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A Treatise on Northern Ireland: Tearing up myths about the Troubles

Brendan O’Leary’s three-volume book is a comprehensive and essential guide to the North: past, present and future

A Treatise on Northern Ireland
A Treatise on Northern Ireland
Author: Brendan O'Leary
ISBN-13: 978-0199243341
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Guideline Price: £75

No reader should feel intimidated by Brendan O’Leary’s three-volume A Treatise on Northern Ireland. As accessible as it is erudite, it bears comparison with JJ Lee’s classic study of failure, Ireland, 1912-1985: Politics and Society (1989), which secured a wide readership. Here, the temporal span is longer – O’Leary, Lauder professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, peers back into the 16th century and predicts into the 2020s and beyond. And while the great failure of 1920-21, partition, gives the book its subject, it also concerns success – the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

O’Leary’s Treatise arrives as an early 100th birthday present for Northern Ireland: the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act is in December 2020, and that of the opening of the Belfast parliament in June 2021. Yes, that parliament was prorogued in 1972 and then abolished in 1973, and the Act repealed in 1998, but the North is still with us.

Those who have called for taxpayer-funded birthday “celebrations” may be rummaging for a gift receipt. Among the “glib or accusatory writings or rewritings of history” which O’Leary tears up are “claims that British intelligence defeated the IRA; that the IRA alone caused the Troubles; that internment worked; that the civil-rights movement was predominantly hijacked by neo-Trotskyists; that the Stormont regime was a ‘normal’ British local government; that the conflict was overwhelmingly sectarian rather than national or ethnic in character; that integration could have worked, at any time, but for papist resistance; that the southern Irish were never interested in reunification; that unionists were always willing to accept power-sharing – they just did not want any role for the Irish government; that the Good Friday Agreement was ‘Sunningdale for slow-learners’; that 9/11 led the IRA to decommission; that the RUC did not need to be reformed out of existence; that loyalist violence was simply reactive rather than proactive; that British policy has always been consistent, since 1921, 1925, 1949, 1968, 1972, 1979, 1985 or 1998 – that is, depending on the proponent’s selective illusion.”

That is some list – and far from exhaustive. For example, O’Leary gives the lie to the lazy notion that the South was the evil Catholic twin of the North:


“Protestants were not actively displaced by political decisions from high-status positions in the public or private sectors or the professions in the cities. . . . No parallel occurred to the systematic gerrymandering or active disenfranchisement in the North. There was no banning of minority political parties. Protestants were treated as equal citizens, with full private cultural rights, and their religious institutions did not experience discriminatory public policy.


While making these observations, O’Leary emphasises, in a useful discussion, given current concerns about language, that the South imposed its Irish-language policies on all citizens: “Protestants qua Protestants were not expressly targeted”.

Colonialism, the first volume, opens with an extensive “audit” of the Troubles, that lays out, with statistical and graphical clarity, the horror of the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s – who did what to whom and at what cost – before proceeding to explain the deep origins of the crisis with a magisterial survey of Irish history, that sparkles with lively interventions in key debates. It is here that O’Leary performs a carefully controlled explosion on the argument that 18th-century Ireland was a typical ancien régime society. Ireland, O’Leary argues, was defined by colonialism.

Not all his arguments will win cheers from all nationalists. Reflecting on the Famine, which some but not all nationalists have represented as genocide, O’Leary finds no evidence for premeditated and intentional homicide of the genus, but argues that British governments after Peel might be open to a charge of “geno-slaughter”, a term derived from manslaughter-unpremeditated and unintentional killing. Especially valuable, as we approach its centenary, is his consideration of the division of Ireland in a comparative analysis of partition.

The second volume, Control, compares the two states born of partition and civil wars. It rigorously analyses the South’s incremental decolonisation, paying particular attention to its treatment of its Protestant minority. Employing Ian Lustick’s concept of “control systems”, it no less rigorously analyses how the Ulster Unionist Party came to control Northern Ireland from 1921 through 1972: control was achieved “not as part of a grand plan, or through a superbly organised conspiracy, but incrementally, through numerous tactical and strategic choices, with ratchet effects”. And so accreting modifications of electoral systems, the education system, policing and justice, programmes for economic development and the like made Northern Ireland what David Trimble had the grace to call “a cold house for Catholics”. This volume ends with a lucid analysis of how the UUP lost control, precipitating British military intervention, the proroguing (and later abolition) of Stormont, and the introduction of direct rule.

Consociation and Confederation, the third volume, traces the long road to the Good Friday Agreement, stopping to perform autopsies on failed political initiatives in the 1970s and 1980s. Consociation, for the uninitiated, is power-sharing between groups according to principles of parity, proportionality, autonomy, and veto-rights; confederation is power-sharing between states (the EU is a confederation). O’Leary provides a thorough analysis of the making of the Agreement and its partial implementation over the best part of 20 years, concluding with predictions (“Twelve Hostages to Fortune”), not least of which is that reunification is coming and that it will have economic benefits for people in the current North and the current South.


Throughout the three volumes, the range of the political scientist’s reading, not only in his own discipline, but in Anthropology, Demography, Economics, and, especially, History, should bring a blush to the cheeks of many scholars who have written on Northern Ireland and, indeed, on the rest of the country.

A Treatise is, in places, witty. O’Leary, who acknowledges having been called an “academic carnivore”, by the official historian of MI5, amusingly settles some scores in endnotes. He will not win friends in Craigavon: the reader learns it is a “failed city – failed in the sense that it has never fused Portadown and Lurgan, and failed in the sense that I have yet to meet someone who says that is where they live.” (III:351)

More generally, A Treatise is written with a deep empathy for the people of a place shaped by long-term historical processes, which O’Leary elaborates, and appallingly short-sighted government, by both Unionists and the British, which he documents. If there is a sense of the pity of it all, and quiet indignation at the injustice of it, there is hope – a conviction that politics that can work. It will have weight too far beyond Ireland, for it is cogently argued by an author with an eye on other “deeply divided societies”.

For sure, there are some errors in 1,200-odd pages: for instance, O’Leary identifies Ireland’s seventh President, Mary Robinson, as its third Protestant one (II:91). But such slips are few and they do not detract from the book’s finely calibrated arguments. If it is the great strength of O’Leary’s scholarship that concepts are clearly defined, a school debater knows sharp definitions can be turned on the bearer. No less than Lee’s Ireland, then, O’Leary’s Treatise will stimulate debate.

There are roads not taken. A Treatise considers the influential argument of David W Miller, in Queen’s Rebels (1978), that Unionists are a people without a nation, defined by a “contractarian” relationship with the monarch – and not just “contrarian”, as O’Leary remarks. And he offers a compelling critique, arguing that they are now, regardless of what they may have been, British nationalists. However, later work by the same Miller, who has ranked among “Ulster’s” more certain defenders in the historical profession (disclosure: Miller supervised my PhD), might have more fully engaged his attention, not least as it brings the damage done by partition into view.


Specifically, from the 1990s, Miller adopted a “regional systems approach” to the study of Ireland. Rather than conceiving a “region” as an area defined by a dominant characteristic – predominantly Protestant versus predominantly Catholic districts, hurling versus football counties – he focused on internally differentiated regions, with an advantaged core and a disadvantaged periphery, separated from other regions by watersheds (hills, mountains). And Miller’s map of regions would have added to this book (as too would a topographic map), for readers would see that the creation of Northern Ireland involved slicing three regions, centred on Derry, Enniskillen and Newry, all of which lost chunks of their peripheries and in the case of Derry a good deal of its core, the exceptional farmland stretching west to Letterkenny; hence, Ireland has 208 border crossings while Norway, with a border in the mountains, has a fraction of that number.

Only one of four regions in the north of Ireland, that centred on Belfast, is not slashed by the border. That region is where unionism is strongest. And in 1998 – within the lifetime of many people born before partition – its largest city elected its first nationalist mayor, Alban McGuinness of the SDLP, a party that two decades later is (or is not) becoming Fianna Fáil.

Given that unionism lost its majority in the 2017 Assembly elections and that electoral trends suggest the contrivance that is Northern Ireland (a region and three bits) will not remain long in the United Kingdom, it required an extraordinary failure of leadership for the DUP to pick a fight with nationalists by denying them cultural provisions enjoyed in Britain. Opting to negotiate future relationships and constitutional structures from a weaker position is the politics of Keep Digging. To have compounded that failure by stomping for “UKEXIT” (as O’Leary rightly terms it), when the DUP could have lobbied for special status within the EU (“the best of both of worlds”), will baffle outsiders unaware of unionism’s history of bad decisions, as recorded here.

Paradoxically, the UKEXIT imbroglio has highlighted the extent of regional reintegration over the last twenty years. People from the lobbed-off peripheries once again routinely shop and socialise in the cores; they do not hesitate to attend sporting and cultural events in Newry, Enniskillen and Derry.

Much of that reintegration has been an organic development, helped by the peace secured by the GFA but, notwithstanding some EU “peace dividend” programmes, not engineered by it. The Agreement’s Second Strand had high-political concerns, creating a North-South Ministerial Council, a North-South Interparliamentary Body and a North-South Consultative Body; it was about connecting Dublin and Belfast, not Clones and Newtownbutler. Certainly, the Council has done much good, but despite having had two Ministers for Education from the same border-severed region (Martin McGuinness and Joe McHugh) students from Buncrana still find it vastly cheaper to go 250 km to university in Dublin than 25 km to Derry, and the north-west lacks the economic driver that is a successful university – an issue in the kindling of the Troubles and yet to be raked out in the ashes.

Irish unity

Again, A Treatise is clear that reunification is on the cards. O’Leary foresees a choice between a) a simple unitary state, b) a devolved Northern Ireland (with consociational arrangements such as exist today in the North) within a sovereign Ireland, or, less likely, c) an Irish confederation of two states, with consociational arrangements in the North (III:316). But with housing estates spreading west from Derry, across the border, towards Burnfoot, why would the Foyle constituency opt for any arrangement involving the continued existence of Northern Ireland over complete reintegration?

While speculating on its form, O’Leary avoids predicting the moment of reunification. Among other factors, the hardness of UKEXIT and the possibility of Scotland exiting the UK will influence voters. However, he accepts as a “reasonable projection” that “however counted, Catholics will outnumber Protestants in the 2021 census, and that nationalists and unionists will approach electoral balance followed by a slight nationalist advantage by the end of the 2020s”.

Most children born in the North in the next six months will start primary school in 2025 – and the years between cradle and classroom fly by.

Until then, with unionism running down the demographic clock, we are either stuck in the aftermath or we are entering a prelude, remembering the dead, with a “decade of centenaries”, while we have fathomed neither the depths of their failure, in 1920-21, nor the capacity of the living to fail again.

The rich gift that is Brendan O’Leary’s A Treatise on Northern Ireland helps us to fathom both.

Breandán Mac Suibhne’s The End of Outrage (OUP, 2017) recently received the Royal Irish Academy’s Michel Déon Biennial Prize for Nonfiction