Editorial from Irish Political Review, April 2006
Sinn Fein And The Pharisees
Conor Cruise O'Brien was an anti-Partition civil servant for many years, producing propaganda in support of the sovereignty claim on the North expressed in Articles 2 & 3 of the 1937 Constitution. Then he was for a few years an anti-Partition Cabinet Minister and played an active part in undermining the 1974 power-sharing Government by his insistence on immediate implementation of the Council of Ireland provisions of the Sunningdale Agreement while refusing to consider an amendment of Articles 2 & 3. He then underwent a fundamental revulsion of feeling and became very strongly Partitionist, even to the extent of joining Robert McCartney's Unionist Party. It seems that it was only when he became a Unionist that he began to see the basic realities of Northern Ireland and of Ulster Unionism. This fresh experience led him to suggest that the Unionists might be well-advised to consider joining a United Ireland. And one of the UUP leaders (was it Reg Empey?) commented that that was what happened when you let a cuckoo into the nest.
It appears that Professor Bew has undergone a somewhat similar evolution. He was for many years an Official Republican—a Stickie. When the international framework of the Stickie world-view collapsed around 1990 (beginning with the overthrow of Sir Nicolai Ceaucescu) he morphed into a fundamentalist Unionist, and became an adviser to David Trimble. But now it seems that he too is suggesting that the Ulster Unionists would be better off in a United Ireland.
So says the new star reporter of the Irish Times, Stephen Collins (11 Feb), reporting a meeting of the British/Irish Interparliamentary body:
"When the Belfast Agreement was being negotiated, a central preoccupation of unionists was to prevent the creation of significant North/South institutions. Other issues, such as the release of paramilitary prisoners, decommissioning and the future of policing, which were to have such a huge impact later, often appeared to be secondary to them at the time. Now the main preoccupation of unionists is to avoid being ruled by Sinn Fein. The penny seems to have dropped with them that the same sentiment is shared by a significant segment of the electorate in the Republic."
"the Republic is now seen by at least some unionists as a bulwark against domination by Sinn Fein".
We recall from long ago the argument put to us by mainstream politicians in the Republic (Fine Gael and Labour, rather than Fianna Fail) that if the pressure was kept up on the Unionists they would eventually crack, and would accept a united Ireland as a relief. These people were not themselves Republicans, and they would not publicly approve of the IRA, but it was basic to their calculations that the situation within the North was such that the conflict of Republican and Unionist must continue, and that in the end the Unionists would tire of it and would give way.
It is interesting that Professor Bew (all theory of theoretical thought now discarded) now feels empirically that this point has been reached.
Maybe be's right. But empirical understanding was never his strong point. He rejected it on principle at the formative stage in his formation, and then when he looked for it it wasn't there.
It has to be remembered, with regard to Bew and O'Brien, that they see things through the prism of their ideological feud with the Provos, and are likely to see their own concerns everywhere.
We grounded ourselves in the empirical realities of the Northern Ireland situation back in 1969-70, regardless of ideological fashion, and tried to describe things as they were. And it never seemed to us that the points in debate in the conflict of the two communities were what was actually at issue between them. They were only the debating points of the moment.
The Protestants don't hate Gerry Adams any more than they hated John Hume when John Hume was the man. And they did not hate John Hume any more than they hated John Redmond with his policy of Imperial Home Rule. The debating point of the moment might be power-sharing, or de-commissioning, or North/South bodies, but it was never the issue.
When Paisley insisted on a photograph album of weapons being destroyed, DUP spokesmen on RTE said it was so that ordinary Protestants might be certain that the weapons had gone. We took Paisley's earlier word that it was about humiliation. RTE interviewers, pleased at being spoken to at all, never asked how an album of photos, however extensive, could prove that there were no more arms.
The practical assumption on all sides was that the Provos had called off the war and had no intention of resuming it. And anybody who was seriously concerned that a general peace should be the outcome, and who had any sense of reality at all, understood that the Provos must be accorded a fair degree of autonomy during the process of demobilisation in order to curb other military developments. But that was turning a blind eye to criminality—if that was how you wanted to see it. And that was how many people wanted to see it. Electoral considerations in the Republic began to cut against sensible management of the peace process in the North. Pat Rabbitte and Michael McDowell were to the fore in demanding instant law and order in the North—order maintained by the official forces of the law. They all know that this was not an actual possibility, but at a certain point they all agreed that it was the only right thing, regardless of whether it was possible or not. And the Taoiseach confessed to having turned a blind eye to the criminality by which a tolerable degree of order was maintained in many regions of the North, but he would never do so again.
The demand then was that Sinn Fein should end its association with the IRA and become like the Pharisees. It should condemn, condemn, condemn, as the parties of the Unionist middle class do, and live off the thing they condemn while self-righteously disclaiming all relationship with it.
None of them wanted this. But all of them demanded it. They couldn't help themselves.
Have there ever been wars that were fought in the abstract, outside of all political framework, and without political purpose? Of course there have. The wars fought by the IRA, as one finds them described by modern, really up to date, correctly-programmed historians.
We had hoped that this mode of writing would be broken by The Northern IRA And The Early Years Of Partition by Robert Lynch (Irish Academic Press). Well, we hadn't really. Not when we saw that Robert Lynch was "senior Government of Ireland Research Scholar, Hertford College, University of Oxford". But this subject matter above all others required that the mode of abstraction of war from political context should be breached, and there was a billion to one chance that Lynch would breach it, in breach of his own political context.
Thirty years ago (from 1974 to 1976) we sponsored a series of discussion meetings at the Queen's University Students' Union for the purpose of investigation of political and military affairs in the Six Counties during the years, 1920-22. We drew up an extensive summary of events, political and military, and invited the academics to come along and discuss what they meant. Only two academics ever turned up. One of them, who was English, held that it was imperialistic even to entertain the possibility that an event like the Shipyard Expulsions might have had a political context, even in the sense of a causal relationship with other events that were happening at the time. The other academic who showed up was the late Professor J.H. White. Discussion with him focussed on the 1974 Ulster Workers' Council Strike. He rejected our view that the Strike was made possible by the duplicity of Garret FitzGerald and Conor Cruise O'Brien at the Sunningdale negotiations, as made explicit by their Defence plea in the legal action taken against them by Kevin Boland. He also rejected our general view that the establishment of the 'Northern Ireland State' in a political Limbo was responsible for the persistence of 'sectarianism'. But Professor Whyte must be credited with the moral courage to place himself in a room where dangerous thoughts were given expression.
This new book tells us that, "In the two years running roughly from June 1920 to June 1922 what became the province of Northern Ireland was engulfed in brutal and vicious sectarian violence" (p2). But three pages later it tells us that these things happened in "the Northern Ireland state" (p5).
So which was it? A state, or the province of a state? There is a vast difference between the two.
Things would not have gone the way they have gone in Northern Ireland if it was a state—or if it was a province of a state. So it is neither. It is part of a province detached from the state for some political purpose of the State, and camouflaged as a pseudo-state for that same political purpose.
Senior Government Scholar Lynch refers to "the unique context in which the Northern IRA were operating" (p129). But he does not say what that uniqueness consists of.
The blurb on the book cites praise of it by three other modern historians, who have also abstracted from political reality in their own histories: Keith Jeffrey, Michael Hopkinson, and John Regan.
Lynch cannot have assumed that "the unique context" was self-evident, because the point of his Introduction is that the doings of Northern Republicanism in those years have not been dealt with in either song or story:
"Perhaps the most fundamental reason for this neglect has been due to the psychological impact of the past thirty years of political upheaval in Northern Ireland. The sheer length and immediacy of the recent conflict has relegated earlier periods of violence in Ulster to the position of mere dress-rehearsals for the main event taking place in the present. They are the unfinished battles of the past now finally reaching their conclusion… Such attitudes have meant that the role of the north-east in the Irish revolution is extremely ill-defined. Vague or emotive phrases such as the “Troubles” or the “Belfast Pogrom” have been employed to describe what is an extremely complex set of historical events with distinct phases of development. This failure to adequately define the period has been reinforced by a distinct possessiveness of the events of the revolutionary period on the part of Southern nationalists, typified by the employment of an identical nomenclature for the various phases of the conflict on both sides of the border", e.g. the Truce, which was a period of intense warfare in the North (p2).
"The context of the recent 'Troubles'… has also meant that any historical subject which involves a link between the IRA and Northern Ireland will almost inevitably be an extremely sensitive one. This has been demonstrated markedly by the lack of substantial historical sources for the period. Archival material, such as that now released today, was simply not available to earlier historians. There was almost a paranoid fear, especially in Northern Ireland, that new historical revelations would do little but stoke the fires of sectarian conflict and either offend or reinforce one of the two competing ideologies. The absence of available archives meant that those who did research the subject tended to have something of an axe to grind. This approach is typified in the work of republicans such as Michael Farrell and rather defensive unionists, most notably Bryan Follis" (p3).
"The end result of these various practical and ideological barriers has led to what the historian and political scientist Paul Bew has called “partitionist history”. Bew argues convincingly that historians have concentrated overly on the internal development of either southern nationalism or Ulster unionism. Whereas knowledge of the two traditions in Ireland has become increasingly sophisticated, and the grand nationalist narrative of the revolution has been successfully challenged, this has been achieved at the expense of all-Ireland perspectives" (p4-5).
Bew was one of the academics whom we had hoped, 30 years ago, to draw into a discussion of the general connectedness of things in the 1920-22 period. Both he and Professor Patterson maintained a severe distance from us. They were members of 'Official Sinn Fein', or whatever it happened to be called at the time, and they were living ideologically in the a priori omniscience of Althusserian political science, which discounted experience as a source of knowledge.
The idea that an accurate account of what went on in 1920-22 could not be written thirty years ago for lack of "archival material" is groundless. Everything of any real consequence was public at the time. Archive material has supplied no more than curious footnotes or fine detail. And the present mode of writing history from archives has had the function of displacing narrative history, rather than of filling it out with greater detail. These archives should be published in bulk as a matter of academic routine, without ideological furore, as is done elsewhere.
And what are we to make of the fear that "historical revelations would… stoke the fire of sectarian conflict" in the mid 1970s ! ! ?
Historical revelations could have had nothing but a calming effect on the "fires of sectarian conflict" that had been generated by the existing structure of "the Northern Ireland state". We can state that with certainty, because we made a few revelations at the time, and that is the effect they had.
Our revelations did not come from access to secret sources. They came from the operation of reason on publicly-available information—the kind of thing that archival history, as conduct in recent years, is designed to prevent.
The political context of Irish affairs in that general period is the British State. The strict meaning of politics (both etymologically and in actual life) is the business of governing a state. Britain was a state conducted by representative government in a two-party system of politics, and it was in the process of establishing a democratic electoral franchise. The two-party system (described by undisputed authority as "the life-blood of the Constitution") failed to put down roots in Ireland, outside eastern Ulster, after the Act of Union. There was a separate Irish Party development which, although called Constitutional, was committed to the Constitutionally abnormal principle that it would not take part in the Government of the state. It would have been an Irish Independence Party, but for the fact that Parliament would not entertain the idea of Irish independence. So, in place of independence, it adopted the aim of establishing a degree of local, devolved government in Ireland under the authority of the Crown and the supervision of the UK Government, and with continuing Irish representation at Westminster. Under John Redmond's leadership the Home Rule Party became increasingly Imperialist in outlook, and in 1914 it threw itself wholeheartedly into the Great War which led to the expansion of the Empire in Africa and the Middle East.
It was against the measure of modest self-government within the Empire and under the eye of Westminster that Protestant Ulster rebelled and formed a private Army to fight against Home Rule if ever the Home Rule Bill became an Act. It never did become an Act. Although it was put on the Statute Book in September 1914, its implementation was suspended indefinitely, and the Unionists were given a guarantee that it would never be implemented as it stood.
Electoral government was suspended in 1915 for the duration of the War. When a General Election was eventually held in December 1918, the Home Rule Party was wiped out by the electorate, which voted for Irish independence.
Senior Government Scholar Lynch writes: "Assessing the level of IRA violence in particular areas of Ireland during the revolutionary period, and more crucially the reasons for it, is notoriously difficult" (p43).
It certainly is—if you turn a blind eye to the fact that an electoral mandate for independence was being ignored by the Government, as Lynch does. He does not mention the Election and the Government response to it, and therefore he deals with the "violence of the revolutionary period" in a political vacuum, so that it appears as mere feuding.
It is highly improbable that the IRA would ever have existed if the Government, when it saw the Irish election result (a result which it had anticipated), had made a statement of policy which indicated an intention to act in accordance with the will of the electorate. (It had been for four years fighting a World War for democracy and the rights of small nations, and its professions of principle had been widely believed in Ireland.)
When it ignored the Election, and carried on governing Ireland, democracy would have been reduced to a travesty if the Irish had just put up with it. They didn't put up with it. They set about establishing their own system of government, and they fought a war against the British Army of Occupation that tried to stop them.
Of course the Irish resistance to the Occupation force was more intense in certain "particular areas" than in others. That was in the nature of things. It would have been strange indeed if it had been homogeneous.
Some areas were more active than others. But to investigate these particularities, while ignoring the general political situation which made it necessary that there should be a war to give effect to an electoral mandate, and then to attribute the "violence" to those local particularities alone—which is the revisionist way: that is falsification of history.
"The failure of Sinn Fein to make a priority of the North in its programme, the unionists not even being mentioned in the 1918 constitution, would inevitably mean that any future policy would be based more on expediency than political commitment… Sinn Fein's 'one size fits all' nationalism would prove particularly ill-suited to the demands of the IRA organisation in the six counties although the brutality of unionist opposition would consistently act to mask these fundamental flaws" (p43).
The "subtleties of Ulster's political landscape" were not taken into account.
There was a dissenting minority in the North East which had organised itself militarily against Redmond's Imperialist Home Rule movement when the sovereign Parliament was in the process of passing a Bill to establish devolved government in Ireland. The Irish electorate changed its mind in the course of the Great War and voted for independence in 1918. There was no "subtlety" in the Unionist position when mere Home Rule was the issue, and it is hard to see how "subtlety" entered in when independence became the issue.
The great question was whether Ireland was to be dealt with as a single political entity, as it had been by England ever since the Conquest. The Ulster Unionists had often complained of this since the mid-19th century, arguing that their different social and economic structure required different laws and a different administration from the rest of the country, but Westminster had paid no heed. It was as the Kingdom of Ireland that Ireland entered the Union in 1800, and it was as the Kingdom of Ireland that it was governed by Britain until 1920.
In 1919 Britain constructed many new states in Europe, applying the standard of historic political territory, combined with current national opinion, to the delimitation of these states, and in many instances the factor of historic territory was given priority. This procedure resulted in the formation of national states in which there were large dissenting national minorities.
In Ireland it was not a case of reviving ancient political territories. The constitutional existence of the Kingdom of Ireland was never challenged by the conquest—until 1920.
The ground of Senior Government Scholar Lynch's criticism of Sinn Fein in this matter is far from clear. Is he suggesting that Sinn Fein should have taken the initiative in Partitioning the country and not waited for Britain to do so?
Gladstone proclaimed the grand principle that "England has her constancy no less than Rome". This was in the spirit of Burke, who held that ancient forms should be maintained almost at any cost, and that Constitutional innovation was to be avoided. It had been raised as a debating point by Macaulay against O'Connell's Repeal campaign (which went much further than Redmond's Home Rule demand) that the principle on which O'Connell argued for Repeal might be used by Protestant Ulster as an argument for exclusion from a Repeal Bill. But it was only a debating point, because Repeal was then taken to be an utter impossibility.
The drastic constitutional innovation of breaking up the Kingdom of Ireland was something that the powers-that-be in Whitehall could not set before themselves coldly as a systematically thought out project. They deceived themselves about what they were doing when they were doing it. (See Eamon Dyas, Federalism & The 1920 Government Of Ireland Act, Institute for Representative Government, 1989.) And they possibly would not have done it at all if, at a desperate moment during he Great War, the conduct of government had not fallen into the hands of a gifted charlatan. (Lloyd George was of the type that Burke held up to contempt in his tirade against the French Revolution.)
The frivolously-enacted Partition of Ireland was one of a series of disastrous decisions which undermined the Empire at the moment of its greatest power. It was not something which a thorough knowledge of English affairs would have led one to take to be inevitable. And it is certainly not reasonable to criticize Sinn Fein for failing to pre-empt it by doing it itself.
Sinn Fein won the election in the Kingdom of Ireland on an independence mandate—a very much clearer mandate than that by which the Act of Union was achieved. It declared independence, appointed a Government, and gained the adhesion of local authorities to its system at the following local elections. It was obliged to go to war when Britain's Irish Government—a government of all Ireland under a Viceroy—took no heed of the Election, substituting naked military power when the fig-leaf of the Home Rule Party was torn off.
In 1919 there were two rival Irish Governments, one based on force the other on an electoral mandate. And Ulster Unionism supported one of them—the one based on force.
Although the Ulster Unionist Council had in 1916 been persuaded into a provisional acceptance of a 6 County Partition in the event of the Home Rule Act being revived from the dead and implemented, it was far from being committed to Partition. It relinquished its claim to three Ulster Counties in the event of Imperialist Home Rule being implemented, but it became an Imperialist all-Ireland Party when independence came on the agenda. It supported British military rule over the whole of Ireland in defiance of the Election result. It was Imperialist by preference. The appeal to democratic principle was a fall-back position to be appealed to in case the Empire faltered.
The Unionist response to the 1st Home Rule Bill in 1886 was an expression of outrage that a superior people should be subordinated to an inferior people on the basis of head-counting, even though it was only a matter of local government. That remained its animating spirit. The Ulster Protestants were one of the peoples of the master-race of the world, and their great concern in public affairs was that they should stay in the game of world-mastering. When most of Ireland was let go (sort of) in 1921-2, what hurt most was not the loss of 26 Counties to which they had been attached, but the failure of Imperial will to master the situation. Ulster remained attached to what it was attached to—the Empire. Carson uttered a kind of protest on its behalf at the setting up of 'the Northern Ireland state', which placed it at a distance from the democracy of the State and required it to engage in the distasteful business of governing—or controlling—a large body of Catholics. But Carson was not an Ulsterman. And Ulster did not feel the pain of the arrangements made in 1921-2 as Carson did. The Ulster Unionists were, if anything, rather proud that they had become a semi-detached statelet of the Imperial family of nations, and they felt no loss at being excluded from the new, vulgar, nondescript democracy of the "mainland".
Even fifty years later, when the whole ramshackle structure had been brought down, we had the greatest difficulty in getting them to understand that their trouble had come about through their exclusion from the democracy of the state. And, even when they grasped it intellectually, they didn't feel it. And as William James said, where there is no feeling there is no value. The late Harold McCusker was one of those who understood it best, but even he could never get over the feeling that the half-century of the Stormont statelet was an idyll, one of the great Golden Ages in the history of the world.
Ulster Unionist culture had little to do with democracy as an actual mode of government. It was happy to support military rule in Ireland after the 1918 Election. And it was happy after 1922 to be excluded from the politics of governing the State, and to occupy its own apolitical niche in the Empire. And it is a shame that Providence did not arrange their Paradise for them in a way that was not a fool's paradise.
Senior Government Scholar Lynch says not a word about the setting-up of Northern Ireland by Britain. In this he follows Professor Foster, to whom he acknowledges a particular debt. To Foster it is as if the British State did not exist, or played no particular part in Irish affairs. Consistently with this view, Foster argues that Irish Republicans should have made war on the Ulster Unionists rather than on the British State:
"…it was Ulster resistace that should have provided the target for advanced nationalist aggression" (Modern Ireland p492).
But Irish affairs were above all affairs of the British state. Britain was not a federal state whose regions developed themselves autonomously. It was a tightly-centralised state with no autonomy in its parts. Local government within it was a concession from the central authority, which operated under central supervision and might be revoked at any time.
Northern Ireland was set up in response to the Ulster Unionist terrorism of 1913-14. Unionists in recent years have said that the existence of an illegal army in the state is an act of terrorism, regardless of whether it does any shooting. The formation of the UVF, then, was a terrorist act, which led to the formation of Northern Ireland. And Northern Ireland was not a great deal more than the legalising of the UVF in the 6 Counties. But Northern Ireland was not set up by the Ulster Unionists. It was set up by British Act of Parliament.
The Ulster Unionist Council had no experience of statecraft and no aptitude for it, and it was not its business to see that the Partition settlement in the North was democratically viable. It was not greatly concerned about democracy, which it used only as a fashionable slogan. Its concern was that it should not be subjected to government by Catholics/Nationalists/natives. That was secured for it by Partition. But the condition on which Britain enacted Partition for it was that it should conduct a Home Rule government of Northern Ireland outside the political system of the state.
It might be argued that the Unionists did not know what they were getting. But Whitehall undoubtedly knew what it was giving—what it insisted on being taken.
All Ireland was governed by the Viceroy in January 1919. The IRA was formed as an all-Ireland body when the Viceroy took no heed of the election result.
Partition was enacted two years later. The Catholic community in the Six Counties had since about 1900 been the most vigorous element in the Home Rule Party. It was organised in the Ancient Order of Hibernians which was affiliated to the party, and the Hibernians, who were constitutional nationalists, remained strong in the North when the Home Rule Party collapsed in the South.
Eastern Ulster was the only part of Ireland where the British party-system took root after the Act of Union. The Whigs and Tories combined in opposition to Home Rule in 1886, but the two strains remained discernible in 1919, and there had in addition been a strong Labour development.
The rest of Ireland was in a sense the hinterland of the Ulster Hibernians, who were the active, popular element in the Home Rule movement. (They disciplined the Cork defectors from Redmondism at the 1909 Convention of the Irish Party). Partition cut them off from their base and left them an isolated vanguard. But they were not simply a nationalist organisation. Joe Devlin developed the AOH as a Friendly Society, and it registered as such under the Insurance Act.
In 1919 the Liberal Party (which had split under the stress of the War it had launched in 1914) was relegated to the political margins, and its place taken by the Labour Party.
If there had been a simple Partition of Ireland in 1919, with the Declaration of Independence being accepted for most of the country, or at least being negotiated with, and the Six Counties (or three or four Counties with bits of others) simply being part of the British political system, it is very improbable that there would ever have been an IRA. Hibernians and Unionists would in all probability have found natural places for themselves in the political life of the state.
But Eastern Ulster, the part of the country most suited for participation in the politics of the British state, was the only part of Ireland ever excluded from the politics of the British state. And the only strong survival of constitutional nationalism in Ireland was left without a constitutional outlet.
In June 1914 Redmond's nephew collaborated with Carson's son to write a play envisaging what would happen if the Home Rule Bill was enacted an implemented. Would the Army inspired by the Curragh Mutiny refuse to act for the Government? If it acted, would the Protestants resist? Conflict erupts between the Hibernians and the UVF, with the Army attempting to act but being ineffectual, and the play ends in chaos.
The Hibernians were then on the side of the law against the UVF rebellion. When it happened for real seven years later, the UVF was the legal authority and the Hibernians were driven berserk by being simultaneously cut off from their natural hinterland (which had changed from Imperial Home Rule to Republicanism in the interim), and from the British state in whose affairs they had begun to participate, and placed under the control of the rebels of 1913-14.
Those who dispense the patronage of the British State do not want these matters to be probed too closely. They want all of them to be lumped together as one thing, called "Partition", and discontent with this "partition" to be named "sectarianism". And that is what Lynch does.
He says: "the partitioning of Ireland into two new self-governing administrations has received only limited attention from historians" (p1), and proceeds to limit his own attention to it. He says that "Vague or emotive phrases such as the “Troubles” or the “Belfast Pogrom” have been employed to describe what is an extremely complex set of historical events" (p2). But nothing could be vaguer than "Partition into two administrations". As to the word "sectarian", which he uses a lot, it applies most properly for the system devised by Britain for the 6 Counties when it was partitioning Ireland. The response to a sectarian system by its victims is sectarian only as an inescapable derivative of the system: e.g. popular opposition to the Penal Laws was sectarian because it was composed of the Catholic victims of the system.
In abstraction from the shifting framework of the State, only a "bang-bang" history
of the conflict of the North is possible. As a "bang-bang" history
this book appears to be quite industriously written. But the IRA has never
been just a bang-bang gang.
Among The Scribes And Pharisees.
On Facism: Fact And Fiction. The Case Of Muriel
MacSwiney And Others.
1916: The Empire Strikes Back.
Shorts from the Long Fellow
Garrett FitzGerald's Pack Of Misbegotten Lies.
A Shape-Shifting Society.
Some Recollections Of The Connolly Association.
Cinema, Consciousness & The Irish War Of Independence.
Britain & The Spanish Civil War.
The 1916 Polemic.
Prisoners Of War In Ireland.
The Ministry For Immigration.
A Newspaper Debate About The Somme.
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