*A Treatise on Northern Ireland*, by Brendan O’Leary
This three-volume set is quite the remarkable achievement, and it would have made my best books of 2019 list (add-ons here) had I known about it earlier. It starts with “An audit of violence after 1966,” and then goes back to the seventeenth century to begin to dig out what happened. It has more detail than almost anyone needs to know, yet at the same time it remains unfailingly conceptual and relies on theoretical social science as well, rather than merely reciting names and dates. How about this?:
The breakdown of hegemonic control in Northern Ireland [mid- to late 1960s] exemplifies Tocqueville’s thesis that, when a bad government seeks to reform itself, it is in its greatest danger.
Here is an excerpt from volume II:
The thesis advanced here is that hegemonic control was established between 1920 and 1925 by the UUP, and, aside from a few exceptional moments, exercised successfully until 1966. After 1925 opportunities for effective opposition, dissent, disobedience, or usurpation of power were minimal. The major possibilities of disruption came from the outside, from independent Ireland or from Great Britain, from geopolitics, or the world economy. Eventually, when external forces of disruption combined with major endogenous changes, hegemonic control would be contested, and would shatter. But at no juncture did Northern nationalists or Irish Catholics in the North internalize the UUP’s rhetoric, or become significantly British by cultural designation. When the civil-rights movement learned to exploit the claim to be British citizens entitled to British rights, the regime’s days were numbered.
I will continue to spend time with these volumes, which will not be surpassed anytime soon. Unlike in so many history books, O’Leary is always trying to explain what happened, or what did not. You can order them here.
As a side note, I find it shocking (and I suppose deplorable) that no American major media outlet has reviewed these books, or put them on its best of the year list, as far as I can tell. We are failing at something, though I suppose you can debate what. And I apologize to O’Leary for missing them the first time around.