Fianna Fail, Partition and Northern Ireland, 1926-1971 by Stephen Kelly
Reviewed by Diarmaid Ferriter
Fianna Fail, Partition and Northern Ireland, 1926-1971
Irish Academic Press
Fianna Fáil had clearly been unprepared for the outbreak of the Troubles, but by 1971 it had settled on certain things, including a new engagement with constitutional nationalists in the North – a historic shift – and the dispelling of the suggestion that violence was legitimate in pursuit of a united Ireland.
The book is not without its problems. It is too long and repetitive, and the four chapters covering the 1950s and 1960s should be two. The author has a curiously dysfunctional relationship with the comma and semi-colon, and his prose is undermined by sloppy phrasing and poor editing (“ability to reign in his younger colleagues” or “tow the party line”). Too often he characterises the moderates as “adept” and those wanting a more aggressive approach as “irrational” (a desire for unification or anger at the treatment of nationalists in the North was hardly irrational) and does not explore sufficiently the attitude of unionists, who are barely even shadows in this book, towards Fianna Fáil.
While he maintains that the book is unique because “it explores FF’s attitude towards Northern Ireland from the perspective of the entire apparatus of the organisation”, he does not adequately address the issue of how much weight can be attached to different perspectives and how to quantify grassroots dissent. This is reflected in an ambiguity in characterising those voices; they are described, variously, as “ a cohort”, “ a consortium”, “a vocal minority”, “ a selection” or a “vocal section”, but often on the basis of a limited correspondence.
Overall, though, the book is very well researched, authoritative and nuanced, and the central thesis – that Fiana Fáil failed to formulate a constructive, coherent or long-term policy on Northern Ireland, which resulted in political impotence – is convincing and supported by the wealth of fresh sources marshalled.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. The paperback edition of his latest book, Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s will be published next month by Profile Books.