Welcome … to Fantasy Ireland

by Kieran Healy on April 22, 2007

Fantasy Ireland is a long-running cultural trope in America and a few other places (including, at times, Ireland itself). In the old days, it was a bucolic paradise, with a surfeit of pigs in the parlor and an absence of indoor plumbing, which Irish-Americans imagined they could visit in search of their roots. But its content has changed in recent years and it has popped up in various places this past week. Wil Wilkinson brought up Tom Friedman’s Fantasy Ireland, a neoliberal paradise of fast growth and low regulation, in conversation with Henry the other day.

Then I came across this piece by Johann Hari about Andrew Roberts, a historian who apparently has the ear of the President and Vice President. In Roberts’s Fantasy Ireland, if Hari is to be believed, internment was a successful policy pursued by the British Government in the Northern Ireland of 1971— instead of the ill-conceived, ham-fisted disaster that it was. In an exchange with Hari, Roberts offers this rebuttal:

It is a mark of Hari’s sloppiness that he has accused me of telling President Bush that internment was pursued successfully in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, when in fact I said Southern Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s! Does Hari deny that Éamon De Valera’s internment policy in the Irish Civil War crushed the Irish Republican Army in the southern 26 counties?

Roberts seems confused. The Irish Civil War began in June of 1922 and ended in May of 1923. “Éamon De Valera’s internment policy in the Irish Civil War” was non-existent because De Valera was not in government at the time: W.T. Cosgrave was Chairman of the pro-treaty Provisional Free State government, and De Valera was the parliamentary leader of the Anti-Treaty side. Roberts may be confusing the 77 IRA prisoners executed by the Free State government during the war (typically without trial, and in reprisal for IRA assassinations), with the internments of the later 1930s and early ‘40s, when De Valera was Taoiseach (Prime Minister). The IRA of the latter period was a poorly organized outfit with little public support. Internment broke down the organization further but this did not happen in a context where the country was at war with itself. Neither did the IRA’s futile bombing campaign in Britain at the time do anything other than further alienate public support in Ireland. In 1922-23 the Free State’s actions were undeniably brutal, but succeeded because a large majority of the population supported the legitimacy of the Free State in opposition to the IRA. So much for Roberts’s attack on Hari’s sloppiness.

If there is any analogy to be made between Ireland and Iraq on this point, it is to the early 1970s, when internment increased IRA support abroad and galvanized recruitment at home, with the policy itself and what Joe Lee called “the policital illiteracy of the army in implementing it” providing “a hitherto inconceivable surge of recruitment to the IRA.”

Finally, via Thoreau comes this report on General Petraeus’s current assessment of the surge, with Fantasy Ireland making another appearance:


BAGHDAD, April 21 — Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the ongoing increase of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in the country has achieved “modest progress” but has also met with setbacks such as a rise in devastating suicide bombings and other problems that leave uncertain whether his counterinsurgency strategy will ultimately succeed. … It is virtually impossible to eliminate the suicide bombings, the commanders acknowledged. “I don’t think you’re ever going to get rid of all the car bombs,” Petraeus said. “Iraq is going to have to learn — as did, say, Northern Ireland — to live with some degree of sensational attacks.” A more realistic goal, he said, but one that has eluded U.S. and Iraqi forces, is to prevent the bombers from causing “horrific damage.”

In fairness to Petraeus, it seems like he is at least trying to introduce a measure of reality into assessments of the situation in Baghdad. What about his analogy to Northern Ireland? It’s worth pointing out that there is still “some degree” of distance between the present situation in Iraq and that of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Even during the worst years, Northern Ireland typicially suffered fewer conflict-related deaths per year than Iraq presently suffers per week. Of course, Iraq is a much larger and more populous area than Northern Ireland. The point here is that those roughly hundred deaths a year over thirty years in the North was quite sufficient to make the conflict dominate the political life of the region and consume substantial amounts of time, energy and money in the two countries trying to deal with the problem.

Even if violence in Iraq dropped to the per capita equivalent of Northern Ireland, we should bear in mind that the spillover effects of conflicts like this do not scale linearly. That is, the absolute number of attacks matters even if the per capita rate isn’t off the charts. For example, as Thoreau points out—and I’ve discussed before—were they to happen in the U.S., even a very small fraction of the “sensational attacks” Iraq is presently suffering would probably be enough to provoke an enormous political and legal backlash in the United States. (Much as the 9/11 attacks did: calculating per capita rates won’t help you explain the character and size of the U.S. response in that case.) A related point is that Iraqi insurgents are able to mount attacks of a much larger scale than anything ever perpetrated in Northern Ireland. In thirty five years of conflict in the North, only one bombing—Omagh, in 1998—killed more than twenty people. (Related bombings outside the North, in Dublin and Birmingham in 1974, killed 26 and 21 people, respectively.) Even if things improve in the direction Petraeus wants, the situation will still be pretty damn bad.

{ 35 comments }

1

dearieme 04.22.07 at 10:41 pm

“the 77 IRA prisoners executed by the Free State government during the [civil] war (typically without trial, and in reprisal for IRA assassinations”: I’ve often wondered why the effectiveness of that technique has not been more widely discussed. Or emulated.

2

tibblets 04.22.07 at 10:43 pm

It dismays me that a nasty little troll like Andrew Roberts is taken seriously by anyone, even if it is hardly surprising.

3

Kieran Healy 04.22.07 at 10:57 pm

dearieme — My understanding is that its success in shortening the war is by no means taken for granted amongst historians. (The toxic effect of this round of assassinations and executions on Irish politics for the next 70 years is not controversial, though.) An important point is that the executions did not create or enhance the legitimacy of and widespread support for the Free State government — they presupposed and depended upon it. Pursuit of such a policy is risky at the best of times, but in circumstances where a sizable chunk of the public doesn’t support you it would be a disaster. Indeed, this is pretty much what happened to the British Government in 1916 as it executed the rebels after the Easter Rising, in the face of public opposition.

4

dsquared 04.22.07 at 11:01 pm

the Northern Ireland numeraire discussed, with considerable debt to Marc Mulholland.

5

P O'Neill 04.22.07 at 11:22 pm

Iraq seems far closer to Bosnia rather than NI. In the former one got the many deaths from sniper activity that would rarely make the news, and then the large scale shelling of crowded areas that would cause mass casualties and get the headlines for a few days. Of course Iraq can’t even manage a few days of headlines from a single atrocity now — the 180 dead in Baghdad in Wednesday are already long gone in the news business. I expect little from Bush at this point, but it’s disturbing that Blair still doesn’t seem to grasp the disaster that has been created.

6

astrongmaybe 04.22.07 at 11:23 pm

Kind of on-topic…
Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin apparently called their poor daughter “Ireland”. With sister “Malta” and brother “Chad” I wonder?
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/6581411.stm

7

JK 04.22.07 at 11:24 pm

It’s also worth noting that violence in Northern Ireland was never as indiscriminate or sectarian as it appears to be in Iraq. There were a few exceptions on the Republican side (e.g. some INLA actions) and many more amongst the Loyalists (e.g. the Shankill Butchers) but there was always a bigger framework of political conflict that seems missing in Iraq.

It is no co-incidence that the effectively random civillian casualties of the Omagh bombing effectively ended the Real IRA campaign. Prior to the bombing there were grounds to believe the Real IRA might generate some popular support in Republican areas. After the bombing I heard reports of mature Republican men crying in public for the first time in their lives.

Of course the distinction between Iraq and earlier colonial wars (whether in the Middle East or Ireland) is lost on the likes of Andrew Roberts. I’m pretty sure he just sees them all as a bunch of bloodthirsty wogs.

8

Profane 04.22.07 at 11:52 pm

What jk said. In Northern Ireland attacks executed with the purpose of maximizing civilian casualties were the exceptions, rather than the rule as seems to be the case in Iraq. The same can be said for the odd spillover attack in the Republic, and the frequent spillover attacks in England.

9

Barry 04.23.07 at 2:49 am

Can we send these neo-con academics to teach at universities in Iraq? Let’s set up an ‘Anbar University of Infidel Studies and the Corruption of Pure Iraqi Maidens’. That should attract the suicide bombers like flies.

10

nick s 04.23.07 at 3:22 am

Well, the ‘peace lines’ in Baghdad are now apparently non-starters. The Halliburton concrete subcontractor will not be pleased. Nor will any budding muralistas.

As for Roberts, he seems to be on a mission to raise people’s respect for Niall Ferguson.

11

Thers 04.23.07 at 5:22 am

Would it be gauche to point out to Roberts that whatever the success of de Valera’s ant-insurgent internment policies in the 30s and 40s, de Valera himself did time in the 19-teens for… um, insurgency?

12

abb1 04.23.07 at 7:19 am

It’s also worth noting that violence in Northern Ireland was never as indiscriminate or sectarian as it appears to be in Iraq.

I don’t think we have any idea about the motives of each individual attack in Iraq, except when it’s an anti-coalition attack. You hear about a minibus blown up; what was that incident – sectarian violence? some kind of retaliation? collaborationists executed? accident, something else was targeted? criminal non-political violence?

Was it indiscriminate and/or sectarian? That’s the impression, but we just don’t know.

13

jay bee 04.23.07 at 10:45 am

Thanks for the post Kieran – while I saw the original Roberts quote I hadn’t seen his response accusing Hari of sloppiness! Brilliant

The point Roberts was trying to make was that Dev dealt ruthlessly with the IRA remnants he had left behind when Fianna Fail – witness the executions of republican prisoners convicted by military tribunals under the Emergency Powers legislation – but lets not start a new thread about who killed more IRA men, Dick Mulcahy or Eamonn de Valera.

Still bonkers for Roberts to say it could be applied to Iraq – he might as well propose area bombing as the solution

14

joejoejoe 04.23.07 at 11:38 am

Roughly the same number of people were killed in Iraq in Feb. and March 2007 (3506 dead, BBC) as were killed in the entire history of The Troubles (3524 dead, CAIN). Adjusted for population there was as much killing in Iraq in 30 months as there was in Northern Ireland in 32 years. The death toll in the BBC story cites the Iraqi Health Ministry for it’s figures, figures that are roughly 1/9th of the death toll in the Iraq Mortality Study published in The Lancet. Given all of the above I’m not sure how much credit Gen. Petraeus deserves for making his ridiculous analogy. A better analogy would be Iraqis will have to learn to live with a situation worse than they had under Saddam.

15

Thom 04.23.07 at 12:26 pm

The ‘plastic paddy’ phenomenon baffles me. Why are there no welsh-themed pubs, or international st patrick’s day celebrations? It can’t all be down to Guinness, surely.

Back to topic, can internment ever be successful in winning hearts and minds? In Ireland, heavy handed policing was more successful in creating Bobby Sands style martyrs than in putting down opposition

16

K R Hasan 04.23.07 at 12:39 pm

The IRA almost invariably phoned in a warning to the police before setting off its bombs in the 1970s. That was a different era altogether.

17

otto 04.23.07 at 12:48 pm

Hari on Roberts in TNR:
This is a recurring theme in Roberts’s work, with obvious appeal to Bush: that nationalist sentiments can be successfully crushed with massive violence. He claimed, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in February, that “when you see Arab nationalism today, … that simply would not have happened had there been British troops [remaining] in the [Suez] canal zone.”

Tho’ no fan of Roberts, I didn’t enjoy Hari’s piece or its showcasing in TNR. The attitude he attributes to Roberts is of course the attitude of many Israel lobby types in relation to the Palestinians and the Arab world in general today, including the revisionist attitude to Suez. Here we see the TNR two-step: critical condemnation of the Bush administration policies which TNR has supported, attributing those policies to an underlying attitude of bigotry and colonialism, utterly insouciant about the very similar underlying attitude of bigotry and colonialism that courses through TNR’s attitudes to the Palestinians and the Arabs in general. There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between General Sharon and General Dyer.

18

otto 04.23.07 at 12:49 pm

Kieran

One more thing: I can’t help but ask who is appearing in that extraordinary photo?

19

Robin Green 04.23.07 at 1:04 pm

Well, no. A point that is not widely appreciated is that attacks directed against coalition forces still form the majority of attacks in Iraq. Because they involve a lot of remote-control bombing and suicide-bombing, however, there are obviously going to be many civilians killed in those attacks (“collateral damage” in the American jargon) – especially when you include the civilians accidentally and deliberately killed in response by the American patrols.

20

Robin Green 04.23.07 at 1:05 pm

That was in reply to comment 8 by the way.

21

Karl Steel 04.23.07 at 1:06 pm

Otto, for context see here.

22

Barry 04.23.07 at 1:10 pm

“In fairness to Petraeus, it seems like he is at least trying to introduce a measure of reality into assessments of the situation in Baghdad. “

Once Petraeus starts spouting absolute 100% like that, fairness demands that he be classified with the other Bush appointees – dishonest wh*resons (and -daughters).

Which really stinks, because the other hallmark of Bush appointees is absolute incompetancy at everything except domestic USA politics.

23

otto 04.23.07 at 1:47 pm

Thank you Karl

24

Jim E-H 04.23.07 at 2:04 pm

The ‘plastic paddy’ phenomenon baffles me. Why are there no welsh-themed pubs, or international st patrick’s day celebrations? It can’t all be down to Guinness, surely.

It’s because Irish-Americans became prominent regional politicians in the early and middle 20th Century, and reminding everyone of their Irishness was a good way to get their Irish-American constituents to vote for them. Similarly, Columbus Day is a national holiday in the US because of Italian-Americans.

25

Dale Sunning and Anne F.O'Blacht 04.23.07 at 2:33 pm

“Back to topic, can internment ever be successful in winning hearts and minds? In Ireland, heavy handed policing was more successful in creating Bobby Sands style martyrs than in putting down opposition”

Gotta say, Thatcher’s policies re. the Maze and the Hunger Strikers, in retrospect made No Sense At All to me (essentially her hard line attitude set the Shinners up on their upward path to supplant the SDLP).

Then I remembered that her close personal friend, Airey Neave (who was also first British officer to escape from Colditz) was assassinated by a carbomb by the IRA in 1979. Hence Thatcher’s huge miscalculation.

26

P O'Neill 04.23.07 at 3:07 pm

Airey Neave was an INLA job. But in Maggie’s mind, same difference.

27

Doug 04.23.07 at 3:34 pm

18: Mr. O’Roarke, obvsly.

28

otto 04.23.07 at 4:23 pm

Just to say that I like CT’s Hibernoblogging. Let’s have more of it.

29

Jon H 04.23.07 at 6:27 pm

“It’s because Irish-Americans became prominent regional politicians in the early and middle 20th Century, and reminding everyone of their Irishness was a good way to get their Irish-American constituents to vote for them. Similarly, Columbus Day is a national holiday in the US because of Italian-Americans.”

That doesn’t begin to explain it. There’s no Italian equivalent of people (Irish or not) wearing green on St. Patrick’s day. Nor are there zillions of Italian bars around, the way Irish pubs are omnipresent and frequently not even owned or operated by Irish people.

I think the main thing in the US is the strong association of “Irish” with social drinking, ie, *fun times*. “Italian” is associated with food and (like it or not) the mob, thus there are no Columbus Day pub crawls, but there are plenty of Italian restaurants and pizza joints.

30

harry b 04.23.07 at 8:56 pm

#25 — but Thatcher had nothing to do with internment, and while she was hard line during the hunger strike, her government post the hunger strike began the softening of policy (despite maintaining a hard line in public, and this started before and continued despite the Grand bombing). I think that British officials understood that internment was a disaster never to be repeated — i’ve even spoken to a couple of Tory MPs who admitted that the PTA was also a disaster, but one that could not be revoked for political reasons.

31

dsquared 04.23.07 at 10:24 pm

The ‘plastic paddy’ phenomenon baffles me. Why are there no welsh-themed pubs, or international st patrick’s day celebrations? It can’t all be down to Guinness, surely.

no, yes it can. The modern St Patrick’s Day experience/craze has a hell of a lot to do with the marketing department of Diageo, for the very good reason that they have as near as dammit a monopoly on worldwide stout, so they know that they can promote the festival without pouring marketing dollars in someone else’s tank. If the Andorrans had a cultural tradition of drinking Miller Lite and only Miller Lite then you bet your bippy that St Merixtell’s Day would be a bigger event than it is.

32

Andrew Taggart 04.24.07 at 2:05 am

To Otto/#17: Well, except for the fact that General Dyer personally ordered troops to open fire on a non-violent civilian demonstration in Armistsar and stated in a inquiry (apologies if this is Attenbourogh taking historical licenses) that he would have used machineguns if he could have brought them to bear. Whereas Sharon…err…didn’t do anything like that. Until you have evidence of Sharon telling the Maronites to go in and do their worst and he’ll look the other way or ORDERING them to kill men, women and children, Sabra and Shatilla, as horrible as they were, are simply not morally the same thing. This is NOT an excuse for Sharon. I am just sick of seeing this type of cheap ahistorical analogy seep in every time Israel/Palestine comes up. Attack Sharon on his own terms and for what he did, there is quite enough there without chucking in strained historical analogies.

As for internment and the six counties/northern ireland vs. Iraq, the level of violence, the nature of the insurgency and the alignment of forces is so radically different that lessons one way or the other cannot usefully be drawn. To take a perhaps obvious example, the UK could rely on the RUC and the UDR from day one (and one of the things they had to do early on is remove the thuggish but enthusiastic B Specials). Whereas outside of the Peshmerga the story of Iraq is the absence of forces of order and the inability of the coalition to call them into being. Perhaps Ireland 1798?

33

Colleen 04.24.07 at 6:43 pm

Post #8 stated “…In Northern Ireland attacks executed with the purpose of maximizing civilian casualties were the exceptions, rather than the rule as seems to be the case in Iraq. The same can be said for the odd spillover attack in the Republic, and the frequent spillover attacks in England.”
I have to disagree. The attacks in Northern Ireland were definitely intended to have civilian casualties. That is why the IRA bombed stores and hotels. Yes, they did bomb hotels. I was in Lurgan in about 1977 and visited The Orchard – a very nice hotel. When I went back in about 1979 or 1980 it had been bombed TWICE by the IRA. Civilian targets were absolutely the weapon of choice for the IRA in Northern Ireland – I’d venture to say probably in England, too, with the exception of attacks on the royal family. And, yes, I do have relatives in Northern Ireland. My mom was born there.

34

rea 04.25.07 at 1:53 pm

Why are there no welsh-themed pubs

We had a Welsh-themed establishment here in my home town, but the Health Department closed it down–too many people were taking leeks in the barroom . . .

35

huxley 04.27.07 at 3:26 pm

Why are there no welsh-themed pubs

Hey honey, how about we go to that Welsh pub? What was it’s name again … uhmmm … oh yeah, the Llanfairpwllgwyngyll-gogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysilio-gogogoch Pub! No, the one on Lower Water Street. You’re thinking of the Gorsafawddacha’idraigodanheddogleddollôn penrhynareurdraethceredigion Tavern. Okay, meet you there …

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