Book review: Renovation or Revolution

I have managed to get a review copy of the book Renovation or Revolution, mentioned by Roy Garland in his Irish News column recently, which deals with devolution, the peace process and British Irish relations. Here are my thoughts on it.

Renovation or Revolution?

New Territorial Politics in Ireland and the United Kingdom

Edited by John Coakley, Bridget Laffan & Jennifer Todd

UCD Press

With the pace of British-Irish co-operation in the peace process picking up in recent weeks, it perhaps an appropriate time to review this recent volume of essays, which looks at the changing relationships within and between Britain and Ireland as a result of devolution and the Good Friday Agreement.

There has long been a school of thought arguing that the dynamic of those changes will eventually result in the break-up of the UK, of whom the foremost representative is Scottish nationalist philosopher Tom Nairn.

That view is subjected to a robust challenge here by the University of Ulster’s Arthur Aughey, perhaps the leading academic exponent of the alternative thesis, that recent reforms reflect the continued vitality of the British state.

Aughey’s chapter does identify a number of unanswered questions on the current British-Irish landscape, including most obviously the future of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, but also the shape of devolution for England.

The latter question emerges as an important theme of the book. However, many of the essays are predicated on the assumption that the English question is primarily about devolution to the English regions.

That idea received a profound challenge late last year, when the North-East of England voted against a regional assembly. Simon Partridge’s chapter on English devolution concludes somewhat peremptorily that this will only delay the trend towards regionalism.

However, the possibility that England may decisively reject the devolutionary path mapped out for it perhaps fits with argument of editors Coakley and Laffan in the concluding chapter.

They ask whether the historic failure to create a single state encompassing Britain and Ireland “lay not so much in the reluctance of the Irish, Welsh and Scottish to assimilate as in the inability of the English to become British?”

The corollary of this, perhaps, is that Celtic suspicion of English nationalism may be a factor sustaining the UK.

This may be reflected in Ronan Fanning’s chapter on British-Irish relations. He argues that Scottish independence is not in Irish national interests. This is not just for the obvious reason that it would destabilise the Good Friday Agreement settlement, but also because it would awaken ‘the slumbering bear’ of an anti-European English nationalism.

He even suggests that a nuclear-free Scotland would lead England to reassess Peter Brooke’s declaration that it has no selfish, strategic interest in Northern Ireland.

Brooke’s original statement was arguably made possible by the end of the Cold War, a point taken up by Adrian Guelke, in a chapter which looks at the influence of the global context on the peace process. The essay is a useful antidote to the Churchillian view that the north’s ‘ancient quarrel’ is immune to external influences.

Other chapters concentrate on Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, north-south relations, and the European context, but this brief survey perhaps gives a flavour of the wealth of insightful scholarship in Renovation or Revolution?

It is certainly the important contribution that Tony Blair declares it to be in the foreword, and one which is well worth the attention of anyone interested in the future of relations between the nations of these islands.



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