Henry Patterson is half right, but dealing with the past must be broadly based

. Henry Patterson, a historian of high repute from the unionist tradition has entered the debate sparked by the Panorama on collusion, Britain’s Secret Deals. He laments what he sees as unionism’s “parochialism and defensiveness “in failing to challenge the republican narrative  of the Troubles as a struggle for freedom and  justice in common with similar struggles elsewhere.

The recent publication in the News Letter of a graph detailing deaths caused by paramilitary organisations and the state (showing that deaths by the state were far, far lower) was yet another reiteration of a widespread unionist feeling that the narrative of the Troubles has been effectively seized by republicans, and that the bare facts of relative culpability for the Troubles will in some way challenge and even help to displace this republican domination.

I am afraid that it won’t. Facts, even ones as powerful as these, do not speak for themselves.

With the support of a large supporting cast of journalists, clerics and non-governmental organisations, republicans have focused on broader explanatory frameworks which emphasise longer-term structural factors, eg discrimination, sectarianism and institutional culpability, eg the issue of ‘collusion’.

They have also linked their own essentially ethnic narrative to broader international discourse of human rights, transitional justice and ‘reconciliation’.

Unionism’s parochialism and defensiveness has been incapable of rising to this challenge

Regrettably, part of the blindness to the unionist case is due to the deep  frustration outsiders felt at the  same “parochialism and defensiveness”  which held unionism back from making a political deal with constitutional nationalism decades ago. Unionism is too historically compromised to  provide a strong enough platform to counter ” freedom struggle ” narratives, even  in these days of jihadism where the  face of struggle is too repulsive to explain  away. But telling the full story,  including the story of unionists the people, is a different matter.

This is a complaint of substance, which  Patterson himself so powerfully contributed to addressing in  for example  “Ireland’s Violent Frontier, “ his gripping account of  the IRA’s sectarian murder campaign on the border, which was underplayed  at the time and since. More of the same is needed, complemented no doubt by fresh political critiques which explain rather than only sneer at unionist defensiveness.

Patterson draws attention to the Basque government’s  decision to appoint a group of historians to produce an analysis of violence in the Basque Country from 1968 to the present. He calls for the appointment of a similar group here .

The proposal is aimed at providing an over-arching periodisation of the conflict and bears some similarity to the Historical Timelines Group proposed in the final version of Haass/O’Sullivan proposals. It is only by embracing ideas and proposals like these that our politicians can begin to move beyond using the past as a resource for current political objectives.

Despite the modest Haass and now the SHA proposals, so far sterling efforts to get such a project going have run into the sand of British government stalling.

I differ from Patterson if he is suggesting that the perspective for historians is to provide a counter case to republican propaganda. That would strangle the project in the womb.  It will not exist unless it enjoys cross community and intergovernmental backing.   It is also a mistake to assume that the  transitional justice approach with its arguably unreachable  standards  must only feed the republican cause. The only viable approach is to let the fullest possible facts speak for themselves. Paradoxically this  can work well in Northern Ireland, where people are expert at filtering  the politics in or out, according to taste.

But Patterson ‘s idea that republicans have it all their own way is exaggerated. Look at the impact of revisionism in the south, most recently  the fascinating debate over thwarting Sinn Fein’s attempts to position themselves as keepers of the national patriotic flame . In Britain  true, the legacy is mixed, but  since the emergence of jihadism, such gilt as there was, has worn off  Irish republicanism’s  gingerbread, by forensic and factual reporting  by  the likes of Peter Taylor and  Ed Moloney. There’s a lot more to come, if access to the archives is granted.

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  • SeaanUiNeill

    You’ll have to wait to the weekend on that one. Although I have an extensive library, most of my historical reading on contemporary issues has been at the McClay (and the old Special Collections room at QUB before that). Roy Foster is the one exception and I seem to have picked up his books (and those of Brian Walker) along the way. I have my notes from books on contemporary NI, but usually on other current themes. But I distinctly remember that the gist of any analysis by serious historians of the NICRA always goes against your own “conspiracy” version of what transpired, something anyone else reading here who is familiar with the work contemporary historians on these themes will already be quite familiar with. If you are patient, I’ll check it out and get a series of quotes like Roy’s this weekend.

    Henry Patterson’s own comments “Unionism’s parochialism and defensiveness has been incapable of rising to this 
challenge” are all important here. As AG says above in replying to you “the point remains that by sidelining them [NICRA] the Provo sympathy line fills the vacuum.” The failure to fully recognise Unionism’s gross failure of imagination in its reaction to the NICRA opened the door to violence, and until the lesson of this is digested fully, this encoded mistake will repeat, especially when the opportunity NICRA offered Unionism to re-envisage its “Britishness” is glibly dismissed with easy conspiracy theories about the need to resist NICRA as definite Republican (and other) plots. Unionist thinking still needs to honestly step out of its own limiting preconceptions on this as on so much else. Not that Unionism’s narrative on this is the only faulted version. The four conventional representations of what the NICRA was that tend to appear in comments, nationalist, consevative, leftist, Republican and Unionist (extreme and simply conservative both) are like the blind men’s descriptions of the elephant in the story. Each offers primarily a representation of the wishes and fears of the observer. As Henry Patterson says “The way we receive the facts will be determined by our own mental frameworks which for each of us will be provided by a mixture of personal experience, family, education and our implicit or explicit political sympathies or the lack of them.” All of these representations need to be fully contextualised and offered no privileged place as “truth”, but carefully compared one with another and then properly evaluated against the actual events, such as the the removal of political patronage on ALL housing.

    The value of the historical discipline is that one is actually taught to go as far from such personal determinism as we may, and to “think the unthinkable”, that our immediate impression of the meaning of what we are looking at should be re-evaluated entirely from all the facts themselves in their entirety, not simply from a careful selection of those that snuggly fit with our pre-existing wishes. In reading both the comments of Lenihan and Hume, the first question I ask myself is “whose good” are they wishing in making these statements. Similarly, with the New Left Review interview you also offered (elsewhere) as a definitive “clincher” as to what the PD and NICRA actually thought and planned, I ask what factors surround and affect what is being said, including all importantly the actual media is is embedded in. Simple representations of opinions in a time and place only acquire some real significance when all the facts are known, something that will be an ongoing task for historians. In my own research I find in manuscript sources discarded facts of considerable importance from three hundred years ago, put aside because they challenged important shibboleths of the times then. The very same thing happens today.

    This entire thread below has ended up in a fracas of hard and highly personalised acrimony between many of those posting, with the angry exchange of victim stories and attempts to explain why violence was perhaps “acceptable” in some situations, all turning to personal comment. To maintain such an approach requires a partisan selectivity in putting forward only such facts as support one side of an argument. What I would ask you to consider is how would it affect your thesis on what NICRA was if you attempted to take onboard that the sources you have offered me in proof should be contextualised on what the speakers own aims were in making these statements, and the meaning of what they say qualified by this. And to possibly consider that NICRA was not simply a Republican front but a very complex organisation with many, many other strands of thinking being debated over and above the one thread of Republican input. This is pretty much the consensus view today of any reputable historian I’ve read (quotes to follow…) using a broad spectrum of rather more digested evidence to that which you have offered me in support of your own theory in giving central place to a possible controlling leftist/Republicans junta dominating the Civil Rights movement.

  • Nevin

    “your own “conspiracy” version of what transpired”

    The detail of the ‘Agnew house’ conspiracy has been laid out by Liam O Comain; the general tone of it is similar to that of the writings of Desmond Greaves from the 50s onwards.

    “Unionism’s gross failure of imagination in its reaction to the NICRA opened the door to violence”

    Unionism and nationalism are very broad churches that happen to have opposing views on the constitutional question. I should imagine there could well have been major violence in Dungannon in 1968 had the police not stopped an anti-unionist mob colliding with a unionist mob. The narrow focus on unionist patronage as distinct from all forms of patronage did indeed reflect a ‘failure of imagination’.

    “NICRA was not simply a Republican front”

    I neither said nor implied that it was so why do you persist in attempting to brand me in this careless or malicious way? NICRA was not initiated by a broad cross-section of society but by those who participated in the Agnew house conspiracy. I should imagine that the proceedings were dominated by armchair and militant socialists. Rights issues as promoted in the south and later in the north were a smokescreen for a 32-county socialist republic. There’s an element of complexity but it’s not too difficult to get your head around.

    As for the PDs, they did a fine job in wrecking the tolerant social atmosphere that I enjoyed in QUB in the early 60s and in Coleraine JCSS in the 70s and 80s. Check out that Sr Souboris comment from 1973 in the right panel of NALIL blog.

  • kensei

    You can presumably derive stats on who you’ve banned over the years. Care to publish them?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Nevin for your clarification, but I remain
    confused. Reading back over what we have exchanged over a week I still find that what I’m saying reflects the impressions I’ve gleaning from your postings here and on the “Kate Hoey” thread. I do, however, fully welcome your attempts to make clearer what you are saying. I had assumed that your emphasis on the Agnew House version of the origin of NICRA implied that you believed NICRA to be a “Republican front”, and would value some clarification on what you are actually saying. What you are posting above simply seems to re-affirm this impression to my mind, but that may just be me. The limitations of short postings and links always ensure a plethora of misunderstandings can very easily develop in any exchange on Slugger.

    But to summarise, (please correct me if I’m inaccurate) I had certainly gathered the impression from our extended exchange on the Kate Hoey thread and from your comments on the 2008 Brian Walker thread “It was forty years ago today” that you believed that the PD was a Trotskyist body, and from the emphasis you drew from Lenihan’s comments, that Marxists, Socialist Republicans and other revolutionary bodies had been engaged in the 1960s in a plot to utterly overthrow the more conservative administrations of both the north and south of Ireland. 

What I imagined we were discussing was your contention that the agendas of these people were the uppermost concerns of those key persons developing and working with NICRA, as you say above, “Rights issues as promoted in the south and later in the north were a smokescreen for a 32-county socialist republic.” From my own direct involvement in both the PD and NICRA and also from the hard facts of what actually transpired in practice I’ve argued in turn that such concerns were subsumed in the primary concern of those actively involved for civil rights issues. In this I believe that I’m pretty much backed by the greater part of current historical research. 

    I still believe from your comments and from the items you have posted for me to consider, that my own thoughts regarding the crying need to fully contextualize information is still most pertinent and remains unanswered in what appears to be an attempt to personalize the argument.
    Certainly the opinions of Lenihan and Hume, the version given by Greaves and the Liam O’Comain piece still all need to be more far more thoroughly contextualized, certainly the aims of those speaking need to be fully considered, before they may be used as unqualified evidence for what you contend.

    While NICRA may have been initiated in part by Republicanism it also drew many other influences. Certainly there was a long held critique of conventional Unionism stretching back to mavericks such as Tommy Henderson and Jack Beattie, to name but two people and such influences fed into the motives of those associating with NICRA from a protestant and even Unionist background. I have named some of those involved on the committee of NICRA who were certainly not Republicans, and I knew many others. Your unremitting emphasis on the Greaves version leaves this much broader spectrum of influences out to spotlight only one contributory factor to the unwarranted exclusion of other equally important individual and group influences. Singling out Greaves’ “representation” also utterly ignores those other discussions and meetings that fed into the formation of NICRA. In so strongly supporting a version relying on the Republican role and ignoring the actual complexity of NICRA’s origin and thinking, effectively “the Provo sympathy line fills the vacuum” left by other non-Republican influences as AG notes above. I would certainly feel it is not in any way either helpful or appropriate to so utterly ignore NICRAs positive role as the medium of a broad spectrum of reformist opinion and to “gift” the entire movement to reform the abuses of the “Ancien Regime” here to the men of violence.

  • Nevin

    Seaan, had NICRA had an authentic reformist agenda it would have drawn attention to the patronage exercised by unionists, nationalists and socialists; it would have challenged the churches on their mutual support for segregated education and it would have dealt with Ireland’s constitutional claim.

    As I’ve already stated, O’Neill and Lemass each had a mild reformist tendency but neither had sufficient support in their parties; there were opportunities/needs for mutual reform in both jurisdictions; none of this would have been of interest to those who sought a 32-county socialist republic.

    My focus is on our two islands in general and, in this context, activities in Northern Ireland and Ireland. The language of the infamous five in that PD interview in the New Labour Review is far more aggressive than that of Greaves. Then there was Sean Garland ..

    Your final sentence is bizarre; the loyalist and republican paramilitaries could offer mutual destruction, horrendous injury and death – and organised crime – not reform.

  • mickfealty

    Over 13 years and four different platforms? Er, no.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Nevin, if you had been involved in NICRA you would have been aware that its agenda was rather broader than you have apparently encountered in your reading. Your characterisation of a number of significant figures in the PD and NICRA as “the infamous five” in itself is sufficient comment on the slant of your interpretation of what was actually going on at this time.

    On the issue of the descent into violence I think we would find strong agreement, as both of us utterly condemn paramilitary activity. To say the very least, the shift to violence was a profound misdirection of energies which has for decades withered more peaceful possibilities of much needed reform. However, in your concern to seemingly demonise the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s, you have entirely missed the glaring fact that for most people here who are interested in examining that period here, and certainly for anyone at all interested through the rest of the world, the pivotal role NICRA played in the reform of political abuses is well attested. By linking it as you do entirely to the Republican movement, the implication is that all serious pressure for reform came from Republican sources, something already present in many people’s minds from the Republican narrative itself. Both of us know this to be untrue, but it is the obvious “positive” reading anyone without your unremittingly negative reading of the NICRA will come to should they accept the veracity of what you are posting, as Am Ghobsmacht has significantly pointed out above in his postings. I’m surprised you do not appear to have noticed this.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    the other problem is, there was IRA involvement around the fringes of NICRA, as we now know. But I agree, as I hope I’ve explained in posts on this based on Henry’s work among others, that unionists don’t have to and shouldn’t portray NICRA as the enemy or the problem. As I’ve said many times I’d like to think I would have supported it had I been around at the time, even if I was uneasy about some of the other supporters in the shadows.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Henry Patterson has written some of the finest books on Northern Ireland, in particular “Ireland Since 1939” and “Ireland’s Violent Frontier”, the latter being really about the diplomatic shenanigans between Dublin and London in the 60s, 70s and 80s, that’s the archive material it’s based on as far as I can tell. Anyway, all good stuff. I disagree slightly with his comments in the News Letter – in the tone at least – when he plays down the potential for the promulgation of the core facts of the Troubles to make a difference.

    I know his point is that it’s all pointless without a narrative – a more easily grasped one – and I do agree with that. But graphs like the one in the News Letter are powerful and I think need to be at the very heart of any proper explanation of the Troubles. No one can seriously write about the Troubles without talking to that graph. Indeed, the better visualisation of the non-nationalist narrative of the Troubles is the key to getting it more traction. People of a more factual bent who take issue with nationalist assumptions have been not too bad at dissecting them – I’ve seen some good efforts on Slugger, for example. But they/we have been less good at distilling (and putting pictures to) the better, fairer and more accurate version of events.

    There have been some interesting attempts. The one that sticks out from my Troubles childhood was “Ulster: The Facts”, but together by a combined unionist working group, supposedly for a US audience. The unsubtle hand of Paisley, replete with exclamation marks, ruins sections of it and on the whole it is way too propagandistic. The tone is too defensive and concedes too little. AG is right that to be powerful, unionism needs to be able to admit how imperfect the pre-Troubles situation in NI was. If they do that, then they can better explain how it actually wasn’t what is portrayed either, as some kind of cross between apartheid-era South Africa and the American Deep South.

    I might have a go …

  • Nevin

    Seaan, I think my suggestion that NICRA should have targeted patronage by all groupings was indeed a positive statement. Setting folks at each other’s throats IMO triggered the violence that followed. It’s a shame that Belfast and Dublin didn’t stand together against those attracted to the Anarchist and Republican Socialist Alliance banners.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Nevin, I’ll get back to you with the refferences you asked for this weekend. Until then let us perhaps agree to entirely differ on this matter. I imagine we will both continue to believe that the violence was initiated in quite different parts of our community no matter what the other posts. And as I’ve said above, I will look forward to your fine comments on other themes.

  • Nevin

    Seaan, my comments on this and other themes essentially flow from the same root. I look forward to an apology for the damage done to student relationships if you’re in touch with those PD wreckers.

    [Adds] I’ve not used the very broad Republican label – it covers Lenihan and Hume too. I’d label the Provos as militant nationalists and the Goulding leadership as a militant socialist one.

  • guest3

    And how many state actors have served any time?

  • Brian Walker

    Points taken Henry. I do hope your retirment isn’t complete! Best wishes

  • chrisjones2

    I think I am on record as calling them mad bad dangerous scumbags …or words to that effect

  • chrisjones2

    I am not dancing anywhere. Carl claims that the loyalists tried to blow up children. They didn’t…they tried to blow up the peelers and army. Their behavior towards the children and their parents was utterly appalling and awful and shameful.

    Telling the truth about the blast bomb does not make them any less dangerous scumbags but telling lies about them doesn’t then help solve the problem in the longer term

  • Skibo

    Chris I have obviously picked up the wrong impression of you. You seem more middle of the road than I had previously thought with the ability to castigate those wishing to drag us back on both sides.
    I might have to work on your impression of history but you may be able to surprise me there also.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Nevin, a few possible threads of inquiry as requested.

    Current serious research comes up with an analysis of NICRA that identifies its character as a multiplicity of interests with no predominant thread other than the umbrella Civil Rights activity of the group. Dr Patricia Craig sums this consensus opinion up quite clearly:

    “Looked at closely, the NICRA dissolves into the CSJ, CDU, NILP, CPNI, PD, NCCL, NDG, NDP, DCAC, RLP, RSSF … the abounding acronyms tell their own tale.” [see: Patricia Craig, ‘the Rannafast Summer’ Vol. 3, No. 1, “The Literary World”, (Spring/Summer, 2005), pp. 100-152.]

    On NICRA origins, it is well to remember that two years before Greaves recollections, Ciaran McKeown’s “Working Committee for Civil Rights” was already active at QUB. There was also considerable discussion of Civil Rights issues within the old NI Labour Party, as I remember, and as I’ve already mentioned the Young Socialists who were the instigators of the PD were the admittedly rather radical NI Labour party Young Socialists.

    Dr Simon Prince identifies Mick Farrell’s use of the term “Young Socialist Alliance” as coming from a North American source, an umbrella organisation for a number of anti-Soviet leftist youth groups formed around the ISL’s youth group in1960, rather than from any British or Irish Trotskyist group. I would highly recommend Dr Prince’s recent researches as offering a far more complex picture that seriously qualifies the “Left/ & Republican” version of the NICRA to which you subscribe. While you will certainly find occasional agreements in his work, the broad mass of what he has assembled makes your outline position quite untenable to my mind. You can find his work on:


    I cannot recommend his work too highly as a long overdue insightful and detailed analysis of the development of NICRA and the PD. Certainly Prince shows how events led the PD away from its libertarian origins to the situation that produced its 1972 policy statement, and it is that unfolding that is the real story, not simply the inference of the NLR interview and the stance of the 1972 statement backwards as some form of “fixed policy intention” from the PDs inception.

    This rather more proper “unfolding of events through time” approach by academics can also be found in a number of Sociological studies. I offer two as a sample of this, one from the 1970s and one rather more recent, to show consistency of approach over a forty year period:

    Stephen W. Beach, ‘Social Movement Radicalization:
    the Case of the People’s Democracy in Northern Ireland.’ The Sociological Quarterly 18 (Summer 1977): 305-318.

    Gregory M. Maney,‘Transnational Mobilization and Civil Rights in Northern Ireland.’ Social Problems, Vol. 47, No. 2 (May, 2000), pp. 153-179.

    Also, regarding the sectarian bias you infer above on NICRA & PD policy, it’s worth remembering Bernadette Devlin’s 1969 appearance on NBCs Huntley Brinkley Report where she scandalised Irish Americans by describing those very Civil Rights issues she was being questioned over as applying also to NI Protestants and pointing out that PD and NICRA were working to bring all suffers from discrimination across the NI community together to redress general wrongs, (Prince, “Northern Ireland’s ’68” p. 214).

    Virtually every serious historian uses these factors I’ve highlighted above in their analysis of 1968/9/70, and rather than simply list endless articles and books, I’d recommend simply more general reading in current historical research with an emphasis on the 1960s. The notes to Simon Prince’s work offers some excellent pointers. I hope this has been of some help.

  • submariner

    Seaan Thanks for the Info. I knew it was only a matter of time before Mick banned him again that makes three times hes been banned under different guises I did alert Mick to the fact that CB had been previously banned but i suppose Mick decided for whatever reason to let him continue to post. Anyway Seaan CB will be back again under a different name soon enough when he does i will be sure to let you know.

  • Nevin

    Thanks very much for going to all this trouble, Seaan, but ‘a far more complex picture that seriously qualifies the “Left/ & Republican” version of the NICRA to which you subscribe’ is a serious misrepresentation of what I wrote. What are you inferring by your use of the ‘Republican’ tag? I distinguished between two elements of the IRA: the militant socialist leadership under Goulding which attracted the attention of Lenihan, Hume and the hardline unionists and the more traditional militant nationalist leadership that re-emerged in the form of the Provos.

    ‘Ciaran McKeown’s “Working Committee for Civil Rights” was already active at QUB’ – from 1964, it seems. Greaves published his ideas in 1963 but had been advocating the use of rights issues in support of IRA prisoners from the late 50s. I was aware of a range of QUB political societies but the ‘open village’ atmosphere of student life had a much stronger appeal for me.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Nevin, I have no wish to misrepresent you, but I can only go from what I can piece together form what you show me, and I certainly had the impression that you were sourcing the roots of NICRA in the Connolly Youth and the IRA. So thank you for the clarification which I’ll try and make some sense of. Back in the 1960s as I remember it Goulding and his associates were the main strand of Republicanism.

    The point I’m trying to make regarding “Rights” is that no one source had the copyright on this issue, and I continue to feel that your emphasis on the central importance of Greaves, etc, in the development of Civil Rights activity distorts this. Rights issues were coming up during the 1960s from many sources independently of Greaves and his associates and all of the disparate thinking about the reform of Civil Rights in the NI state fed into the broad church of NICRA.