Saturday, March 7, 2015

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A Reply to Parr

Mike Burke responds to Conall Parr in an ongoing debate around the work of Henry Patterson. Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years. 
I have a few comments about Connal Parr’s caricature of my arguments and his railing against positions I do not hold. 

Parr reminds me twice that Sinn Fein is part of the Stormont government.  I really don’t understand the purpose of this intervention, other than to suggest that I’m so ignorant as to be unaware of such a development.   I have known, for a little while, that Sinn Fein participates in government.  I’ve even heard that Martin McGuinness is deputy First Minister.

Parr suggests that I present myself as non-partisan.  I don’t.  To support his specious argument, Parr quotes these remarks I made about Patterson’s book: “A less partisan purpose and more balanced approach to the evidence would in all likelihood yield a different conclusion.”  As the next few sentences of my original post make clear, I’m explicitly comparing Patterson’s book, not to my own work, but to the work of another author, who researched a similar topic to that of Patterson in roughly the same time period but who came to quite different conclusions.  This seemed to me to be an apt comparison.  Parr’s rendition that I am contrasting Patterson’s partisanship to my non-partisanship is a particularly blatant misrepresentation of what I said.  

I do have a particular position on Irish politics, which I’ve never tried to hide and which is not difficult to discern from my writing.  Parr’s representation of it as “anti-partitionism” is however a gross oversimplification.  Parr claims that my position is that “the Border is to blame for all the woes of Irish life and society.” I suppose that having already characterized me as incredibly ignorant, Parr could really believe that this is my position.  It’s not, and there’s nothing in my post to suggest that it is.  Parr is just making things up. 

One of my problems with Patterson’s analysis is that he marginalizes the circumstances of partition in institutionalizing and aggravating conflict in the north.  I think this is an odd omission in a book on the role of the border during the ‘Troubles’.  There are many causes of the emergence and persistence of the northern conflict.  To focus on only one cause, Dublin’s unwillingness to meet London’s border security demands, runs the risk of exaggerating the impact of that cause and underestimating the influence of others. 

I think a partisan purpose coupled with an unbalanced approach to the evidence is a particularly unfortunate combination, and this is one of my main criticisms of Patterson’s work.   I disagree with the revisionist approach to understanding the conflict in the north but rather than just summarily dismiss it, as Parr suggests I’ve done, I think it’s necessary to engage it.  Trying to understand an interpretive frame with which you disagree and the nature of evidence presented in that frame can be useful checks against imbalance.  

It’s true, as Parr says, that criticisms of revisionism are “so very old,” almost as old as revisionism itself.  But I’m not sure what this says about my criticism of Patterson’s work. I suppose that as revisionist accounts continue to be published, critiques of them will follow.   

Parr makes the obvious point that just because a particular work focuses on unionists, loyalists, nationalists or republicans does not automatically make the author a proponent of the views of the work’s subjects.  I’m not sure for whom Parr is making this point.  But it’s also the case that some works explicitly adopt the political causes of their subjects or have manifestly obvious policy implications that favour some groups over others.  Patterson’s book on the border is an example, and I explained why in my earlier post.  It seems to me that more than a few revisionist works have reproduced the very Whiggish present-mindedness of some of the nationalist views they criticize.

Parr misunderstands my comments on diversity and acceptance of alternative paradigms.  Although in Parr’s view I’m not aware of the party-political makeup of the current Stormont Executive, I am aware of some of the rigid intolerances of traditional nationalism and how those were compounded when tied to the project of state-building.[1]   And I think in part, but only one part, revisionism was a reaction to this.  But it seems to me that much revisionist writing has replicated this intolerant ethos.  Here, I think Brendan Clifford is less relevant than Joseph Ruane who, commenting on a vicious exchange related to the revisionist controversy, warned against criticism that “attempts to marginalise and silence opposing views” and exclude them from meaningful debate.[2] 

Finally, Parr and I continue to disagree on Patterson’s conclusions about ethnic cleansing. In the book, Patterson’s questionable case for ethnic cleansing is based on a very one-sided view of what constitutes valid evidence, which is anything but impartial.  And the book’s conclusions about ethnic cleansing are directly contradicted by some of Patterson’s other recent research findings.

[1]I’m also aware that nationalism emerged partly out of the imperialist-colonial trope of Britain’s civilizing mission in Ireland.
[2]Joseph Ruane, “Colonial Legacies and Cultural Reflexivities” Etudes Irlandaises 19:2 (1994): 116.