Cold reading

The trains are haywire again this evening; I waited for my connection in sub-zero temperatures for an hour and a half in the Brussels North station before I finally escaped. But I used my chilly wait profitably. Jeff Dudgeon has, once again, done me the favour of drawing my attention to the Dublin Review of Books, and I’ve been reading several of the essays in the latest issue.

My eye was immediately drawn to Martin McGarry’s piece on the future of Belgium, written before last month’s crisis which brought down Yves Leterme’s government, but very insightful as to how we got to where we are – in particular, he describes the infamous BHV problem perfectly adequately in a single sentence, and he enlightened me as to the peculiar dynamic between the N-VA and the CD&V. (A lot of Belgian politics revolves around acronyms.) McGarry is much more readable than Witte, Craeybeckx and Meynen, the authors of the only one of the books he is ostensibly reviewing which I have myself attempted. He’s pessimistic about the long term future of Belgium, but doesn’t quite explain why.

A little-remembered historical linkage between Belgium and Ireland is that Daniel O’Connell was given a vote in the choice of the first King of the Belgians (who, if his first wife had lived, would have been Prince Consort of the UK instead). Paul Bew and Patrick Maume review Patrick Geoghegan’s new biography of O’Connell, and achieve the task of both disagreeing with it and making you want to read it (though I may wait until the second volume comes out – the first takes us only to 1829). I had in fact read MacDonagh’s biography when it came out almost 20 years ago; it sounds like Geoghegan has found more humanity than sainthood in the man, with a more realistic assessment of his religious beliefs, his sex life, and his tendency to go over the top in his oratory. Bew and Maume ask, but don’t answer, the question of whether Parnell or O’Connell was the more significant figure. There’s no doubt in my own mind that it was O’Connell, and frankly I find his large-hearted liberal nationalism much more attractive than Parnell’s somewhat neurotic and narrow ideology.

Leaping forward a hundred years or so, the essay that is closest to my own work and experience is Eunan O’Halpin’s review of Paul McMahon’s book on British espionage in Ireland between 1916 and 1945. From the narrow Irish perspective, this books sounds like a useful corrective (and even in part an explanation) for the Sinn Féin obsession with “securocrats”. But it is also a good set of case studies of how intelligence services operate successfully (eg the collaboration between the RUC and the Garda Síochána on keeping a lid on Republican dissidents in the late 1930s and early 1940s, despite the fact that their respective governments were not on speaking terms) and unsuccessfully (the “German Plot” allegations of 1917-18, uncritically accepted by key British ministers despite the lack of actual evidence).

There’s a wider lesson as well: if, as a government, you keep open the official channels of communication with your neighbours and potential rivals, you are less dependent on the particular idiosyncracies of a small number of intelligence agents, at least when it comes to dealing with actual governments. It is rather extraordinary that there was no British diplomatic presence in Dublin until 1939! And I can think of a good dozen contemporary examples of this sort of short-sightedness. I will stop here.

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