Resistance Was Not Futile

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Review of 'The Irish War of Independence', Michael Hopkinson, Gill and Macmillan £24.99

The 1980s and 1990s were dominated by attempts by various academics to undermine any notion of popular mobilisation against the ruling order. Nowhere did that reach such a pitch as in Ireland. Many books and newspaper columns tried to denigrate the war fought for Ireland's independence from Britain between 1919 and 1921.

The starting point for most of these 'postmodernists' was topical and not historical. They were vehemently opposed to the Republican struggle in Northern Ireland and determined to paint Republicans as sadistic killers and 'godfathers of crime'. Yet because today's Republicans claim to stand in the tradition of the earlier IRA war for independence, these academics and journalists were forced to extend their denunciation of Republicans down the decades and many whitewashed the vicious record of British colonialism in Ireland. Things have moved on over the last decade, and there has been a fine crop of books dissecting the Republican war at the start of the last century and demonstrating how British repression and sheer bloody-mindedness fuelled support for the IRA and Sinn Fein.

Michael Hopkinson's book 'The Irish War of Independence' is a good, even-handed account of the military campaign which forced Britain to withdraw from all but the north east corner of Ireland. In particular it focuses on the two central areas of IRA military operations--Munster (and County Cork in particular) and Dublin. The latter's importance is highlighted in the book. The British failure to 'pacify' the capital city meant they were always on the back foot and gave encouragement to Irish resistance.

Hopkinson shows that the IRA did not have to militarily defeat the British security forces. Their continued and growing resistance represented a political defeat for an overstretched and overextended British Empire. Once it became clear to the British prime minister Lloyd George that his policy of repression was not working, Britain had to accept a negotiated settlement with the Republicans. Lloyd George does not come out of this book well. Until the last he was determined to use repression to defeat the IRA.

The book ends rather abruptly with the onset of the British-IRA truce and the negotiations that led to the partition of Ireland and a civil war in the new southern state. Partly this is because Hopkinson is the author of a study of that civil war. But because he only takes the story up until the signing of the treaty he does not bring home the political (and dare one say class) weaknesses of the Republican leadership which led them to a shoddy and unnecessary compromise.

Hopkinson's book is a good starting point for those wanting a good introduction to this crucial episode in the fight for Irish freedom. It is quite old fashioned, in that it concentrates on 'high politics' and the military campaign to the virtual exclusion of the popular mobilisations which gave expression to the mass support for independence that existed. Neither does it draw extensively on the increasing number of local studies of the Republican struggle which show how, in the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, subsequent British repression and the threat to extend conscription to Ireland fuelled support for the Republicans and set off a train of intensifying militancy which broke out into armed struggle in 1919.

The question of class is virtually absent as well. There was a class dynamic to the Irish independence struggle--sometimes submerged, sometimes open. The British were haunted by fears of the Republican struggle linking with the Bolsheviks in Russia and its effects on the growing opposition to its own imperial rule in Egypt and India. On the latter they were right to worry. The Irish war of independence acted as an inspiration for generations of future fighters against British imperialism. For that alone we bear those Republican fighters of eight decades ago a debt.

However, this is a book that is well worth reading and it is a welcome sign that its success in Ireland demonstrates that the pro-British, postmodernist tide has waned.