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From Parnell to Paisley: Constitutional and Revolutionary Politics in Modern Ireland by Caoimhe Nic Dáibhéid and Colin Reid (eds)

Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2010, pp. 247, €26.95 pb. ISBN 978 0 7165 3062 6.

Reviewer: Donal Corcoran*

Constitutional and revolutionary politics have long been employed to pursue political change in Ireland. This book explores both approaches and their inter-relationship with, and influence on, each other in eleven thought-provoking case studies presented by young historians at a conference in Queen’s University, Belfast.

During the nineteenth century the dividing lines between constitutional and revolutionary action were not always distinct. Michael Keyes deals with the journey from semi-revolutionary to purely constitutional politics, arguing that American funding made Parnell’s achievements possible but that his overdependence on it left him exposed when the money dried up in 1886. Colin Reed’s account of the Irish Party and the Volunteers between 1913 and 1916 provides an insight into the political events after the unionists and nationalists formed private armies. Many events are covered, using source material derived from the Volunteers’ newspapers. These include Redmond’s take-over of the nationalist Volunteers, their rapid growth, the split over participation in World War I, the 1916 rising by a minority of the minority, the subsequent demise of the National Volunteers and their symbolic break with Redmond in 1917.

Margaret O’Callaghan uses Tom Kettle, ‘who knew everyone of significance in nationalist Ireland between 1898 and 1914’, to portray the political formations in pre-First World War Ireland and the politics of the generation lost in that war. She examines the choices made by Kettle who embodied both the old and the new politics of nationalist Ireland post-1900.

The key British general election of 1918 is examined by John Borgonovo with reference to Cork city. The Irish Party, although declining, still had enough residual support to mount a credible challenge. It was confronted by an emerging well-organised Sinn Féin Party which shrewdly nominated candidates likely to maximise votes and sought widespread support including British ex-servicemen. The abstention of Labour helped Sinn Féin defeat the Irish Party - which had difficulty finding good candidates - and the disunited Unionists. Fenian and nationalist propagandist P. S. O’Hegarty criticised the Irish revolution. Frances Flanagan considers his analysis of the revolution which failed to meet his utopian expectations of mass social transformation. Instead of being united, Ireland had become physically divided and more sectarian, its leadership had been seized by men ‘with no conceptual grasp of separatism’ while Ulster had been boycotted rather than educated.

Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid examines the reaction of the Fianna Fáil government to the subversive threat posed by the IRA between 1939 and 1945. Previously Fianna Fáil and the IRA maintained an ambivalent relationship with overlapping membership, common aims and common enemies. The war forced Fianna Fáil to react forcibly against IRA violence, hunger strikes, opposition to special legislation, arms raids, and bombings in England. The Northern Ireland policy of Sean Lemass, who was Taoiseach from 1959 to 1966, is considered by Stephen Kelly using recently available archival material. Lemass was a pragmatist who disregarded republican sentimentality and tradition. He dealt with the North as it was, not as what he wished it to be and sought to re-interpret Partition as a division which could be healed through a process of understanding and co-operation.

Simon Prince presents a series of illuminating case studies on how a range of activists tried to break away from the recurring failures of constitutionalist nationalism and militant republicanism by practising non-violent direct action during the Civil Rights era.

The politics of Labour TD and broadcaster David Thornley and his views on the national question are examined by Shaun McDaid. Thornley became the odd man out in the Irish Labour Party which aspired to Irish reunification but never supported the use of force to achieve it.

Andrew Sanders charts the political transformation of Sinn Féin from a fringe absentionist party to the largest nationalist party and the second largest party overall in Northern Ireland. This occurred when politics became a ‘justifiable and prosperous avenue for republicanism’. Ian Paisley’s journey from the radical fringe of Ulster unionism towards power and respectability is the subject of James Greer’s analysis. Paisley’s movement, originating in Ballymena, the heartland of Protestant Ulster, capitalised on the fragmentation of unionism to become the largest political party in Northern Ireland.

This book is a major contribution to understanding Irish history and should be widely read. It concludes: “The degenerating force of violence remains a corrosive presence in the Irish body politic: while the northern state attempts to recover from the bloodshed of the last forty years, the southern state continues to grapple with the inherent stresses of a democratic, constitutional republic born of violent revolution”.