May 12th, 2008


Richard Holme

Last week was insanely busy for me, and I've only just caught up with the news of the death of Richard Holme eight days ago, aged 71. I first knew of him in my early activist days as a student immediately after the SDP/Liberal merger, when diehard Liberals excoriated him as the demon prince of selling out to ex-Labour and later New Labour; his acceptance of a peerage rather than fight the winnable seat of Cheltenham threw activists there into a mild spin as well (if I remember rightly, the two candidates to replace him were the future MP Nigel Jones and his ex-wife, or something like that).

But when I actually got to know him, through my involvement in the Lib Dems Northern Ireland policy working group after I had moved back to Belfast, I found myself really impressed by his gravitas and also his humour. As the party's Northern Ireland spokesman, and in the House of Lords to boot, he was a bit invisible to the public eye (I shouldn't think many people reading this had ever heard of him), but was very active behind the scenes. He sent me a congratulatory note after I captained the QUB team on University Challenge, but mocked my election literature - "Couldn't you have found a photograph to use which was taken after your fourteenth birthday?"

Once I moved to the Balkans we lost touch - I was sorry to see the circumstances of his parting company with the Broadcasting Standards Council, but glad to get back in touch with him briefly a couple of years ago. Nice tribute to him by Paddy Ashdown in the Independent and by Trevor Smith and others in the Guardian.

May Books 16) Contested Island

16) Contested Island: Ireland 1460-1630, by S.J. Connolly

I found this a much more interesting and well-structured book than Lennon's Sixteenth Century Ireland. By the end of it I had a much better idea of the two key narratives - the shift of the Old English areas to permanent alliance with Gaelic Ireland, and the growth in power of the state apparatus centred in Dublin. The general failure of the Reformation to take hold in Ireland is a part of this story, but Connolly admits after surveying the various theories that he does not have a good explanation of why it failed. The least satisfactory thing about the book is that the six maps at the end are horrendously mislabelled; only one is published with the correct caption.

An unexpected benefit of reading about this period of Irish history is that it gives me a slightly different insight into international relations today. Reading how various English military expeditions tended to end not with the defeat of the Irish enemies, but with them being bought off with recognition of their authority and (often temporarily) converted to allies, has obvious parallels with today's Iraq and Afghanistan. And the gradual extension of the central govenment's authority across the whole island has many resonances with state-building efforts around the world up to the present.

It is fascinating that the British government in Ireland was utterly unable to cover its costs from locally raised revenue. At the start of the book, roughly 90% of Dublin Castle's budget had to be met from Westminster; by the end of the book it was down to roughly 30% but that is still a heck of a lot - and the cost of this improvement in the finances was the loss of identification with English interests of the vast majority of the previously loyal population. One question that is rarely asked is, given the huge costs of Ireland to England, why bother? I guess there was a certain amount of protecting existing investments of property and prestige, but the question of securing a geographical back door to the English realm must have been even more important - just before the start of the sixteenth century, you have Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck, and just after the century ends you have thousands of Spanish troops landing in Kinsale.

Some of you will remember that my interest in this period is driven by family history. My namesake and ancestor Sir Nicholas White gets two mentions, one in passing as a reformist official, the other as the person who suggested that a legal dispute be resolved by the two litigants fighting to the death in the yard of Dublin Castle - which doesn't sound terribly reformist to me...

Anyway, somewhat heavy going in places, but enlightening all the same.