“Peace in Ireland: the war of ideas,” Richard Bourke

Iain Ferguson
3 October 2005

Peace in Ireland: the war of ideas

“ Peace in Ireland: the war of ideas”
by Richard Bourke
Pimlico | September 2003 | ISBN 1844133168

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Richard Bourke’s Peace in Ireland is the most illuminating account of the Northern Ireland conflict I have come across. Bourke blends a rich prose style, with a sharp analytical mind and a historian’s love of detail into a narrative of the twists and turns in the struggle for political power between Ireland’s rival nationalisms, Unionism and Republicanism. It charts the moments of war and peace from the fall of Charles Parnell, Ireland’s “Chief” in 1891, through the worst of the “troubles” in the partitioned North, to the milder politics of antagonism from the mid 1990’s to 2003, when the book was published.

I thoroughly recommend it for anyone who, like me, is trying to make sense of events of the last few months. In May this year, the political future of the province looked bleak. The collapse of support for Northern Ireland’s moderate parties in recent elections forced the resignation of David Trimble, the clinching signatory to the 1998 peace accord the Good Friday Agreement.

Then, just last week, the whole picture seemed to change again: the IRA put its weapons verifiably beyond use; journalists and politicians rushed to declare the proximity of a lasting peace. Although these events are too recent for inclusion in Bourke’s book, his sound analysis and even-handed treatment of the fears and ambitions that drive the conflict, equips the reader to cut through the fog of media hype and hasty proclamations that surrounds the peace process today.

Peace in Ireland is not only for Northern Ireland obsessives (like me). It is also a great introduction to the history and the grievances of the conflict. Even if you are not normally drawn to studies of the region – you might only want to read one book on Northern Ireland – I still say, read this. It is so well-written and contains insights into peace and democracy in divided or post-war societies of general relevance to understanding contemporary conflicts.

Bourke’s analysis of the Northern Ireland problem as a typical, modern democratic crisis is a necessary corrective to many explanations that emphasise ethno-national or religious tribal loyalties in so-called “ethnic conflicts” flaring up around the world. But Bourke is not a simple modernist or sanguine constitutional liberal. That the Northern Ireland conflict is a war of ideas not a war of cultural groups does not make identity politics a side issue, nor does it make democracy an automatic remedy for peace.

Richard Bourke

About the author: Richard Bourke is a writer, academic and political analyst. He has studied in Dublin, London, Oxford and Cambridge. Since 1993 he has been a lecturer at the department of history at Queen Mary, University of London. He has appeared on Irish and British radio as a commentator on Northern Irish politics, Edmund Burke, and the Enlightenment; and he has written articles on Northern Irish affairs for the Financial Times, the Irish Times and Fortnight magazine. Peace in Ireland is his second book; his first, Romantic Discourse and Political Modernity, was published in 1993. His forthcoming books include a history of crises in democracy, and Edmund Burke’s attitude to both the British Empire and the French Revolution.

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