I have just finished reading an excellent book on the partition of Ireland, entitled “The Partition, Ireland divided 1885 to 1925”, by Charles Townshend, published by Penguin.

It is highly topical. There are increasingly loud calls to prepare for a border poll, one outcome of which might be the unification of Ireland, the end of partition, and  the end of UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland.


These calls rely on the provision in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which says that, if the British Secretary of State is of opinion that a majority in Northern Ireland would support unification with the rest of Ireland, he or she shall hold a poll in Northern Ireland, to allow the electorate there to make that choice.

Apparently, this clause in the Agreement was not the subject of close scrutiny in the final days of the negotiation in 1998. The focus in that week was on North/South institutions, decommissioning of weapons, and prisoner releases.

As a result of this lack of scrutiny, the Agreement provides little guidance as to how, and on what criteria, the Secretary of State might make such a momentous decision.

 Nor is the role of the Irish Government, who would have to absorb Northern Ireland given much attention in the Agreement. The Secretary of State is not even required to consult the Irish government.

 The Irish government would have to decide what special arrangements, if any, they might make to ensure that both communities in Northern Ireland, especially the one that is currently in favour of Union with Britain, is made to feel at home in a united Ireland.

 Nor does the Agreement set out how the public finance and tax implications of such a move would be dealt with. Northern Ireland currently receives a net subvention from London, which, if voters opted for a United Ireland, would thereafter have either to come from Dublin, or be rendered unnecessary by spending reductions on NI services.

 Incidentally, while a large majority (67%) in the Republic told opinion pollsters in 2021 they would vote for a united Ireland, only 41% said they would be prepared to pay higher taxes to accommodate it, and even fewer would be willing to change the national flag or the national anthem to accommodate the British identity of the unionist population. Of course answers to hypothetical poll questions about remote future possibilities are not reliable.

The Good Friday Agreement requires whichever government is sovereign over NI, to exercise its powers “with rigorous impartiality” and  to ensure “just and equal treatment” for the “identities, ethos and aspirations of both communities in” in NI. 

 “Aspirations” is the key word here.

 By definition, unionists and nationalists have different aspirations. One aspires to a united Ireland, the other aspires to continued union with Britain.

 The provision in the Belfast Agreement for border polls seems, in an important sense, to contradict the ” parity of esteem” between “aspirations” that is the underlying motive force of the Agreement.

This is because it provides for a one way street to Irish unity, with no possibility of a reversal of that decision.  While there could be several border polls, where the option of a United Ireland is offered and rejected, if that option is once chosen, in the last of those polls, that would be it. There would be no further Referenda.  The decision in favour on a united Ireland would be final. In that sense there is no parity between the aspirations. I am surprised this anomaly has not got more attention in unionist circles.

If a majority in Northern Ireland voted for a united Ireland in border poll, there would probably still be a significant minority in Northern Ireland who might continue to aspire to rejoin the United Kingdom.

 That aspiration is treated less favourably in the Agreement than is the aspiration of nationalists for a United Ireland.

 One aspiration, once achieved is irreversible. The other possible poll result (remaining in the UK) is reversible, no matter how many border polls confirming it, have taken place.


This border poll issue is, and thus will remain, contentious.

 Indeed the constant publicity about the possibility of a border poll is unsettling.

 It heightens the tension around the Northern Ireland Protocol, which Ulster Unionists wrongly see as a stepping stone to a United Ireland.

Calling for a united Ireland is seen as patriotic and popular in the Republic, even though repeating such calls may actually be a barrier to practical reconciliation between the communities in Northern Ireland.

Under the border poll provisions of the Agreement, a united Ireland could come about by a majority of a mere 51% to 49%,  Once it has happened, it would be irreversible, at least under the terms of the Agreement. This simple majoritarianism seems to me to run counter to something the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, said in the 1993 Downing Street Declaration.

He said

“Stability and wellbeing will not be found under any political system which is refused allegiance or rejected by a significant minority of those governed by it”.

If a united Ireland is carried by 51/49, there would likely be a significant minority in Northern Ireland, who would refuse allegiance to the decision.  This would be geographically concentrated in parts of the province, where they might constitute a local majority. Experience suggest that policing such areas could become difficult for the United Ireland government.

 The framers of the border poll provisions of the Belfast Agreement do not seem to me to have taken sufficient account of Albert Reynolds wise words in the Downing Street Declaration. He saw further than they did.

Those who are interested in the issue of partition, border polls, and reconciliation between the tradition in Ireland should read Charles Townshend’s book.

 This book shows that the partition of Ireland grew out of genuine political difficulties, and out a sincere conflict of allegiances between nationalists and unionists. These are differences that have been mitigated only slightly, and continue to exist today.


Townshend traces the history and origins of the idea of dividing Ireland into

  + a bigger portion which actively wanted Home Rule and freedom from British domination, and

+  smaller portion, in North East Ulster, where a geographically concentrated population wanted continued British rule and rejected rule from Dublin.

Up to 1800, Ireland had had a Parliament of its own, sitting in Dublin.

 But Catholics, the majority population of the island, could not sit the Irish Parliament and the franchise was confined to the very wealthy.

Under the Act of Union of 1800, the Irish and British Parliaments were merged, Ireland having 100 seats and the rest of the now United Kingdom approximately 500 seats.

Catholics eventually were allowed to sit in the Union Parliament in 1829, but the franchise continued to restricted on property grounds.

 Irish MPs in Westminster continued to be a relatively powerless minority, and rarely were Ministers in UK governments.

 The British, or Union state, never truly integrated Ireland into a political unit with England, Scotland, and Wales. It is questionable whether it ever had the capacity or willingness to do so.

 Ireland continued to be administered by a local administration in Dublin which took its orders from London governments, in which Catholic Irish MPs rarely had any say. It was a form of colonial administration, similar to the one in India.

 This failure to integrate Ireland into the Union with England, Scotland and Wales was partly due to the fact that these nations were Protestant in religion, whereas Ireland, outside NE Ulster, was predominantly Catholic.

 The disastrous potato famine of 1845 to 1850, which cost millions of lives in Ireland, and to which the laissez faire economic policies of the Liberal government in London were a totally inadequate response, added to the sense of alienation.

From 1840 onwards there was agitation in Ireland either to repeal the Union, and restoration of  the Irish Parliament or, at least, to grant Ireland Home Rule and a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin with limited powers (excluding foreign affairs, defence and customs).

 Both these proposals envisaged Ireland having a single Parliament for the whole island, without any exclusion of NE Ulster.

From early on, opponents of Home Rule argued that allowing a Dublin Parliament to govern the 4 or 6 counties in NE Ulster, where a majority Protestant population did not want to be ruled by a Dublin Parliament, would be unfair or unworkable.

” Unionists” in NE Ulster did not want to find themselves being continually outvoted in a Dublin Parliament, in the same way as Irish Catholic MPs had become used to being continuously outvoted in the Union Parliament in London.

The first attempt to grant Home Rule to Ireland was put forward by William Gladstone in 1886.

Nationalism was a popular doctrine in the nineteenth century, and John Bright, the British Radical and Liberal statesman opposed Gladstones Home Rule proposal for all Ireland on the ground that there were two nationalities on the island of Ireland.

He said

“Ulster may be deemed a nationality differing from the rest of Ireland as much as Wales differs from England”.

Charles Stewart Parnell recognised there was a problem here. He said

“It is undoubtedly true that until the prejudices of the (Protestant and unionist) majority are conciliated….Ireland can never enjoy full freedom, can never be united”.

He was not, however in a position to put forward a solution to the dilemma that he acknowledged existed. In a sense that dilemma remains unaddressed to this day.

A Third attempt to introduce Home Rule was made in 1912 by a Liberal government led by Herbert Asquith.

Responding to Asquith’s Bill, one of his Liberal backbencher MP s, Thomas Agar Robartes, said that Ulster unionists and Irish nationalists were two different nations with

“different sentiments, character, history and religion”

 and that it would be impossible to fuse these two “incongruous elements” together.

 He proposed an amendment to the Home Rule Bill which would have allowed certain Ulster counties to opt out of Home Rule and continue to be ruled directly from London.

A similar argument was made by the Conservative leader, Arthur Balfour, who also opposed Home Rule for the whole island of Ireland, who said that the Unionists of NE Ulster and the population of the rest of Ireland had

 “two (different) sets of aspirations, two sets of ideals and two sets of historic memories”.

It is hard to say that Balfour was wrong. Shared ideals and  shared historic memories are what shape and sustain nations in difficult times.

Irish nationalists, supporting Home Rule, rejected these arguments.

 John Redmond described the notion that there were two nations on the island of Ireland

“revolting and hateful”.

 But neither he, nor most Irish nationalists, devoted enough thought, or imagination, to devising ways in which the incongruous elements, of Ulster unionists on the one hand, and Irish nationalists on the other, might be fused together in a single nation.

 In fairness to Redmond, it must be said that his support for recruitment to the British Army in 1914 and 1915 was a form of indirect response to Unionist sensibilities. He wanted to show that nationalists and unionists had some aspirations and allegiances in common.

That said the overwhelming majority of nationalists believed that no part of Ireland had a right to opt out.

Ireland was a geographic unit, an island, so, ipso facto, it should be one nation. This put physical geography ahead of human geography.

The only Irish nationalist who took Ulster unionist concerns seriously was the vice President of Sinn Fein, Father Michael O Flanagan, who admitted that

“in the last analysis, the test of nationality is the wish of the people”

And admitted that the Ulster unionists

“had never transferred their love and allegiance to Ireland”

 and said that Irish nationalists

“claim the right to decide what is to be our nation, but refuse them (Ulster Unionists) the same right”.

I am not sure how much influence Father O Flanagan on subsequent Sinn Fein policy although he continued to be active in the party. He seems to have been an eccentric individualist. He opposed the Treaty of 1921.

Going back a bit in time, many nationalists did not take Ulster unionist objections to Home Rule seriously at all.

They thought it was bluff, even when Ulster Unionists, opposed to Home Rule, armed themselves, and set up a Provisional Government to resist Dublin Rule.

The working assumption of Irish nationalists seems to have been that the Liberal government in London would coerce all of Ulster into accepting Home Rule. With hindsight, this seems quite unrealistic. The morality of such a course does not seem to have been explored by nationalist thinkers.

Nationalists argued that the resistance in Ulster to Home Rule was being fanned by elements of the British Conservative Party for domestic purposes. There was truth in this, but it was not determinative, in my opinion.


Irish nationalism also adopted a rhetoric that did not include Ulster unionist aspirations.

For example, the language of the Irish Gaelic was to be the national language of Ireland, and while some Ulster unionists would have been able to speak Irish, they would not have seen as part of a nation building project that belonged to them.

One nationalist writer, DP Moran said the

“foundation of the Irish is the Gael”

which excluded Ulster unionists (who are not of Gaelic stock) explicitly. 

Symbols, like the monarchy, which meant , and mean, a lot to unionists, were explicitly rejected by Irish Republicans.

 Indeed establishing an Irish Republic, and thus getting rid of the monarchy, seemed to be more important than avoiding partition. 

For example, Eamon de Valera, speaking in the Dail in 1921 during the Truce and before the Treaty negotiations commenced, said that if the Irish Republic was recognised, he would be in favour of

“giving each county the power to vote itself out of the Republic”.

In such a scenario, it is probable that, at the time (1921), Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry would have voted to exclude themselves.

Back in September 1914, Home Rule for all Ireland was passed into law, but with a reservation that its implementation would be postponed until the World War, that had started a month earlier, was over.

 The issue of excluding parts of NE Ulster from Home Rule was left open to be dealt with in possible amending legislation.

 As a result of the 1916 Rebellion and development in British politics, Home Rule, as enacted in 1914 for all Ireland, was superseded 

+  in 1920, for the 6 counties of Northern Ireland, for the 6 counties of NE Ulster , with a local Parliament with similar powers to those that All Ireland Parliament would have had  under the original Home Rule plan and

 +  in 1921,  for the remaining 26 counties, by the Anglo Irish Treaty of that year whereby the rest of Ireland became a  Free State with its own army and freedom to set its own foreign and defence policy (Dominion status)

These arrangements have survived for the past 100 years. The Free State, now Republic has made good use of its independence, especially since it joined the EU.

 Northern Ireland has had a more difficult time because of a combination of bigotry, insecurity, discrimination, and terrorism.


In looking, objectively and clinically, at the possibility of a border poll, people on both sides of the Irish border should ask themselves some difficult questions.

 They must ask themselves honestly if the ideals, historic memories and allegiances of Northern unionists can realistically be reconciled with the ideals, historic memories and allegiances of Irish nationalists. The gap remains wide.

 Can these disparate elements be fused into a new civic patriotism, an identity that all can share?

If people do not believe that is possible, a united Ireland will not work, and it should not be supported in border polls.

The priority now should be reconciliation within Northern Ireland.

The work of reconciliation must be done, in the first place, by the people of Northern Ireland themselves, but with the active support of the Dublin and London governments. It should be seen as an end in itself and not as a preparation for either in united Ireland or continuance of the Union.

This can be brought about by shared achievements, of which all can be proud, which become part of a new shared historic memory, to replace gradually the divisive memories of the past.

Shared ideals must be forged by negotiation at every level among the people of Northern Ireland.

Unionists must begin to imagine themselves into the minds of Nationalists, and Nationalists into those of Unionists.

This requires a conscious and structured effort of the imagination, among every age group among the people of Northern Ireland.

 Instead of being boosters for one side or the other in the constitutional debate, artists, actors, poets and writers in Northern Ireland should lend their talents to this very demanding exercise of the imagination.


Judge Mary Kotsonouris’ book “Retreat from Revolution, the Dail Courts 1920 to 1924” shows how the rule of law, arguably one of the better inheritances from Ireland’s period as part of the UK, survived the revolution of the 1916 to 1923 period.

Her book shows that Ireland did indeed undergo a revolution in this period.

From 1919 on the old courts system  was progressively undermined, delegitimized, and eventually overthrown. But it was not fully and formally replaced until the enactment of the Courts of Justice Act , under the Free State Constitution,  in April 1924.

For almost five years, the legitimacy of the courts and law enforcement was contested, as one civil war was by followed another. There were Irish people on both sides in both civil wars.

The first civil war , started in 1919 with attacks on Irish born RIC members and Resident Magistrates , was a military struggle, but it was  also a struggle for legitimacy. This war ended with the Truce of July 1921, and the Treaty of December 1921.

The second commenced, after failed attempts at conciliation between pro and anti Treaty forces,   on 28 June 1922, with the shelling of the Four Courts. It ended with the dumping of arms by the defeated anti Treaty forces on 24 May 1923.

The existing legal order, established under the Crown, had worked, more or less effectively, up to 1919.

 But it ceased to function for normal civil cases as early by the end of that 1919. Attacks on Crown appointed magistrates, and on the RIC, meant that Crown system could no longer make and enforce decisions in civil matters. Without an accepted police service to enforce its decisions, no courts system can work.

 The RIC came under such attack that it had to devote all its efforts to its own security and had neither the time, nor the public acceptance, needed to do normal police work effectively.

 But civil war or no civil war, disputes continued to arise about property rights, non payment of debts, wills and many more minor matters.  Some system had to be found to enable such disputes to be resolved. Otherwise people would take the law into their own hands.  For example, many areas of Clare were subjected to martial law because of cattle being driven off land and a general defiance of law during 1919.

 The Dail Courts, whose story is told my Mary Kotsonouris, filled this vacuum for much of the period between 1920 and 1923.

The first step was taken by the Dail , itself technically an illegal body at the time, when it appointed a judge to arbitrate on disputes over land ownership in Mayo in August 1919. In June 1920, it initiated a hierarchy of parish, and county courts with a Supreme Court to hear appeals. While the senior positions in this hierarchy were filled by lawyers, at parish level the Dail Courts were often made up of local clergy and  other citizens of good standing who had no legal training.

 These Dail Courts decided thousands of cases although they were in constant threat of being closed down by the RIC or others who wanted to take the law into their own hands. Its decisions were enforced by the IRA Volunteers.

But then the Dail and the IRA split over the Treaty in 1922.

 The new Free State government wanted to establish a new court system, that respected the constitution of the Free State, and whose decisions would be enforced by the newly created  Garda Siochana and by no one else. Many of those involved in the Dail courts did not accept the Free State constitution based as it was on a Treaty with Britain they rejected.

The Dail Courts had decided thousands of cases and these could not all be reopened. After much debate, a system of registering these decisions under the laws of the new state was devised.

This story is populated with many vivid characters, some now forgotten.  Kotsonouris brings them back to life and could indeed have given us more biographical colour about the individuals involved  here.

  She shows how order based on law in Ireland was painfully re established  after a bitter conflict, and how the institutions we revere today came into being.  It is well worth reading this book to remind ourselves how fragile in the rule of law in any country.


I greatly enjoyed reading “Emmet Dalton, Somme soldier, Irish General, and Film Pioneer” by Sean Boyne published by Merrion Press. Through the life of one man, this book gives a deep insight into Irish history from 1911 to 1960.

Sean Boyne worked as a political journalist and is deeply interested in military history. He has an accessible writing style, but is also meticulous in his research.

Emmet Dalton’s father , James, was active in the Home Rule movement, and was one of John Redmond’s nominees to serve on the Executive of the Irish Volunteers in June 1914. It was probably because of the family connection with Redmond and the Home Rule cause,  that young Emmet Dalton lied about his age, in order to join the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1915 as a Lieutenant.

 He was posted in Ireland at the time of the 1916 Rising and believed then, and subsequently, that it was a mistake.

Later in 1916, he was at the front at Ginchy when Tom Kettle was killed, in a battle in which many other  members of the Dublin Fusiliers also died. Dalton himself was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the battle.

 He also took part, in  1917, in the long forgotten battles with the Ottoman forces in Gaza, and in the eventual capture of Jerusalem.

 When the war ended, he served in the army of occupation in the Rhineland. 

He returned to Dublin and became a temporary clerk in the Board of Works and became a member of Bohemians FC, near his home in Phibsboro.

In early 1920, He was asked to join the IRA’s GHQ Intelligence Unit , which brought him into close contact with Michael Collins. He was involved in a daring attempt to spring Sean McEoin out of Mountjoy Jail.

  Sean Boyne describes Dalton’s role in this conflict in detail and conveys a  sense of the fraught atmosphere of the times in Dublin. For example, he covers Dalton’s efforts during the Truce to help families locate the remains of young members of the RIC who had been “disappeared” by the IRA during the “Truce”, including a constable Joseph Daly of Enfield.

Like most members of the IRA Headquarters staff, Dalton accepted the Treaty of 1921, but the bulk of the active service units around the country did not do so.

 Dalton was involved in taking over many of the British military facilities , but  the Provisional Government led by Michael Collins was unable to prevent many of them being occupied by anti Treaty forces.

Boyne gives a gripping account of the build up to the beginning of the Civil War.

 The murder of Field Marshal Wilson in June 1922 led to pressure on the Provisional Government from Britain to end the situation whereby large areas of the city of Dublin and of the country generally were occupied by forces who rejected the authority of Dail Eireann and the Treaty it had approved.

 The British believed, wrongly, that anti Treaty Republicans were responsible for the murder of Wilson. One theory is that Collins himself gave the order for the killing during the War of Independence, but forgot to rescind it.

 But the result of the Wilson murder was that Collins was forced to take action to restore the authority of the Dail. From this immediately flowed the shelling of the Four Courts, and the beginning of the Civil War, in June 1922. Again Dalton’s role in this action is described in detail.

 The then 24 year old Dalton commanded the pro Treaty forces who retook Cork and the rest of east Munster in the subsequent fighting. His counterpart in west Munster was Eoin O Duffy, and they did not get on well with one another.

As is well known, Dalton was with Collins in his fateful tour of recently recaptured areas of West Cork, during which we were killed in an ambush at Beal na mBlath. Collins died instantly while returning fire against the ambushers. 

 One of the reasons for Collins visit to Cork was to recover funds, the receipts from excise duties, that had been collected by Anti Treaty forces during their occupation of Cork city and lodged in local banks. But the tour of west Cork was hardly a military necessity.

A few months after Beal na mBlath, Dalton, who was a talented soldier , decided to leave the Army.  He did this even though the Civil War was not over, and he was giving up a potentially good career. 

Boyne speculates that this may have been because of worries about the execution of prisoners by the Free State. 

After he left the Army, he was appointed to be Clerk of the newly established Free State Senate, a rather sedate post in which he did serve for long.

Boyne gives a good account of the Army Mutiny of 1924, in which Dalton’s brother was involved.

Dalton himself went on to make a living as a private detective. In the 1940’s he went to live in England where he got a job with Paramount Pictures, and he supplements his income as a professional punter.

 In the 1950’s and helped establish an Irish film industry. In 1956 he started by making  the film “Professor Tim” a good part of which was shot in Dunboyne Co Meath. He went on to found the Ardmore Studios in Bray Co Wicklow, with help from the IDA. 

He died in March 1978 and was buried with full military honours, although no member of the then government attended.

This is a remarkable book about a truly remarkable man of multiple talents who crammed several lifetimes into one.


I have just finished reading Seamus Mallon’s autobiography, entitled a “Shared Home Place”.

Boris Johnson, or one of his advisors, ought to read it if they wish to get an insight into the concerns that underlie the Irish backstop. 

They will learn that Brexit, and the Irish peace, are not events in themselves, but processes that will go on for years, and will either deepen or reduce division over generations to come.

 This is not a one off problem to be solved, but a choice between two courses of action that are fundamentally inimical to one another.

As the title of his book implies, Seamus Mallon makes the case that Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, must come to terms with the fact that they must share their home place with a million or so people (unionists) who see themselves as British, and who do not have, and will never have, an exclusively Irish identity.

The early part of the book deals with the author’s experience growing up, peacefully, as a member of a Catholic minority in the predominantly Protestant town of Market hill in Armagh.

 It then moves to the beginnings of the troubles, and the exclusive way in which local government operated to the benefit of the unionist majority, without regard to the wishes of the nationalist minority.

After a stint in local government, Seamus Mallon later was a member of the 1974 power sharing administration, led by the Unionist Brian Faulkner, and established on the basis of the Sunningdale Agreement between the Irish Taoiseach of the day, Liam Cosgrave and his counterpart, Edward Heath. 

This power sharing Administration was brought down by the Ulster Workers strikers, who objected to the whole idea of power sharing between the  two communities. 

Mallon believes the IRA also felt deeply threatened by power sharing, which may explain why Sinn Fein, despite all the efforts made by others to accommodate them, has so far been unable to work the Good Friday institutions even to this day.

Mallon was SDLP spokesman on Justice in the 1980’s and he made a point of attending all the funerals of victims of politically motivated violence in his area, which was an important, but very difficult, demonstration of his profound sense of fairness and,  of his opposition to all violence. 

The book is very explicit about the murderous collusion between the security forces and Loyalist paramilitaries. He names names.

Mallon deals with the Hume/Adams talks, and makes clear that John Hume did not bring his party along with him in this solo endeavour, a failure that had deep long term consequences. 

As Mallon puts it,

 “peace was being brought about in a way that was bypassing democratic procedures”.

He is critical of Sinn Fein having been allowed into government in Northern Ireland without the IRA first  getting rid of their weapons. 

As he puts it, the IRA, continuing to hold weapons, after the Good Friday Agreement had been ratified in both parts of Ireland, was

“a challenge to the sovereignty of the Irish people”.

This was also my opinion at the time, both as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. 

There are some principles that should not be blurred.

 It took the IRA 11 years to eventually put their arms beyond use, and Mallon says that this

 “led to huge mistrust and misunderstanding”.

 Mallon believes the British and Irish governments should have called the IRA’s bluff much earlier, and claims that it was the Americans who eventually forced the issue of decommissioning.

He gives a good account of the dramatic conclusion to the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and of Tony Blair’s letter to David Trimble, promising that the process of decommissioning should start “straight away”, a promise Mallon says 

“Blair was either unwilling or unable to keep”.

Mallon understood Trimble’s problem, praises his courage, and believes he was ill used by Tony Blair.

But the artificially prolonged focus on decommissioning kept Sinn Fein as the centre of attention, and thus helped them to supplant the SDLP as the voice of Northern Nationalism. This was an error of historic proportions.

Mallon believes that the Trimble/Mallon( UUP/SDLP) power sharing Administrations  under the Good Friday Agreement achieved more that the Paisley/ McGuinness (DUP/SF) Administrations did.

Mallon opposes political violence in all circumstances. 

As he says

“It is a universal lesson that political violence obliterates not only its victims, but all possibility of rational discourse about future political options”

I agree.

 The 1916 to 1923 period in Ireland also taught us that lesson too!

In the latter part of the book, Seamus Mallon talks about the prospects of a united Ireland. 

The Good Friday Agreement allows for referenda to decide the question. It posits a 50% + one vote as being sufficient to bring a united Ireland about. This is a deficiency in the Agreement.

 A united Ireland, imposed on that narrow basis, would be highly unstable. There would be a minority opposed to it that would simply not give up. 

As Mallon puts it

“I believe that if nationalists cannot, over a period of time, persuade a significant number of unionists to accept an Irish unitary state, then that kind of unity is not an option”

I agree.

The Irish and UK governments could find common ground here.

 But the two communities in Northern Ireland must first start talking to one another about what they really need and what they could concede to one another.

 There is no point blaming the politicians.  If the voters chose parties to represent them that are intransigent, then the voters themselves are ultimately responsible for the outcome.

This is something that Boris Johnson has to contemplate as he seeks a way to deal with the Irish backstop.


A few years back, very few Westerners would have been aware of the distinction between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. The aftermath of the invasion of Iraq changed all that.

In a timely book, entitled “A Concise History of the Sunnis and Shi’is”, John McHugo, who has also recently written a history of Syria, goes back to the beginning of the Muslim religion to outline its history, and explain the origin of the divisions between Shia and Sunni.

His book is well timed because the West now appears to be allowing itself to be drawn, on the side of the Sunnis, into what appears to be a religious war with the Shia in the Middle East. Does Western public opinion understand what it is getting itself into?

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran are competing with one another in conflicts in many parts of the Muslim world. Israel has identified Iran as its number one enemy. President Trump appears follow the Israeli line. This is notwithstanding the fact that the 9/11 attackers came from Sunni Saudi Arabia and not from Shia Iran.

 As a result, in order to curb Iran, western companies are being permitted by their governments to supply arms to Saudi Arabia, which are being used against Zaydi Muslims in Yemen, who are being supported by Iran, against a Yemeni government supported by Saudi Arabia.

Some say the Zaydis are not Shia, they are in fact a sub division within Sunni Islam, others that they are a subset of Shia Islam. In fact there are many schools of thought within Islam, and lines between them are not all that rigid. Sectarian distinctions can be exaggerated for political purposes, as we know all too well in Europe.

The conflicts in Yemen and Syria can be looked at differently.  They can be presented as a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that is between an ethnically Arab country on the one hand, and an ethnically Persian one on the other. That too would be an oversimplification. While most ethnically Arab nations line up with Saudi Arabia, some, like Iraq and Syria, lean towards Iran.

In Syria’s case the regime is Alawite, a sect which is neither Sunni nor Shia, but is closer to the Shia. In Iraq, the population, though ethnically Arab, is majority Shia. Shia Arabs in Lebanon have lined up on the Iran side in the Syrian Civil War and so on.

There are only four countries in which the Shia are a majority…. Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain.

But there are also significant Shia populations in the oil producing region of Saudi Arabia, and in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan.

There is another strand of Islam, the Kharijis, who are a majority in Oman.

Within Sunni Islam itself, there are four different schools of thought, going back to very early times. These are the Malikis, Hanafis, Shafiis and Hanbalis.

The Maliki school are predominant in most of North Africa.

The Hanafi school predominate in Egypt, Turkey and Central Asia.

The Shafiis are strong in West Africa and Indonesia.

The Hanbali school is strongest in the Arabian peninsula

Wahhabism, a strict literalist trend within the Hanbali school, dates only from the eighteenth century, and is thus quite recent. From its origins, it has been closely associated with the Saudi royal family. It is promoted and subsidised throughout the world by Saudi Arabia.

The division between the two strands is not so much about theology as it is about the legitimacy of those who may govern the faithful, teach the faith, and interpret the Koran, and the legitimacy of the sources they may draw upon to do so. The question is both political and religious, with little distinction between the two. Both Shia and Sunni have the Koran in common, and believe its content is the word of God, coming through the Angel Gabriel and dictated to Mohammed.

But what authority may be used to interpret the Koran for life today?

Broadly speaking, Sunnis accept the authority of the teachings and writings of the companions of Mohammed, who were his immediate successors as leaders, and who knew his mind.

The Shia, on the other hand, look to Ali, Mohammed’s grandson, Ali, and to Mohammed’s  blood line more generally, as the legitimate interpreters of the Koran and supreme guides of the people.

Ali died in 661 after a power struggle, so these differences of opinion go back a long way.

In Sunni Islam, Shia veneration of the tombs of early imams is seen as idolatrous, and this explains the blowing up of some of these Shia holy places in recent wars.

Islamic scholars have always had  greater political authority in the Shia tradition, which explains the particular political system of Iran, where the Supreme religious leader has a veto on much of what the elected government may do.

In the Sunni tradition, the Caliph was both a religious and a political leader. For many years the title of Caliph was held by the Ottoman Emperor.

After its defeat in the First World War, the Ottoman Empire disappeared and was replaced by the secular Republic of Turkey. Turkey formally abolished the Caliphate in 1922. This caused deep disappointment among many devout Sunni Muslims at the time and this disappointment explains why Isis sought to restore the Caliphate.

For most of the last 1300 years, Sunni and Shia have lived together in relative peace. The Wars of Religion within Christianity in Europe, in the 150 years after the Reformation, were much more severe than anything that has, as yet, happened between Shia and Sunni in the Muslim world.

It is to be hoped that a reading of John McHugo’s densely informative narrative will encourage Western leaders to hesitate, before taking sides in a struggle that is not their own.

His book is quite compressed, and focuses heavily on the political history. It would have been interesting to know more about how the lifestyles  and thinking of Shia and Sunni faithful compare with one another.


I greatly enjoyed “The Ruins of Ireland” by Robert O Byrne, which has been published by Cico Books of London and New York.

Robert O Byrne gives a short description, with contemporary photographs, of about 60 buildings that were once stately homes or castles, but are now in varying states of ruination. Some were burned during Troubles, but most fell into decay simply because the owners could not afford to keep them up.

Many of them are places I have passed by often, over the years, without knowing what they were, who once lived in them,  or how they fell into their present state.

One such is Duleek House, on the edge of the village of the same name.

O Byrne tells us that Duleek House was once the residence of Thomas Trotter, the MP for the pocket borough of Duleek in the unreformed Irish Parliament. O Byrne was apparently unable to gain entry to the House, which is  in a dangerous state and, on the brink of falling down. So O Byrne could not say if the Neo Classical plasterwork that once graced the reception rooms (where Trotter might have entertained all his half dozen constituents), is still extant.

In some cases, he did gain entry to the interior of the houses and his photographs show scenes of desolation, but also , in some cases,  great potential for restoration. If these houses were in Britain, they might have been taken over by the National Trust, and be converted into dwellings, tourist attractions, or both.

Another place of  personal interest to me is Grange Castle in Co Kildare, near Edenderry.

Grange once belonged to the Bermingham family, who were the leading family in NW Kildare until the backed the losing side in the Wars of the Seventeenth Century. Grange was sold to another prominent Kildare family, the Tyrells, in 1735. They sold it to the Irish state in 1988, and restoration was attempted. But then, in 2003, that work stopped and the place now lies empty. A tragic waste.

Some of the buildings, like Grange, have only recently fallen into ruin. Others, like Roscommon Castle, have been unoccupied since the 1690’s, but still stand as impressive reminders of their glory days. Roscommon Castle was besieged by Hugh O Donnell for three months in 1599 and fatally damaged during the Williamite wars a century later.

This is a beautifully produced, and well written, book. I recommend it.


To get my mind off Brexit, I recently read “The Last Highlander, Scotland’s most notorious Clan Chief, Rebel and Double Agent” by Sarah Fraser.

 It is it life story of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, who was beheaded for treason at the age of 80 in 1746.

Fraser was a Gaelic speaking chief of the Fraser clan which occupied a huge territory in the vicinity of Inverness.

His first allegiance was to the Fraser clan, and to the Clan system.

 After that his allegiance was to Scotland.

Subject to these two primary allegiances, he switched his loyalty from the Jacobite Kings to the Hanoverians, and then back again.

 He spent time in the Jacobite Court in France, and  died a Jacobite.

 But he was on the Hanoverian side in 1715 when the first Jacobite rebellion took place in Scotland, then on the Jacobite side in 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlies raised his standard.

At various times Lovat was gaoled by both dynasties.

 When not in gaol, he lived and entertained extravagantly, to keep up his status as a Chief. He had a complicated private life, to put it mildly.

Sarah Fraser’s book tells an exciting story well.

For an Irish reader, it shows how the Gaelic clan system survived in Scotland up til 1745, 130 years after it had been destroyed in Ireland, by the Ulster Plantation and the Flight of the Earls.


I have really enjoyed reading “A Short History of Brexit, from Brentry to Brexit” by Kevin O Rourke.

O Rourke is a UK based, but Irish born and resident, academic, who also has a house in France.

His father, Andy, is a distinguished former Irish diplomat, and his mother is Danish.

He brings this varied hinterland to his aid, in probing the forces that shaped the British decisions

 first to join, and then to leave, the European Union.

Behind this inconsistency he identifies the existence of two  conflicting strands of thought, in the UK Conservative Party, and more widely.

The first is idea of “Imperial Preference”, that of giving better trade access to the UK market to the Empire than to other countries. This has deep roots in the Party.

 It was championed by leaders like the Chamberlains and Baldwin. This policy was implemented, in 1931 by Neville Chamberlain, when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer.

In contrast, Churchill, although a strong Imperialist, opposed protectionism all through his career. He advocated a “United States of Europe” in a speech in July 1945.

 Macmillan, who shed the Empire and had been wounded seven times in the First World War,, understood the need for the UK to build its future, and a structure of peace, in Europe.

 In contrast, a later Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron is quoted as saying it was “a myth” that European integration was the result of the lessons learned from two world wars.

There is much that can be divined from this well written book.

The 2016 Referendum can be traced back to a decision, in 2010, by 81 Tory MPs to defy their Whip and vote for a Referendum on leaving the EU.

Then , when Cameron set out to renegotiate UK membership. he recklessly announced that he would not “take no for an answer” on restricting free movement of people within the EU Single Market. He was never going to win that concession.

The book also analyses the history of the Irish and European economies in the 20th century.

 Ireland was a late developer, mainly because it waited until the 1970’s, to open its market to foreign competition. Even Portugal and Greece moved faster.

O Rourke highlights the importance of the common EU VAT regime, and the sharing of information between EU states on VAT, as the means of avoiding hard borders within the EU.

As the author says,

time is money and border controls cost money


I strongly recommend “The Vanquished, Why the First World War failed to end 1917-1923” by Robert Gerwarth .

The book deals with the last year of the Great War, and with the many small wars it generated  that continued for another five years, including  one in Ireland.

Before the Great War, multi ethnic Empires operated relatively peacefully. While the Imperial  idea,  and  multi ethnicity, clashed with the ethnic nationalism that flourished in intellectual circles, the political arrangements worked and were adaptable.

Austro Hungary had a multi ethnic Parliament with representation from the minorities present. 23% of the Emperors subjects spoke German, 20% Hungarian, 16% Czech or Slovak, 10% Polish, 9% Serbo Croat,  8% Ukrainian, 6% Romanian and so on. All coexisted.

The Ottoman Empire, though Muslim, tolerated Christian and Jewish minorities.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland may have been dominated by the English, but its Parliament had large Irish and Scottish representation.

The Russian Empire contained minorities too numerous to list.

The permissive consensus, that allowed these entities like these to resolve their internal differences by generally peaceful methods, was shattered by the sacrifices and brutality of the War.

It was a war that lasted far longer, and took far more lives, than anyone expected when it started.

It is a global tragedy that the gross over reaction of Austro Hungary to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in July 1914, started a conflict, with whose  consequences we still live today.

100 years later, the Brexit negotiations, the refugee crisis and the hangover of the financial crisis in Greece, Italy and some other countries will put immense stress on the bonds of tolerance that hold the European Union together.

They will from time to time bring to the surface buried tensions and resentments between European nations that date back to events of the 1917-1923 period which are so brilliantly described in this book.

Ministers and diplomats, attending fraught European meetings over the next few years, who want to understand where some of their colleagues from the other 26 countries are coming from, could profit from reading this book . It will help them understand where the, often unarticulated historical assumptions and fears come from, that may help explain behaviour that might otherwise seem unreasonable or disproportionate.

For example, the  present day fears in the Baltic States, of both Russia and Germany, date from events between 1917 to 1923.

So do the tensions between Poland and Ukraine, between Poland and Russia, between Greece and Turkey, between Turkey and the western powers, and between Bulgaria and both Romania and Greece.

So also can Russian fears of encirclement be traced back to the humiliating peace imposed on it by Germany in 1918, and to the subsequent western interventions in its Civil War in the early 1920’s.

The authoritarian and nationalistic trends in Hungarian politics can be explained by the fact that the post War settlement was much harder on Hungary, even than it was on Imperial Germany. Large Hungarian speaking populations remain in neighbouring Serbia, Slovakia and Romania to this day.

In 1919,the First World War had left much of Europe starving and desolated. Order had  broke down. States were too weak to exercise their proper monopoly on the use of force.

Resentments abounded about the supposed injustice of the imposed peace settlements. Demobilised soldiers know no other trade than war.  Minorities, particularly the Jews, were scapegoated all over central Europe, for misfortunes for which they had no responsibility at all.  Bolshevism was seen as an imminent threat.

States and populations turned to paramilitary organisations to restore order, in these frightening circumstances,  and out of that understandable desire for order grew Fascism and the Nazis.

This is a well written book which deserves a wide readership.

The Euro,  and its threat to the future of Europe


euroThe Nobel Prize winning author of “Globalisation and its Discontents” has set his sights on the euro in his latest economic polemic.

He sees the euro as a product of what he calls “neo liberal economics”, which he believes was in the intellectual ascendant in 1992, when the detailed design of the single currency was put in place.

Given that the idea of an Economic and Monetary Union in Europe goes back to the late 1960’s, and that one of the central drivers of the project was a French Socialist, Jacques Delors, this claim is contestable.

The flaws in the design of the euro derive more from poorly thought out compromises between France and Germany, and from wishful thinking, than they do from ideology.

Wishful thinking lay behind the decision to have a single Europe wide money, but to leave the supervision of banks, who create the money in the form of credit, to 17 different national authorities. This happened because Germany wanted a German authority to supervise German banks, and not a Europe wide one.  And it was these poorly supervised German banks who led the way in the mistaken cross border lending to Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal.

It is easy to see that mistake now, but the problem at the time was persuading Germany to give up its beloved DM at all, in favour of the euro. The mistake arose from national pride rather than economic ideology.

Obviously, if there was to be a single currency, there had to be common rules for preventing any one country issuing too much of it, and thereby creating inflation and devaluing everyone else’s money. In this case, the mistake was made of assuming that the only risk of this happening was through governments borrowing and spending too much. This lay behind the 3% of GDP limit on government borrowing in the Maastricht Treaty.

But no similar, centrally supervised, limit was placed on private sector money creation through the banks. As we now know, it was cross border private sector credit creation, through banks, that created the problems in Ireland, Spain and Portugal, whereas it was only in Greece that government borrowing was primarily to blame.  Stiglitz argues that this focus on controlling government borrowing, and ignoring private sector banking activity, arose from an ideological bias in favour of the private sector. He has a point.

He also points out that imbalances arising from trade deficits and surpluses within the euro zone were ignored in the original Maastricht rules. Before the crisis, the Irish and Spanish balance of payments deficits, and their counterpart German balance of payments surplus, were signals of the same underlying problem. The excessive private sector borrowing in Ireland and Spain was stimulated by the excess of German savings. Germans were earning more than they were spending, so they sought a return on their money by lending it to the Irish and the Spaniards. The persistence of this imbalance was a warning signal that was ignored. The new EU macroeconomic imbalance procedure belatedly attempts to deal with this, but it remains to be seen whether it will be implemented properly.

More profoundly, Stiglitz argues that, for the euro to work well, there must be a consensus among policy makers in all euro zone countries of what makes an economy grow. That consensus is missing. German and French economic views differ as much now, as they did when the euro was launched.  Germany does not believe that governments should provide fiscal stimulus when there is a down turn, whereas, in France, the political consensus would favour stimulus in almost all affordable circumstances.

Stiglitz, like the French, believes that reducing deficits should not be a priority, when the economy is slowing.  This may be good advice in theory, but there are two difficulties with it.

The first difficulty is that it presupposes that governments will pay for what they spend in bad times, by cutting back in good times. But that is usually politically impossible. This is a practical flaw in Keynesian economics.

The second difficulty concerns a fundamental fact that is not mentioned once in Stigltz’s 350 pages. This is the ageing of the population of all EU countries over the next 40 years. This reduces the ability of EU states to borrow and spend for other things.  The extra costs of pensions and health care for Europe’s ageing population will, if policies remain as they are, mean that the debts of EU governments will rise from around 90% of GDP today, to 400% by 2060. That prospect leaves little room for stimulative borrowing today.

In the 1990’s it was different. Then Europe had a younger population, there was an annual growth rate in world trade that was twice the present one.  There were growth promoting options then that do not exist now, and are not likely to exist in the near future. This limitation is ignored by Stiglitz, who blames everything on the euro.

He argues convincingly that the EU needs greater political integration, if the euro is to be a success. But some of the ideas he canvasses lack political realism, for example a tax on German trade surpluses, and a 15% EU wide income tax on incomes above €250,000 (on top of national income taxes)!

He argues that the euro is, to some extent, now being held together by fear. A currency break up would be so unpredictable that no one wants to try it. But fear is not a healthy basis for European integration. Ultimately a shared European patriotism, and a greater degree mutual trust between euro zone electorates, are needed if these electorates are willingly to put their savings at risk to insure one another against unexpected shocks.

Understandably, as an American and an economist, Stiglitz does not address how this might be done.  That is a task for Europe’s politicians, and so far they have failed to come up with many original ideas.

But if that task is successfully undertaken, the economic rewards for Europe of having its own global currency, and its own system of mutual financial protection for its member states and its banks, could be very great indeed. There are opportunities here, as well as threats, but this book unfortunately only looks at the latter.

Stiglitz might also have given greater weight to the improvements that have been made in the management of the euro in the past three years-in the form of better banking supervision, new bailout funds for states and for banks, and more subtle economic rules.

But this is not enough.

Some of Joseph Stiglitz’s other suggestions- a common bank deposit insurance system, a write off of some Greek debt, and a partial sharing of unemployment insurance costs- should be acted upon. They are needed to ensure that the euro is able to withstand the next economic shock, and should not be postponed until after the German, or any other, General Election.

Book Review for the “Irish Times” Author; Joseph E Stiglitz  Publisher; Allen Lane

Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén