You always hope what you write will be engaged with, but it is a special thing when what you do is pored over in the manner of Mike Burke’s exegesis on my 800-word review of Henry Patterson’s book Ireland’s Violent Frontier (2013). I have never seen anything like it, am more than a little flattered, and would direct him to some of my other articles and book reviews, in the hope that he could write an extended piece about them too.
However, leaving aside some slight over-reading (e.g. in the section about Ruairí Brugha), Burke’s first principal error is to state that I ‘share the same set of research assumptions and beliefs’ as Henry Patterson. This sweeping, false characterization is something I am happy to correct. I’m afraid I’m my own man and would not concur with a number of Henry Patterson’s positions. There are many things which differentiate my own work from Patterson, both in its methodology (e.g. use of interviews vs. public records), subject(s), and analysis. Of course what this is about is trying to bracket myself with Patterson and other historians as simply ‘Revisionist’ and/or ‘Unionist’. Alas I could not be construed as the latter, as a cursory glance at my other work would indicate.
The crux of Burke’s argument is that Patterson – and by extension myself – ‘ignore partition’. This represents a truism because Patterson’s book is not about partition; it is about violence along the border and Anglo-Irish relations during the Troubles (c. 1968–1998). There are books and articles about Partition which are readily available. If academics suffer from following the same ‘paradigm’ – to follow Burke’s unfortunate, rather convoluted phraseology – then they are just as guilty of responding to those works which exist by complaining that it is not the book they would have written.
One thing Burke is right to assert both Patterson and myself are guilty of is an ‘easy acceptance of the northern state’. Indeed I do accept it. The ‘northern state’, also known as Northern Ireland, is a fact. In this sense the ‘paradigm’ I most follow may be called the Reality paradigm. It is born of real experience and understanding of Belfast as well as the basic existence of the border. Burke may not appreciate the existence of the state of Northern Ireland, but it is a fundamental reality – we are not dealing with an abstract, mythical universe where the border can be wished away (with the border, of course, comes a million Ulster Protestants. Their beliefs and aspirations cannot be wished away either).
This is the nub of Burke’s flawed analysis, and it is not – as he tries to couch it – a new ‘diversity’, nor does it represent a ‘different sets of assumptions and beliefs’. It is one of the oldest in existence: anti-partition. It is a school of thought which has been well-propagated over the years. Its tone is akin to something which would have ended up in An Phoblacht in the 1970s, while in its revulsion of revisionism (this is really, again, so very old), there are echoes of the old British and Irish Communist Organization (B&ICO). The difference is Brendan Clifford is a sharper mind – and it may be safe to say a better writer – than Burke. Clifford at one time genuinely shook the Left’s thinking on Ireland; unlike Burke he has thought through Belfast and politics in Ireland, and does it all with all with a bit more dash.
Burke seems to be most riled by my use of the term ‘Dispassionate’; he reacts passionately against this term. I used this about the book because it was the tone of the case he makes throughout. It would have been easy for Patterson to build his book around the plentiful testimony of the anguish and pain of relatives of those Protestants killed in Border areas. He did not do this and instead made the case coldly, dispassionately, academically indeed, for ‘ethnic cleansing’.
One of the marvellous things about Burke’s extended critique of Patterson, myself and the ‘Revisionist school’, is the attempt to which he attempts to present himself as non-partisan in the whole debate. Thus: ‘A less partisan purpose and more balanced approach to the evidence would in all likelihood yield a different conclusion.’ This is where things really begin to unravel for him. The ‘jumble of partisan purpose, research deficiency, and predetermined conclusion’ he accuses Patterson of could just as easily be applied to Burke himself. Instead of coming clean as to his own stance on the matter he attacks Patterson for his ‘his partisan analytical purpose and his politically-inspired method’. As an academic of Burke’s experience should really know by now, the whole point of history is that there are many stories and interpretations, none resting in any kind of objective truth. He tries to cover this by saying he is exemplifying ‘diversity’. In fact he is exemplifying ‘anti-partitionism’.
It takes him a while to get to it, but in an invective-free piece – which he is to be applauded for – Burke’s real objection boils down to ‘revisionist scholarship’. Then there’s this beauty:
During the 50-year existence of the old Stormont regime, nationalists and republicans experienced institutional discrimination from a sectarian polity that relegated them to the status of second-class citizens. The legacy of that regime lingers on today. One part of the legacy is that the Stormont regime spawned an associated Stormont scholarship that relegates nationalist and republicans to the status of second-class research sources, whose views can be ignored or otherwise marginalized in emerging narratives of the nature of politics in the north. The “hierarchy of citizenship” of the Stormont regime and the “hierarchy of victims” of contemporary debates about the past have as an academic corollary the “hierarchy of research subjects”.This is ludicrous, whacky stuff (someone, incidentally, should tell Burke that Sinn Féin are not just in Stormont these days but in government!) The work of Patterson – and I have to say myself – sits about as far apart from ‘the Stormont regime’ as it is possible to imagine (he should check out some of my references to the major party of government, the DUP).
Burke seems to be suggesting that because an academic’s work focusses on Unionism and Ulster Protestants – who’s to say, incidentally, the Protestant working class strain of the latter is doing well from Stormont? – that we are placing Republicans down the ‘hierarchy’. Personally I have written about nationalists and Labour men and women (remember them?) at least as much as Unionists. But to follow his slightly silly construction, is he also unaware that there are in fact many more books about nationalists and republicans being pumped out than there are on Loyalists and Unionists. And because our work may focus on it, does this make us proponents of the view of our subject? Of course not.
When Burke says ‘The real value of multiple paradigms is that authors are challenged to reassess some of their central assumptions and taken-for-granted views about the nature of research’, he forgets – critically – that his own central assumption and ‘taken-for-granted view’ is fundamentally nationalist. In some ways his response to Patterson outs the real polemic at play by Burke: that the Border is to blame for all the woes of Irish life and society. He then returns to his real grudge:
It’s unfortunate that, from the very beginning of the revisionist debate in Ireland, revisionist scholars displayed a rigid intolerance towards alternative viewpoints and defined nationalist-republican interpretations as beyond the academic pale. Revisionists employed a binary logic that set revisionist history against nationalist-republican myth, fact against faith, complexity against simplicity, and reason against emotion, to name but a few of the favoured oppositional categories.
In fact ‘Revisionism’, by now a pejorative term – though again, what history is not a revision of any other? – emerged to offer alternatives to ‘nationalist-republican interpretations’ of most key Irish historical events. The reason why Revisionists faced – and occasionally continue to face obsessive scorn from the likes of Burke – is they were challenging the ‘rigid intolerance towards alternative viewpoints’ of many traditional nationalist orthodoxies. Charles Townshend identifies this towards the end of his book on the Easter Rising:
Myths are politically vital to the process of nation-building, but there has to come a time when, to complete the process of national emancipation, their elisions and fabrications are recognised, and less flattering aspects of the story can be confronted. In place of a linear, teleological story of national liberation, there needs to be awareness of the complexity out of which an alternative story could have emerged.
I note incidentally the thesis of Burke’s argument is derived from an ‘Occasional Paper’ he gave all the way back in 1996 (!), wonderfully entitled ‘Misunderstanding Conflict, Squandering Peace: The Failure of Revisionist Scholarship on Ireland’ (I dearly wish I had seen this). At the very least Burke has displayed some kind of consistency, though I can enlighten him that just as Sinn Féin Republicans are now in government, ‘Revisionist’ historians tended to be staunch supporters of the Peace Process (some were even advisers in it!). Of course such supposed pro-‘Peace’ rhetoric was immensely fashionable then; less so now as the realities of ‘post-conflict’ NI bear down on its population. If Burke shifts his focus away from ravings about revisionists, he may be able to address some of the real problems afflicting contemporary Ireland, north and south.
Finally, Burke may well be right when he says we are ‘immersed in different paradigms’. It is worth ending with an insight from the late Seamus Heaney, which I think speaks to this particular exchange. Heaney remarked on occasion of the traditionalist composer Sean O Riada, a man he got on with. However,I have to say his posturing irked me. Swirling the snifter of brandy and brandishing the cigar. Setting himself up as commissar, interrogating rather than conversing. I remember walking into the Club Bar that week and being asked rather grandly – in front of (Thomas) Kinsella and (John) Montague – “And where do you stand on the North?” I should have said that, unlike the company I was in, I’d stood on it for thirty years.
 Charles Townshend, Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion (London: Allen Lane, 2005), p. 353.
 Quoted in Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), p. 225.