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Cold reading

The trains are haywire again this evening; I waited for my connection in sub-zero temperatures for an hour and a half in the Brussels North station before I finally escaped. But I used my chilly wait profitably. Jeff Dudgeon has, once again, done me the favour of drawing my attention to the Dublin Review of Books, and I've been reading several of the essays in the latest issue.

My eye was immediately drawn to Martin McGarry's piece on the future of Belgium, written before last month's crisis which brought down Yves Leterme's government, but very insightful as to how we got to where we are - in particular, he describes the infamous BHV problem perfectly adequately in a single sentence, and he enlightened me as to the peculiar dynamic between the N-VA and the CD&V. (A lot of Belgian politics revolves around acronyms.) McGarry is much more readable than Witte, Craeybeckx and Meynen, the authors of the only one of the books he is ostensibly reviewing which I have myself attempted. He's pessimistic about the long term future of Belgium, but doesn't quite explain why.

A little-remembered historical linkage between Belgium and Ireland is that Daniel O'Connell was given a vote in the choice of the first King of the Belgians (who, if his first wife had lived, would have been Prince Consort of the UK instead). Paul Bew and Patrick Maume review Patrick Geoghegan's new biography of O'Connell, and achieve the task of both disagreeing with it and making you want to read it (though I may wait until the second volume comes out - the first takes us only to 1829). I had in fact read MacDonagh's biography when it came out almost 20 years ago; it sounds like Geoghegan has found more humanity than sainthood in the man, with a more realistic assessment of his religious beliefs, his sex life, and his tendency to go over the top in his oratory. Bew and Maume ask, but don't answer, the question of whether Parnell or O'Connell was the more significant figure. There's no doubt in my own mind that it was O'Connell, and frankly I find his large-hearted liberal nationalism much more attractive than Parnell's somewhat neurotic and narrow ideology.

Leaping forward a hundred years or so, the essay that is closest to my own work and experience is Eunan O'Halpin's review of Paul McMahon's book on British espionage in Ireland between 1916 and 1945. From the narrow Irish perspective, this books sounds like a useful corrective (and even in part an explanation) for the Sinn Féin obsession with "securocrats". But it is also a good set of case studies of how intelligence services operate successfully (eg the collaboration between the RUC and the Garda Síochána on keeping a lid on Republican dissidents in the late 1930s and early 1940s, despite the fact that their respective governments were not on speaking terms) and unsuccessfully (the "German Plot" allegations of 1917-18, uncritically accepted by key British ministers despite the lack of actual evidence).

There's a wider lesson as well: if, as a government, you keep open the official channels of communication with your neighbours and potential rivals, you are less dependent on the particular idiosyncracies of a small number of intelligence agents, at least when it comes to dealing with actual governments. It is rather extraordinary that there was no British diplomatic presence in Dublin until 1939! And I can think of a good dozen contemporary examples of this sort of short-sightedness. I will stop here.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 6th, 2009 08:52 pm (UTC)
You've reminded me of something. I'm at that stage in my history degree where I'm starting to think about my dissetation. One area I'd love to do some work on is something around the early Troubles and the British military's absolute failure to understand what they were dealing with let alone come up with an effective response. But, it occurs to me that trying to research, say, 'The British Army in Ulster 1969-76' might not be the easiest of things to put together. Most British official sources are, afaik, still classified and likely to remain so for decades to come. And, the chances of getting hold of useful sources from the Republican and Loyalist communities are for me, a British Catholic, nothing to write home about.
Which got me wondering. What's out there in terms of research into the period 1916-23? Or is the field already saturated?
Jan. 6th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)
There is a surprising amount of primary source material out there in fact, if anything more so for the more recent period. Also I'm not sure if you're doing a Masters or a PhD - if the former, then open source material is certainly sufficient to produce a decent piece of work. Even if the latter, I wouldn't discount your own ability to get information just by talking to people. Most of the key individuals have plenty of direct experience of graduate students doing research on them already. Occasionally, indeed, the bomber became the graduate student.

Just the other day I was leafing through General Sir Michael Rose's autobiography, and was somewhat thunderstruck by the difference between his account of Bloody Sunday and the generally accepted version. He was far from the first person to write the British Army's side of the story and get it published; a day or so in the Linenhall Library will get you the An Phoblacht side as well. And the Loyalists, in my experience, will talk to anyone.

As for the earlier period: I think that the primary sources are probably exhausted, but there hasn't yet been a decent synthesis of the P.S. O'Hegarty and Countess Fingal perspectives. We're not far off it, though, and David Fitzpatrick has done more than anyone in that regard. (I have my own humble and marginal contribution as well.)
Jan. 6th, 2009 09:44 pm (UTC)
I had to study Witte's Politieke Geschiedenis van België AND take an oral exam (instead of a written one) about it with her while she was rector of the VUB ... and she got her questions wrong (questioned me on subject matter she was convinced I came for but I didn't) ... FUN TIMES! Her book is very good but not exactly very easy.
Jan. 6th, 2009 09:48 pm (UTC)
Actually I'm an undergraduate. (I never finished my degree first time round - it's a long story.)
That's extremely interesting and definitely food for thought. Thank you.
Jan. 7th, 2009 02:01 pm (UTC)
On the lack of British diplomats in Dublin until 1939 - was this not the era of 'Is Eire a Dominion or a Republic or what?". No Governor General, but no President either - how do you establish diplomacy when the situation won't even be clarified? IIRC Dev was being very coy...
Jan. 7th, 2009 04:37 pm (UTC)
I'm more inclined to blame the Brits for allowing this situation to arise. Under article 1 of the 1921 Treaty, there should have been no difficulty in treating Ireland as equivalent to Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa for diplomatic purposes, and all the above had established separate diplomatic relations with the UK before Dev came to power in 1933. John Dulanty, the first Irish High Commissioner to London, was appointed in 1930.
Jan. 7th, 2009 08:25 pm (UTC)
But there was a Governor-General, wasn't there?
Jan. 7th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
Appointed by the Irish government as a figurehead!
Jan. 9th, 2009 01:51 pm (UTC)
Well, the first one was appointed by the British Government, AFAIK.
Jan. 11th, 2009 09:50 am (UTC)
It was veteran nationalist politician T.M. Healy, not exactly a British placeman!
Jan. 12th, 2009 10:11 am (UTC)
True, but as far as I can determine (web searching only, sadly) Healy was officially appointed by the British Government.
Jan. 9th, 2009 02:06 pm (UTC)
Under article 1 of the 1921 Treaty, there should have been no difficulty in treating Ireland as equivalent to Canada, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa for diplomatic purposes, and all the above had established separate diplomatic relations with the UK before Dev came to power in 1933.

I'm not sure that's quite accurate.

Canada got its first High Commissioner from the UK in 1928 and Australia in 1936 so Eire doesn't seem to be treated much differently than the other dominions. Prior to these dates diplomatic communications were, I think, conducted through Governor Generals - which the IFS possessed.
Jan. 11th, 2009 09:54 am (UTC)
According to good ol' Wikipedia, the Governor-General lost his role as representative of the UK government in 1927. It seems a bit incredible to me that the geographically closest of the Dominions, and the only one from which emanated any sort of security threat to UK territory, had to wait eleven years after Canada to get a resident British diplomat! Whoever's fault it was, it certainly wasn't Dev's, at least not before 1933.

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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