Roy Foster: Political polemic, not history
Roy Foster's latest book, 'Luck and the Irish', is strong on economics but lacking in its grasp of contemporary politics and insight into Ireland's recent cultural changes
By Eoin Ó Broin
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Roy Foster is not a historian. Nor is his new book, the patrionisingly titled Luck & the Irish, a work of history. Like Modern Ireland, this is a work of synthesis, taking the efforts of others and compressing them into a series of short, sharp essays. The end result is polemic, not history. Indeed, Foster is primarily a polemicist who uses historical narrative as the basis for his assessments of contemporary Irish society. That he writes well is not in doubt. However, his reputation is not based on the quality of his research or writing. Rather, it is his ability to articulate a version of post-nationalist liberalism, and re-read Irish history and politics accordingly, that has secured his place in the revisionist cannon.
The book's strongest essays are those dealing with the economic and social changes of the last three decades. Surveying what he calls Boosters (McSharry, O'Donnell) and Begrudgers (Kirby, O'Toole), Foster outlines the debates a decade after the arrival of sustained economic growth.
The boosters celebrate the economic miracle, while the begrudgers express deep-seated concern for those left behind. While the summary is good, the typology is crass. How Foster can describe as begrudgers those writers genuinely concerned with the failure of Celtic Ireland to adequately address issues of illiteracy, poverty, or health inequalities, is quite remarkable. However, Foster's reminders that economic and social changes are rooted in earlier moments of historical change are points rarely emphasised by other authors, and they redeem the chapters somewhat.
Foster's grip on contemporary Irish politics is clearly much weaker. Less scholarly work has been published dealing with southern party politics, leaving Foster with less to work from. As a consequence his reading of Fianna Fáil from Lynch to Ahern is superficial. His adulatory references to FitzGerald are sycophantic. However, it is when dealing with the peace process that Foster really comes into his own. Indeed his typology of begrudgers and boosters would fit well here.
Alongside his intellectual mentor Connor Cruise O'Brien, Foster would undoubtedly be a begrudger. His understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the last 30 years is fatally undermined by his own political prejudices. The result is a narrow minded, and at times bitchy, account of a peace process that despite its flaws is actually working.
Foster is also mistaken in his principal conclusion to these chapters, arguing that institutionalised partitionism has been the primary outcome of the last 30 years of politics, north and south. His assessment of the partitionism of Fine Gael, Labour and the Irish civil service is clearly correct. However he ignores the importance of the north, both to Fianna Fáil's continued electoral dominance, and to the rise of Sinn Féin. Foster is clearly willing to ignore evidence which undermines his own argument, such as the important 1979 ESRI study on southern attitudes to the north, or the political dynamics of 50 per cent of the southern electorate.
However, it is when Foster turns his hand to cultural change that the book hits its lowest point. Clearly out of touch with Irish popular culture and the academic tools used to discuss it, Foster instead offers a meandering discussion on music, cinema and literature. Lacking focus or analysis, the end result is both superficial and bland. The underdevelopment of Irish cultural studies is clearly Foster's problem, giving him nothing much to synthesise. Without the crutch of other scholars' work, Foster is unable to stand on his own.
Throughout the book, Foster takes sideswipes at the begrudgers; post-nationalist historians and left leaning critics of the Celtic Tiger. His argument, that they display a “recurrent hostility to liberalism” and “sometimes gesture back to the verities of old-style Fianna Fáil politics” is dishonest and disingenuous. But then this is not history but polemic, the rules of engagement are different, and the standards are much lower.
For those who like Foster's work, Luck & the Irish will not disappoint. It will continue to affirm his particular view of the world and Ireland's place in it. For those who found his previous work wanting, then the advice is steer clear of this latest offering. Compared with other available titles on modern Ireland, by Patterson, Keogh or Ferriter for example, Luck & the Irish is a poor substitute, adding little to our understanding of the changes that have taken place in Ireland during the last 30 years.