It has always intrigued me that some British politicians, especially English ones, call the Atlantic Ocean ‘the pond’ and the Americans ‘our cousins.’ After all, the Atlantic is rather larger than a pond and Americans were never exclusively White Anglo Saxon Protestants. Furthermore, between the UK and the USA intrudes an island which is actually visible from the uplands of my Arfon constituency.
Ireland is bounded by two ‘ponds’ east and west, and its population has close, recent family connections in both directions. But as for the UK, I suspect that people on the Clapham omnibus have a more detailed knowledge of the intricate workings of the LAPD than they have of Ireland’s culture, languages, and politics. Particularly its politics, about which Lila Haines writes so effectively in this “concise history”.
A remedy for distance
I suppose that such asymmetry only reflects the hierarchy of power. England knows little of the details of Ireland, other than that forced upon it by the Troubles. The USA in turn knows little of the details of England, and virtually nothing about Wales.
However, ‘pond’ and ‘cousins’ could as easily be symbolic of Britain’s politicians from the 1920s onwards. They vaulted their way westwards whilst at the same time distancing themselves from the absconding Irish.
Being neither Irish nor an historian I approached writing this review with some unease. I have been to the Republic many times. But my first and only visit to Northern Ireland was just a few years ago, as part of my work on the UK Parliament’s Brexit Select Committee.
Fortunately, Lila Haines’ book Radicals and Realists. Political Parties in Ireland: A Concise History, published by Welsh Academic Press, turned out to be a valuable contribution to remedying my own ignorance of Irish party-political history. I suspect it will be so for other readers.
Rich and disputatious
Haines provides well-referenced details of a dozen main parties and some of their histories; their internal and external disputes, issues, elected representatives, and access to and use of political power. She also appends very brief entries on 13 minor parties (these latter are either dissolved or have no current elected representatives).
Compare this rich and disputatious diversity with the situation in Wales. Our tally in the first 75 years of the last century was 21 parties (see Etholiadau’r Ganrif / Welsh Elections 1885–1997 by Beti Jones). But five were various Liberal, Labour, and Tory supporters or opponents of the National Government of the 1930s. A further 11 were either single issue or on the far left and far right, each fighting one seat in one election only.
Wales really only has four stable mainstream parties or sometimes three, depending on the vitality or otherwise of the Liberal Democrats. That, I suppose, reflects our political distance from real power. Why split when the prize is so small?
Haines provides us with a lot more to take in about the island of Ireland. Fortunately, she writes in an accessible, clear, and direct way. That comes from a comprehensive personal knowledge as well as her extensive research. This can certainly be a book to dip into, as well as being a straight read for those with more stamina. Quite apart from such detail, one can also enjoy much in Haines’ style.
Wales and Ireland: nearer neighbours
I know from my own parliamentary experience that the DUP are often ready with a quick, tactical ‘NO!’ at the expense of the longer strategy. A DUP MP interviewed on RTÉ in 2022 was asked (incredulously, and I paraphrase slightly), “You backed Brexit, reviving the border issue, rejected Theresa May’s deal which would keep Northern Ireland in Great Britain’s customs union, backed Boris Johnson, who agreed a border down the Irish Sea, and now say the UK’s international agreements don’t apply to Northern Ireland. Are you working for the other guys?”
Haines also addresses the party’s tactics, which led to its second place behind Sinn Fein in the 2022 election. With a few elegant clicks of her keyboard – which would have mandarins in Whitehall purring into their cups of Ceylon tea – she says damningly that this “raised questions about that approach in the long term, despite its seeming utility at the time”.
Significantly, by now there are some Unionists who recognise that a unified Ireland is more probable than not, and are seeking a future that will fully accommodate diversity. So no doubt I will refer to Haines’ book again as this develops and as, hopefully, a closer relationship grows between Wales and Ireland.
A small country nurturing strong links with – and knowledge of – the very successful smallish country next door seems to me infinitely preferable to and more sensible than cosying up to the superpower. Or pursuing deals of little value on the other side of the world.
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