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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .


Special Relationships: Britain, Ireland and the Northern Ireland Problem
Paul Arthur

Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2000
340pp. Biblio. Index. Pb.: 16.99; ISBN 0-85640-688-0.



This book asks why it took thirty years of intense conflict in Northern Ireland to reach an understanding of the problem before a solution could be implemented (at least tentatively). Critical to the answer is the 'malign impact' (p. 1) of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which, while once seen - at least in Britain - as a solution to the Irish Question, had fatal consequences.

It created three 'solitudes' (ibid) centred on Dublin, London and Belfast, with discrete political cultures, competing mind-sets and different kinds of bi-lateral connections (p. 71-2): a 'relationship', if originally negative (given the 'Prospero complex'), between Dublin and London; an 'axis', with periodic disputes about the statuses rotating upon it, between London and Belfast; and a 'stand-off' between Belfast and Dublin. In beginning to bring the 'relationship', 'axis' and 'stand-off' into a set of links sufficient for the 'solitudes' to understand and attempt to overcome the problem, the parties started from a void of half a century.

The book explores compellingly the difficulties of the odyssey from 'solitude' to joint problem-solving eventuating in the Belfast Agreement: not only inter-ethnic but also intra-ethnic differences in the north; competing, overlapping and shifting views in the south of the north and its place in policy; and problems in London over how to deal with the north - in itself (reciprocated in Belfast) and in the context of the dynamics of the London-Dublin relationship. To the interaction of these factors is added consideration of the significance of 'ripe time' and the impact of key politicians and mandarins. Importantly, the book identifies conditions in this ever-moving myriad which made exogenous factors (also ever-changing) impinge decisively and made possible effective third-party intervention - notably the eclipse of empire and both states' historical and modern relations with the US and EU. Running throughout are conceptual challenges (and responses by the parties); what is 'foreign' or not and what are independence, autonomy, sovereignty and interdependence.

If, as suggested, England was the first nation-state and Ireland its first colony (i.e., pre-Great Britain) with Northern Ireland 'left-over', and the cautious optimism of this masterpiece that the last component of the Irish Question can be answered eighty years on, then its findings also imply that the (postmodern) solution to Northern Ireland means, too, the final transformation of Anglo-Irish relations into British-Irish relations. Incidentally, the book has great chapter headings; George Dangerfield would have approved.


Elizabeth Meehan
Director of the Institute of Governance, Public Policy and Social Research, QUB




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