Contributed by Adrian Grant
The concluding episode of The Limits of Liberty concentrated on the second half of the twentieth century when, Ferriter argues, Irish people were more willing directly to directly challenge the power of the state. Workers’ struggles, public protests, feminism, sexual liberation, and great changes in the legal system all feature here, though none could be pursued with great detail in a fifty minute documentary. Moreover, many other aspects of life in the second half of the twentieth century were omitted from the programme. For example, Ireland’s entry to the EEC was portrayed as a Godsend for Ireland. There was no coverage or discussion of the opposition to Ireland joining the EEC. The idea that mass collective action only emerged in the second half of the twentieth century ignores the fact that the late 1920s and 1930s saw very similar groups marching in Dublin with similar demands. The Unemployed Workers’ Committee, which was established in 1957, was very similar to the unemployed groups of previous decades.
The first two episodes of The Limits of Liberty very clearly followed the argument that Ireland’s politicians were obsessed with the acquisition of centralised power. In my review of part two I accepted that Ferriter’s omission of certain subjects could be justified because they were irrelevant to the point he was trying to make. However, in this final part the central argument seems to have been forgotten for long periods. One thing that seems to disprove the idea that Irish politicians were obsessed with power was EEC membership and integration. The EEC’s power to supersede Irish law was not met with opposition from Irish governments. Further integration was encouraged by Irish governments when they campaigned in favour of the many treaties since the 1980s. Surely this shows that Irish politicians were willingly loosening their grip on power. Those who were opposed to Irish membership of the EEC and further integration were people like those involved in the Unemployed Workers’ Committee, trade unions and republicans who didn’t even accept the legitimacy of the Irish state. There was no mention of this and it really weakened the impact of the argument put forth in the first two parts of the series.
Aside from this, the concluding part could have performed well as a standalone film on the modernisation of Ireland from the 1970s. Linking the changes in the legal system, EEC membership and liberalising legislation worked quite well. However, this section of the programme seemed rushed and could have been the subject of a series in itself. Ferriter came back to the Democratic Programme at the end and implied that EEC membership allowed quite a lot of it to finally be implemented. Therefore it would not be Irish politicians, but Europeans who would give us what we had been promised in 1919. He concluded that the people of Ireland had waited on the revolutionaries to build a solid parliamentary democracy, civil service, etc, before Fianna Fáil became the party of property developers and business interests. The grandchildren of the revolution then challenged the power of the state in the second half of twentieth century and succeeded in gaining more personal freedoms. This overlooks the fact that the early years of independence were not devoid of protest groups and that people did not sit around and accept that the state had to be solidified before they could criticise it. This series has to be welcomed because it has brought a lot of the overlooked aspects of modern Irish history into the mainstream. Unfortunately, the series as a whole was marred by the tenuous grip on the central argument in this final episode and the shaky conclusion at the end.
Adrian Grant is in the final year of a PhD at Magee College, University of Ulster. His thesis, which is entitled ‘Irish socialist republicanism, 1909-36’, examines the Irish Labour, republican and communist movements in the period. You can read his review of part one of The Limits of Liberty here, and his review of part two here.