Stupidest Comparison Ever: Redux September 30, 2008Posted 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.