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That mode Fanning delineates with surpassing skill, comparable with the most subtle exegeses of even such masters of the political historian’s craft as Nicholas Mansergh and Maurice Cowling, indeed surpassing both in literary style.

Ireland was for them merely a pawn in a more important game: their careers.

All this Fanning delineates with superb command of his material, not least in decoding the significance of what is not said as well as what is said in the innumerable documents he fillets, making it a joy to savour the brushwork of a master of his craft at the top of his form.

In his probing reconstruction of the attitudes of these two prime ministers towards Irish nationalist demands, Fanning establishes indisputably that the essential issue for either of them was never Ireland but was, rather, their own party advantage and, above all, their personal career advantage.

Both had to spend more time calculating the consequences of their policies for internal British politics, and their own positions, than for Anglo-Irish relations.

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But with the subtlety of exposition matched by the skill of presentation, a text that could in places have threatened the reader with submersion in torrents of daunting detail becomes a compelling read.

That Fanning sustains his momentum through such dense material owes much to the seductiveness of a style sustained by pithy comments, deft formulations and saturnine reflections.

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