Thursday, April 18, 2013

Book Review: Brookeborough: The Making of a Prime Minister

Having moved to Fermanagh almost two years ago, I've been trying to get to know the county's people, history, background and culture in order to minister and mission as effectively as possible. As part of the research, the opportunity came to learn about a previous generation of the local landlords, who happened to hold the most senior position in Northern Irish politics for about twenty years. In Brian Barton's book 'Brookeborough: The Making of a Prime Minister' we get to know a lot more about Sir Basil Brooke, Lord Brookeborough.

Barton's aim, writing in 1988 was to put right the shame that 'Brooke has not been well served by posterity'. 'The purpose of this narrative is to trace and to analyse the source and early development of his remarkable, improbable and hitherto neglected campaign.' (x) The result certainly meets the aim, with incredible attention to detail and plenty of analysis.

The background story of the Brooke family is fascinating, bringing them from England to Colebrooke via the plantation of Donegal and later in the 1640s, Fermanagh. It is here that subsequent generations of the family have made their home, to the extent that: 'over the years the Brookes came to identify closely with the county and country of their adoption, its prosperity and stability they helped promote, its idiosyncracies they enjoyed, its humour and sentiment they increasingly shared. They cherished its natural beauty, knew well its history, lived and worked by and large comfortably with its people.' (4) Each generation's contribution to the local, national and international history of the armed services of the empire is recorded.

Sir Basil's childhood is recounted with care, with an interesting detail that the Colebrooke estate in the 1880s was 30,000 acres. His father is recalled as 'a truly Victorian parent... stern disciplinarian, one of... the Jehovah-type.' (16) While this is mentioned, it's not explained if Basil meant that his father preferred the Old Testament view of God (commonly called), or if he thought himself in God-like control. His career in the army is shared, with service in India and then the First World War. On his return to beloved Colebrooke, he was to write, 'I had thought that my soldiering days were over but they were not... I was to become a soldier of a very different sort... but I had the added stimulant of defending my own birthplace.' (28)

That defence is detailed in the third chapter, on the formation of the Special Constabulary. Following the First World War, the tension in Ireland and especially Ulster, became intense. A rise in support for Sinn Fein came due to the execution of the leaders of the failed Easter Rising of 1916 - support which was allegedly promoted by sympathetic Roman Catholic priests. That tension was reaching boiling point in Fermanagh, so that Brooke formed 'his illegal vigilante force' (31). Later, when the Specials were formed and regularised, Brooke was appointed County Commandant.

With a ceasefire in the Anglo-Irish conflict, 'the truce was the prelude to a period of prolonged political uncertainty and sectarian tension which cast a dark and permanent shadow over the subsequent history of Fermanagh.' (44) The truce had been guaranteed by the formation of a Boundary Commission to investigate and recommend the exact line of the border between the Irish Free State and the newly formed Northern Ireland. Herein lay the concern - would Fermanagh find itself on the Irish or Northern side of the border? Fermanagh's nationalists expected to be southern citizens, with the County Council looking for authority to Dail Eireann. Unionists felt threatened, indeed Brooke described the Commission as 'the predominant threat confronting the loyalists of Ulster.' (45)

In this atmosphere, tension was to rise even further - 'from comparative peace to the brink of civil war' (45) with a number of incidents including the kidnapping of over 40 Protestants in the border region and the murder of five A Special Constables in Clones station.

Indeed, as the next chapter makes clear, 'the spectre of the Boundary Commission helped to keep local fears and rumours alive and deepen those psychological scars which permanently influenced the county's political structures.' (59) There is an interesting piece of trivia concerning the drawing of the border, with the military pushing for Lough Erne to be the dividing line, for ease of defence. Such advice was of course, rejected, with the entire county remaining in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps Lord Brookeborough is most famous for his line that 'he had not a Roman catholic about his own place' (78) - a line which has been adapted and adopted (and twisted) even to the present day on the lips of Sinn Fein MLAs. Barton provides a lot of analysis of those remarks, with documentary evidence of the situation of the day, the pressures of the moment and the background. After ten pages of discussion, his conclusion is that Brooke's moderate speeches have been ignored or forgotten, and that 'Such rhetoric was a response to a particular situation and it should not be deduced that the distrust of the minority that he then expressed proved as enduring as its place in popular recollection.' (89)

From here on, the book becomes incredibly detailed to the extent of being laborious in the reporting of Brooke's political career as Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Commerce and Partition, and eventually the almost minute-by-minute negotiations that led to Brooke becoming Prime Minister, succeeding John Andrews in 1943. While it was interesting to see some of what happened in the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont, it really would be heavy going for most people, except the political geek.

Of those chapters, just a few highlights shone:

- The statistics of rural living in Northern Ireland in the 1940s: 'In the early 1940s, the Ministry of Home Affairs estimated that 40 per cent of rural housing was either unfit for human habitation or overcrowded, and that over 60 per cent had neither gas nor electricity installed or available.' (102)

- The opportunity to see the people involved in the Ulster Crisis (ironically) establishing the Home Rule Parliament in Northern Ireland - names familiar to students of the Ulster Covenant and raising of Carson's UVF are found in power - Craig, Spender, and others.

- Building on that, the discovery that those politicians weren't really very good; that public opinion was never really overwhelmingly positive for the Stormont administration, and that the government's sheer ineptitude was such that it 'might do irreparable harm to Ulster and to the unionist cause... and constituted a grave danger to the system of democratic government in the province' according to Spender. (121). Perhaps nothing ever changes!

There is also a revealing insight into Brooke's personal faith or otherwise. He 'played an active part in parish if not diocesan affairs more from a sense of duty than personal piety.' (143) This seems to be the only reference to faith at all, or perhaps was all that Barton mentioned.

The book in its final chapter deals with the steps Brooke took to become Prime Minister, but then suddenly stops. To an extent, this was disappointing, as I wanted to learn more of how things turned out, but then that was beyond the scope of the book. I enjoyed it, even thought at times it did appear to revel in the intimate details rather than portraying the broader picture. This will definitely be a good book for those wishing to understand some of what has made Fermanagh the place it is today, as seen in the life of one of its leading citizens. It should be a must-read for politicians and those involved in local politics as we see the current administration at Stormont falter and fail in its duty to serve effectively and achieve just about anything. Otherwise we may repeat the past, rather than learn from its mistakes.

No comments:

Post a Comment