The strength of loyalism may crumble into dust

IN MY life, I have found only three writers for whom I feel love - not adulation, but personal affection for three human beings. I met none of them. One, Alexander Herzen, died long before I was born and the second, Primo Levi, killed himself in 1987. But there is no mistaking the blaze of recognition, the annunciation of a new and intimate friend, which can happen while a book is being read.

The third writer for whom I feel instinctive love - not just for the work, but for the human being who thought and shaped it - is Hubert Butler. His fame began to spread across his native Ireland and then across the world when he was already an old man. When the first collection of his articles and columns and lectures was published in 1985 he was 84 years old. But by the time of Butler's death in 1991, readers throughout Europe and America were asking in amazement why he had not been part of their common culture before.

Last week, Ireland seemed to be a source only of pain and darkness. After so long a holiday, it was back to the killing school; once again, the two cornered rats of republicanism and loyalism began to scream and bite. At such a horrible moment, it helps to find and hold tightly the very particular Irishness of Hubert Butler. He was a steady hater of cruelty and stupidity. The poet Joseph Brodsky called him a "dishonesty hunter". His understanding of Ireland was not that of Gerry Adams or David Trimble, nor even of John Major or John Bruton - but not so far from President Mary Robinson's thought of Ireland as a door open to strangers.

Hubert Butler was an Anglo-Irish Protestant, a descendant of the old ascendancy gentry. His family had been in Ireland since the 13th century, one of those great houses which, as he put it, had oppressed the natives for 300 years as Catholics, before oppressing them for another four centuries as Protestants. Butler was born and died in Kilkenny, and he was content to be a self-consciously provincial intellectual rather than a Dublin writer. But he was also the best kind of European, a man who had seen Europe at its criminal worst without flinching.

Educated, in the way of his caste, at an English public school and university, Butler refused to abandon Ireland after independence and remove to England, as so many of his like did. Instead, after working for the county libraries movement in Ireland, he set off to make a living as a teacher in the outside world. He worked in Egypt, in Latvia, and then in Leningrad in the early Stalinist years. From there he moved to Zagreb, where he spent three years studying Croatian and Serbian culture. In 1938 he joined a Quaker group in Vienna, getting Jews out of the country after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany. Only when the war had begun did he return to an uneasily neutral Ireland, and settle again at Kilkenny.

In central and eastern Europe, Hubert Butler gained exactly the kind of experience - often good but sometimes appalling - that was needed to get his own small, isolated nation into perspective as it fumbled for a new identity.

But, at first, the Irish found that perspective repellent. After the war Butler had returned to Zagreb and had read through the files of the Catholic press during the Pavelic dictatorship. Back in Ireland, his demonstration that the church had frantically approved and abetted Pavelic's campaign of genocide against Orthodox Serbs went down very badly. After the Papal Nuncio in Dublin had walked out of his lecture on wartime Croatia, Butler was hounded down the staircase of public life until even the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, which he had revived and led, was induced to strip him of his secretaryship. For some years, he was deemed a disgrace to the community.

This is one of the reasons why Butler's writing reached so small a circle for so long. Much of his best work was published only in small journals or in the Kilkenny press. But another reason was his (in those times) maverick interpretation of Irish history. Butler held that the Anglo-Irish minority and, until the 19th century, the Northern Protestants had laid the foundations not only for Irish independence but for the reinvention of Irish culture and the language revival. Henry Grattan and the great revolutionary Wolfe Tone were his heroes. When Northerners supported the American Revolution, the Catholic interest hastened to express loyalty to the British Crown. "Most of our free institutions in Ireland were evolved by Protestants and men of Anglo-Irish or English stock."

Butler's great grief was that the powerful Anglo-Irish families had abandoned their mission and betrayed the Protestant "right of private judgement", thereby condemning themselves to political extinction. Wolfe Tone had warned before his suicide while awaiting execution in 1798 that "they have disdained to occupy the station they might have held among the People ... They shall perish like their own dung. Those who have seen them shall say, 'Where are they?' ". But Anglo-Irish and English mavericks survived into the 1920s to shape the new Irish culture. Only then did those houses empty, "where once great decisions about Ireland were made, bold ideas canvassed and the first rough outlines of a great civilisation, half-English, half-Gaelic but wholly Irish, planned".

In a few months, the fourth and last volume of Hubert Butler's work will be published by the Lilliput Press in Dublin. Its contents range across all Europe, but nothing is so provoking as what he has to say about Ireland. Butler saw partition as a disaster because Ireland's disunity "has disturbed the equilibrium of opposing forces which is necessary to a country's happiness. Without the Protestant North we have become lopsided. We lack that vigorous and rebellious Northern element, which in the 18th century was responsible both for our nationalism and our republicanism."

And, unfashionably, he mocks what he calls the "illusion of broad horizons". Butler argues that it is dangerous to overlook the real neighbour for some cosmic notion of belonging, such as "the global community". He means the Northern claim to inhabit a wider, more cosmopolitan world. But these are also uncomfortable words for those in the south of Ireland, who prefer to forget their Northern neighbours and celebrate the Republic's "broad horizons" in the European Union. And he has written, "it is as neighbours, full of ineradicable prejudices, that we must love each other".

It is wrong to think, in these days of despair, that everything has grown worse in Ireland since Butler's time. In 1957 he wrote,"Our island is dangerously tilted towards England and towards Rome, good places in themselves, but best seen on the level. Everybody is rolling off it and those that remain, struggling hard for a foothold, drag each other down." Modern Ireland tilts less, for all its troubles.

The Republic continues to change, steadily leaving its clerical and claustrophobic past behind. And the North? If peace can somehow be regained, there are grounds for hope there, too. "Protestant Ulster" (that monster of abstraction) is not about to revert to the revolutionary republicanism inspired by Wolfe Tone. And yet something is going on behind that "No Surrender" wall.

The British scheme, since the 1980s, has been to weaken loyalist rigour "incrementally". But history is not often incremental. Things seem to stay invulnerably the same and then they suddenly fall to dust, secretly consumed inside by the termites of time. We have seen a few cases recently - South Africa, the Soviet Union. Ulster loyalism may be a third. For the past few years, North and South have been induced to turn a little away from their respective "broad worlds" and turn a little towards one another as neighbours, preparing to accept one another's "ineradicable prejudices". And, as Hubert Butler knew, this is a most subversive process.