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Stupidest Comparison Ever: Redux September 30, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in Irish History, Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, The Left, The North.

From Garibaldy of these parts and also of here

Northern nationalists love outlandish comparisons about their suffering, a phenomenon described by Liam Kennedy as MOPE – the Most Oppressed People Ever. Particular favorites are Northern Ireland was just like South Africa, and Northern Ireland was like Nazi Germany. While the South African comparison has at least the benefit of the South African Minister for Justice saying he would swap his repressive legislation for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act (as well as the fact that Northern Ireland sees a form of religious apartheid unfortunately willingly practised in education and housing), the comparison with Nazi Germany is nothing short of sickening and offensive.
Yet, (in)famously, it can be found in very influential circles. Father Alec Reid is a highly respected west Belfast Redemptorist priest, who has for decades been an influential facilitator of dialogue, and who undoubtedly played a key role in securing an end to the Provisional campaign. He encouraged early talks between Adams and John Hume, and was one of the independent witnesses to Provo decommissioning. There are also harrowing photographs of him administering the last rites to the two corporals murdered at the funeral of one of Michael Stone’s victims. Clearly an intelligent and compassionate man. And yet, during an angry debate at a public meeting in a Presbyterian church (of all places), he claimed that the treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland was like the treatment of Jews by the Nazis. In fairness to him, he apologised.

This came not long after the elected President of the Irish Republic, Mary Mc Aleese, a northern nationalist herself, disgracefully stated during an interview for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz that Protestants had raised their children to hate Catholics just as Nazis had raised theirs to hate the Jews. Details of both stories can be found here. She also apologised. While the storms of controversy caused by these remarks means that politicians would be careful about repeating them openly, such ideas are deeply embedded in nationalist perceptions of unionists, as the repeated characterisation of the Orange Order as being the same as the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan demonstrates. The lesson we should draw then, is that while discrimination against Northern Catholics was very real, it should be kept in its proper perspective, and comparisons should be made carefully.

While flicking through the current (September/October 2008) edition of History Ireland, I noticed that Simon Prince, an historian at Oxford University, was comparing the situation in pre-1969 Northern Ireland to that of post-war West Germany. Prince recently caused controversy by claiming that Derry’s Catholics had no need to take to the streets in 1968 to get jobs a houses. A claim repeated in his History Ireland article.

What, then, of his German comparison? Using the French sociologist Raymond Aron’s concept of post-war western Europe being characterised by ‘dominant party systems’, he compares Northern Ireland to West Germany. Aron argued that in dominant party systems, opposition parties existed, and ‘intellectual and personal freedoms’ were respected, but that there was no possibility of the government in power being replaced. By 1968, Prince points out, in west Germany, the Christian Democrats had been locked in power since the foundation of the state by a permanent majority of voters, just like the Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. The West German police, Prince points out, were more aggressive towards dissent than the RUC, and the state restricted political activity due to the threat from the rival partitioned state and its supporters, just like in Northern Ireland. He points out that to its enemies, West Germany was the CDU state, just as Northern Ireland was the Orange State in the eyes of its opponents. 1968 in Northern Ireland, he is suggesting, was fundamentally like 1968 in West Germany.

Where to start? Certainly Aron had hit on something. If we look at Scandanavia, west Germany, even France initially, we can see something of the dominant party system in the aftermath of the Second World War. However, not a single one of those states -even west Germany – had been explicitly created with the specific and open intention of forming a permanent political majority behind one party in the way that Northern Ireland had been, in the aftermath of the First World War and not the Second. Alarm bells should be ringing. Prince is mistaking a post-Second World War consensus among the populations of certain countries with broadly keynsian economic policies and welfare states for the carving out and awarding of territory to a political/ethnic group.

In addition, there is the question of discrimination. I am sure that people who actively opposed to the dominant political party in western Europe – especially Communists – had difficulty in securing government jobs, and were subject to harassment. However, there is no suggestion that they were subjected to gerrymandering, discriminatory franchise qualifications, and kept out of houses to protect the majority of the ruling parties. All things which characterised the Stormont regime at a central and local level. Looked at more closely, the comparison Prince draws is facile at best.
The glaring gap in this comparison of course is with the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland was a devolved administration within a state, not an independent state of its own. Its citizens did not enjoy the same rights as did their co-citizens (or subjects if we wish to be strictly accurate) in the rest of the UK, especially in the local government franchise. Surely rather than comparing Northern Ireland to West Germany it makes more sense to compare it to West Lothian?

We ought to examine the work of historians in comparison too. Prince’s work seems to belong in a tradition of conservative historiography that argues that revolutionary agitation actually prevents reform, leading only to chaos and violence. Irish history should be looked at in comparison to other countries. It helps us to understand better our own history. But maybe we should have a moratorium on comparisons with Germany, during the Nazi period and after.


1. Omar Little - September 30, 2008

And who, when he’s at home is Liam Kennedy? MOPE strikes me as a stupid and offensive term. Every group of people who have been oppressed think no-one had it worse then them. Thats a fact of human nature.


2. garibaldy - September 30, 2008


Liam Kennedy is Professor of Economic and Social History at Queen’s.


He has a history of working against intimidation and punishment attacks in Northern Ireland.

I get what you’re saying about MOPE being offensive, but I think it does touch on some of the more irrational descriptions of Irish history over the centuries. I find the Nazi/NI comparisons more offensive.


3. ejh - September 30, 2008

Am I allowed to use the term “Fenians” on here in pursuit of limerick construction?


4. garibaldy - September 30, 2008

Not really my decision, but I don’t see why not.


5. ejh - September 30, 2008

There was a young poster called Omar
Who asked what the reasons for MOPE are
The truth is, the Fenians
Despite their opinions
Were not as oppressed as the Roma


6. garibaldy - September 30, 2008

Excellent stuff EJH.


7. Joe - September 30, 2008

Excellent stuff, you too, Garibaldy.

First, names again – I don’t like “Irish Republic”, I prefer “Republic of Ireland”. Probably the Free Stater in me.

Another key difference between Northern Ireland and West Germany (go on, tell me what I really should have called them!) surely is the question of ethnic make-up. The Germans are all Germans but the Northern Irish are divided between the British majority and the Irish minority (go on, get stuck in again on those descriptors!).
Perhaps he could have done a comparison with Yugoslavia where Tito’s CP managed to put together a system which ensured pretty much that no ethnic group would dominate and oppress another (though as I write, I guess the Roma were probably at the bottom of the pecking order as usual). Then when whatever it was that kept them from each others’ throats broke down, they massacred each other. Depressing isn’t it? Am I wrong to believe that the Northern Irish would long ago have done the same to each other on a similar scale if British and Irish state power had not been there to stop them?

Anyway my main point is that comparisons with West Germany and Italy and Scandinavia don’t wash because they don’t take into account the ethnicity question.


8. Joe - September 30, 2008

One other bit of geography. I’m pretty sure that Fr Alec Reid is a Tipperary Redemptorist, long time resident in W Belfast.


9. garibaldy - September 30, 2008

Cheers Joe. I don’t know how that Irish Republic slipped in there. Possibly by osmosis after years of seeing Paisley say it on the TV. I agree with you on the question of national identity, which you right that I only nodded towards. It should have got more space than it did. I suspect the reason for stressing the German comparison is because he can then link the two 1968s. More problematic when you take 1968 to include other countries, especially America, which seems to me to have been easily the biggest international influence in NI, though France certainly played its role in influencing people like Mc Cann. I’m fairly sure there would have been a much more nasty and bloody civil war in NI without not only the presence/influence of troops, but also sensible people within NI. And obviously, we can happily nod here to Carrickmore May 1972 😉

You are of course right on Alec Reid.


10. Cogadh - September 30, 2008

Omar Little: “MOPE strikes me as a stupid and offensive term.”

That’s it in a nutshell. There is no other reason to use it. Well actually there is…

The ‘mope’ term is designed to say that anyone who points out that British or Unionist Rule was not a bundle of laughs, is automatically ‘irrational’ and therefore their opinion is worthless.


11. garibaldy - September 30, 2008

Well MOPE seemed like an interesting hook for the start of the piece. I don’t use it myself, though I do find some of the more outlandish statements objectionable, and deserving of ridicule.

As is hopefully obvious from the piece, this is a rejection of attempts to normalise unionist misrule by unsuitable comparisons.


12. Omar Little - September 30, 2008

I think the term is a snide caricature of a genuine history of oppression. I agree that comparisons between modern Northern Ireland and Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa and indeed the Jim Crow south are wrong; they should be rationally rebutted. However laughing about the ‘MOPEs’ isn’t the way to get a discussion going.
There is a genuine history of dispossession, imperialism and colonialism, which to my mind the purveyors of the MOPE thesis seek to underplay or simply deny.
American right-wingers for example, would mock the claims of casino cash rich reservation dwelling Native Americans to be oppressed; African Americans are reguarly told to ‘get over’ slavery and pull their socks up; the entire continent of Africa is supposed to shake itself out of its torpor and stop blaming the West for colonialism. I’m sure that Rush Limbaugh would have hours of fun with the MOPE thesis if he was informed of it.
I don’t know what Liam Kennedy’s views are, but Roy Foster, Ruth Dudley Edwards and others who talk about MOPEs simply do not assign any blame to Britain for its historic role in Ireland.


13. Omar Little - September 30, 2008

And if nationalists are the MOPEs, where does that leave the good Unionist councillors of Limavady, currently covering themselves in glory?


14. WorldbyStorm - September 30, 2008

I’m not hugely happy with the term MOPE, and I’d broadly agree that it’s function in many discussions is as a political tool to dismiss nationalist oppression. It’s a fine line, but one that Prince has clearly crossed towards providing an apologia, and as garibaldy notes, a reactionary one at that of the pre-existing situation under Stormont.

Small point of fact about the term “Irish Republic”. This was used consistently by the NI govt. from 1948/9 onwards to diminish the status of the Republic of Ireland by essentially focussing it on one part of the island rather than the entirety of the island (implicit in the use of the term Ireland as distinct from “Irish” which could be seen as relating to some of the people). They even lobbied the UK govt. to use it at the UN etc and to try to prevent that body from using RoI. Unsuccessfully. As the UK govt. noted it was up to each people to determine their own nomenclature.


15. garibaldy - September 30, 2008

I have the feeling that for republicans after 1923, the term Irish Republic was associated with 1916, something the free state under whatever name could not be.

Omar, there is certainly a genuine history of oppression in Ireland, though (as was argued here once ages ago between myself, WBS and John Mc Anulty) I’m not sure that the relationship between Ireland and Britain over the last couple of centuries could be properly characterised as imperial. It’s much more complicated than that I think, and involves Irish support for British imperialism – especially in the Irish Parliamentary Party around the time of World War One.

I think though your point about unionism does raise the question of the culture of competitive victimhood that has emerged in the north.


16. Worldbystorm - September 30, 2008

Well that’s a fair point re 1916, although I’d think that might have escaped Stormont! I agree that the east west relationship was more complex than a straight imperial one.


17. Mbari - September 30, 2008

Liam Kennedy is a bit more interesting than other Irish revisionist historians. “Was there an Irish War of Independence?” is worth a read, even if, er, he concludes that there wasn’t one. If I recall correctly he ran against Gerry Adams a couple years ago, on an anti-punishment beatings platform, and was crushed at the polls.


18. garibaldy - September 30, 2008

He pulled out but his name remained on the ballot. I think it was about 1997.


19. Mbari - September 30, 2008

After a quick googling, it seems we’re both right. He ran in 1997, and ran again in 2005. On a different note, I see from his bio he has the same position at QUB that Miriam Daly held before she was murdered.


20. garibaldy - September 30, 2008

Cheers Mbari. Didn’t remember the 2005 candidacy. Must be going senile.


21. Niall - September 30, 2008

It is perfectly valid to say that Northern Ireland was like Nazi Germany. The way that the Unionists treated nationalists has certain parallels with the way in which the Nazis treated Jews and the way that black skinned people were treated by white skinned people in the US. However, while there are certain essential similarities, the degree to which the victim populations were discriminated against cannot be compared.

Sometimes, it can be useful to look at the similarities between Nazi Germany and Northern Ireland, if only because those who find it difficult to appreciate the wrongness of certain aspects of British rule in the North readily recognise that similar moves in Nazi Germany were wrong, but most of the time, people take any reference to Nazi Germany as evidence that you are trying to demonise those you might not agree with. The problem here is that groups like the Nazis and the KKK have been turned into something sub-human in the public consciousness. A Nazi is not a man or woman like you or I, but a demon. If you compare somebody’s actions or opinions to those of a Nazi, they automatically take it as an assertion that you are claiming that they are evil, as opposed to mistaken.

It really is rather unfortunate that the lessons we could learn from Nazi Germany are sometimes not learned because people fail to appreciate that the Germans of Hitler’s time were just as human as you or I.


22. garibaldy - October 1, 2008


I don’t think the presence of discrimination in two different societies necessarily makes them comparable. After all, the goal of Nazi ideology was not just the subjugation of the Jews, but to remove them from German society, ending up with their physical extermination. That was never, ever the intention of the discrimination practised in NI. Superficial similarities are not essential ones. The essential reality is that the aims of the two governments were completely different.


23. Niall - October 1, 2008

It’s fair to say that Unionists never intended to exterminate nationalists, it is also fair to say that Nazis were hardly married to the notion from the off. Had things been different, the Nazis might never have attempted the final solution, and given the paranoia that engulfed certain sections of Belfast in regards nationalist areas, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where things might have descended to a point that was as bad as certain low points of 20th century German history.

Granted, such a scenario looks unlikely from here, but the Belfast riots of 1969 really show the extent to which the Unionists and British security services feared an insubstantial IRA threat, and it demonstrated the tactics they were willing to deploy to protect against the imagined threat. The threat posed by the Belfast IRA to the Unionist/British establishment at that point was little more than the threat posed by Zionists to Germany in the run up to WW2. Loyalist paramilitaries are sometimes said to have bemoaned the ‘early’ intervention of British forces during the 1969 Belfast riots as they felt they could have done much more with another few hours. What they would have liked to have done – I’m not sure as I don’t know many loyalist paramilitaries personally – but at the least it is possible that had they been given a couple of extra days, the Catholic population of Belfast would have been no more – be that because they’d been forced out of the city or otherwise. The British government hardly covered itself in glory throughout the troubles – internment, torture, false imprisonment, shooting civilians – but I’d hate to imagine what the North would look like today had the Unionist establishment not had the restraining hand of the mainland on its shoulders.


24. garibaldy - October 1, 2008


Agree with a lot of what you’re saying, about the dark impulses towards sectarian violence, and that without outside intervention, the situation of a reactionary unionist regime controlling security policy would have been much worse. But having said all that, I do that it was always explicitly Nazi policy to remove Jews from society (via stripping them of their influence, citizenship, gaoling them, or forced emigration, as you say, steps leading towards the death camps), and that makes them I would say fundamentally in a league of their own given the completeness with which they sought to achieve that aim.


25. WorldbyStorm - October 1, 2008

That being the case then surely it would not be utterly incorrect to argue that NI constituted a sort of ‘soft’ apartheid, the reification of indifference and ignoring of other (i.e. Nationalist/Republicsans) so that they had essentially no public voice, were denied access to the political space in any meaningful way, etc, etc?

It’s tricky because the roots are different and didn’t explicitly rest on supposed racial difference but on notions of distinct ‘communities’. But even so… it certainly would jibe with the ‘cold house’ point of Trimble (or was it EH?)…


26. garibaldy - October 1, 2008

NI still has to a large extent a form of religious apartheid, though it is mainly through social rather than legislative means. Denominational education is one major reason why, although the housing policy of creating ghettos to protect gerrymandering was another reason, and then the purging of areas during the early troubles. Non-unionists did though have a public voice – in Parliament, local government etc, that was denied to people in other places, and especially Nazi Germany.


27. Bartholomew - October 1, 2008

In the article in which Kennedy developed the term MOPE, there is a glaring piece of bad faith. He lists all the ways in which the Catholic Irish saw themselves as oppressed and discusses whether these were justified. He also lists the ways in which Ireland was lucky – no major wars since the 17th century, no natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes etc. When he discusses the Famine, he says that although you can fault the government, in fact it was a huge natural disaster. But when you go back to the section on natural disasters, there is no mention of the Famine. It is effectively made to disappear by a type of taxonomic sleight of hand.


28. garibaldy - October 1, 2008

Very interesting point Batholomew, although given Kennedy’s own research and publications on that area, I don’t think we can accuse him of not taking it seriously.


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30. Bartholomew - October 3, 2008

I agree about Kennedy’s publications and how seriously he would take the Famine, but that makes the conjuring trick seem all the more deliberate.

This particular strategy is emblematic of a style of argumentation which ‘revisionists’ (for want of a better word) use. They address, point by point, a ‘mythology’ which they assume their target audience shares, but they don’t notice, or ignore the fact, that their rebuttals sometimes contradict each other.

More generally, the MOPE argument typifies the narrowness of the ‘revisionist’ approach. Their conception of nationalism and of national identities is a reductive, economistic, Gellnerian one, which doesn’t look back beyond about 1800. What they miss is the existence of older frameworks of national or group identities, often based on the idea of the group as a chosen people, modelled on the Israelites of the Old Testament. One of the signs of being a chosen people in this scheme of things is that you are tested and made to suffer, in exile, in the desert etc. The idea of the Catholic Irish as the MOPE can be found as far back as 1600. It’s a world-view through which the following four centuries are interpreted, not an economic balance sheet made at the end of that period.


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32. D. J. P. O'Kane - October 7, 2008

Simon Prince makes me ashamed to be an academic. His shallow tendentious arguments on the box last night were nothing less than a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters of historical truth.


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34. dessalines - October 9, 2008


kennedy’s vote in the elections you mention was just over 100 and right behind the ‘rainbow dream ticket’ as i recall; his ‘concession speech’ at city hall on the other hand was the longest of any. and i think it’s dishonest to claim that he campaigned against intimidation and punishment attacks–he is selective about which intimidation he objects to, never having taken a public stand against state violence, to my recollection. correct me if i’m wrong.

kennedy strikes me as a moron, and a snide and malicious one at that. the MOPE slur–now part of the lexicon shared by kennedy and henry mcdonald, kevin myers, that other dullard eoghan harris (yes, all former stalinists) is aimed at belittling genuine internationalism: i know no republicans who regard themselves as the MOST oppressed, and none even who do not recognize that palestine, for example, finds itself in much worse straits today than belfast ever did.in his efforts to provide a few laughs to the most bigoted elements in northern society, kennedy intentionally misses that point. he’s an errand boy for the worst sectarians and their state: don’t try to dress him up as more substantial than that.


35. WorldbyStorm - October 9, 2008

I too dislike the MOPE phrase, dessalines, it diminishes what was a very real oppression, also I think that oppression has a relative aspect to to it. The North might not have been the equivalent of apartheid, but talk to anyone about the controlling aspect of the RUC (or read Heaney) and you get some sense of how the Unionist government/state apparatus stifled not just dissent but had an aspect that might in some respects be closer in equivalence say to the Eastern bloc. That again overstates it, but if we are comparing and contrasting with either the UK or the South there’s no getting past the fact that a pseudo-authoritarian statelet existed in Northern Ireland with dire consequences in the long run and this was backed with the threat and the use of force and continuing intimidation. A bullying state then, if not a totalitarian one.


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