The Outsider

an essay by Ruth Dudley Edwards

I LIVE and work in London; my well watered and often revisited roots are in Dublin, but my childhood memories and my mother’s stories of rural Cork are important to me. The political and religious heritage is mixed (Irish Catholic militant republican Grandmother Edwards née McInerney, English Methodist-turned-Quaker Grandfather Edwards, Irish Catholic apolitical Grandmother O’Sullivan née Ford, and Irish Catholic Home Ruler and British Army quartermaster Grandfather O’Sullivan).

It is fair to say that my major intellectual passion is Northern Ireland, where my stamping ground is both urban and rural, centred round Belfast and Omagh. Despite the fact that I was brought up as a (sceptical) Catholic nationalist, since many of my own tribe decided I was a turncoat, almost all my closest friends in Northern Ireland are Protestant and unionist. My long-time crusade has been against the IRA, which has destroyed tens of thousands of lives and made everything worse.

I am best known in Irish nationalist circles for my biography of Patrick Pearse, leader of the 1916 rebellion; in unionist circles for The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions; and in English circles for satirical novels making fun of the British Establishment. I am, I think, probably the only person who was, one summer, faced with a choice between a merry shindig in Dublin, a Buckingham Palace Garden Party or observing a stand-off at Drumcree. Cursing, I chose Drumcree.

As everything is copy for me, either as a commentator or a novelist, I think and often feel rather like an outsider everywhere. I have written much that is positive about the political cultures that I aspire to understand, but sometimes frustration gets the better of me. I have endured far too many conferences where nationalists are touchy, unionists are obdurate, neither side tries to understand the other and the English are begging everyone to be rational, believe the best of each other and reach an accommodation – often making use of that maddening phrase of the English political class and commentariat, ‘Is the truth not always somewhere in the middle?’

‘No, it bloody isn’t,’ I shout inwardly.

It is not good for one’s mental health to spend two or three hours daily reading about British, Irish and Northern Irish politics. The coverage of Northern Ireland in particular can be a source of intense aggravation, not least because so much of it bears little relation to reality. Like politicians, journalists are often so desperate for exciting news that they willingly collude in representing tiny advances as giant leaps and historic breakthroughs, rather than reporting the depressing fact that while Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern may be delighted with each other, nationalists and unionists hate each other just as much as they did yesterday – if not more.

Here, I intend to take the opportunity to reflect biliously on things that drive me mad about various groups on the two islands I love, prompted by a series of quotations from an earlier work of mine identified as capable of further elaboration by the editor of this volume. As a form of catharsis, 7 years ago I wrote The Anglo-Irish Murders, a satire on the peace process. The novel is about a conference on Anglo-Irish sensibilities, which has the objective of helping the peoples of this archipelago better to appreciate each other’s cultures. This is fraught with terrible difficulties, for, as the English conference organiser rightly points out, all these peoples have been at each other’s throats for centuries: ‘The Catholic Irish have hated the English and the Protestant Anglo-Irish, certainly, though not necessarily vice versa. But the English and the Welsh have always hated each other. The Protestants of Northern Ireland are mostly Scots and hate the English as well as the Irish, and the Scots look down on everyone and since getting their own parliament to swank importantly in, have become as militant as the Micks.’

That analysis seems to me to be so self-evidently true that there is no need for me to comment on it, except to say that there isn’t room in this essay for animadversions on the Welsh or the Scots of Scotland.


‘I don’t give a shite if we have a United Ireland’, he confided, ‘as long as it has no effect whatsoever on the twenty-six counties.’

A real live Dublin taxi-driver once said that to me, in one sentence summing up the ambivalence and hypocrisy of southern Irish nationalists towards a United Ireland. Being prone to enjoying victimhood, they are mostly happy to hang on to the grievance that the British own Northern Ireland. They vaguely aspire to acquiring it, and will sing when drunk about the proud old woman who wants her fourth green field back. They are frightened of the IRA, but many have what is known as a ‘sneaking regard’ for the bravery of ‘the lads’. Yet in their hearts they want Northern Ireland only if it doesn’t add a penny to their taxes and if there is a guarantee that those ghastly Northerners stay up there where they belong.

It was not because the citizens of the Republic were self-sacrificing that they produced a 94.4% vote in favour of amending the constitution to facilitate the implementation of the Good Friday (as nationalists call it) or Belfast (as unionists call it) Agreement. The deal involved replacing Articles 2 and 3, which claimed the Republic owned Northern Ireland; the electorate was keen on the idea because voting that way made it more likely that Northern Ireland would sort itself out and they could forget about the bloody place. That they could pretend that relinquishing the claim was selfless and a cause of deep hurt was a bonus.

The constitution’s aspiration to unity was reworded. The new Article 3.1 explains: ‘It is the firm will of the Irish Nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island.’

Although Ireland sees herself as female (Mother Ireland, Róisín Dubh, the Shan Van Vocht, Caitlin Ni Houlihan – take your pick), from the perspective of Ulster unionists she is a militant predatory male. There is a lessening of fear since the would-be bridegroom down south has foresworn the threatened forced marriage and has, at least in theory, committed himself to courtship. However, since the majority of people in the south dislike the little they know about their prospective unionist bride, even as they say they want to wed her, they grumble that she is ugly and rude and explain that they’re far too busy for the foreseeable future to take her as much as a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates.


‘The difference is,’ she shouted, ‘that we have a culture and you Protestants don’t. Some traditions are not worthy of respect.’

In my novel this is a quote from an Irish-American – a breed it is often hard to love. While most Irish-Americans are Ulster-Scots who take little interest in Ireland, and many of the other tradition are fine people who get on with their lives and don’t send money to Ireland for lethal weapons, the militantly republican fringe are a grisly lot of hate-filled, ignorant zealots. I once saw a red-headed, army-booted specimen in the small Fermanagh town of Newtownbutler, where she was assisting fellow republicans to block a legal Orange parade. ‘Soon,’ she said triumphantly, her eyes shining, ‘they won’t be able to march anywhere. They should all be sent off to Scotland in a boat.’ Even the Sinn Féin councillor she was addressing looked embarrassed.

However, it was not she who first introduced me to that kind of cultural bigotry, but the republican commentator Tim Pat Coogan, who baldly announced 15 or so years ago, at a conference about Northern Ireland, that unionists had no culture. The few unionists present were not inclined to rouse themselves to argue with a well known enemy, but there was panic among English liberals and Irish soft nationalists. ‘What about Louis MacNeice?’ cried one, only to be contemptuously dismissed by Coogan on the grounds that – like many other Ulster Protestant poets – MacNeice had turned against his own tribe and therefore didn’t count.

No one had the wit to point out that, if that was the criterion, Irish nationalists have no right to claim James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and many other writers who fled nationalist Ireland. Indeed, as the nice liberals strained to think of Ulster Protestant composers, ballet dancers or novelists, they showed themselves to be as ignorant as Coogan was bigoted. In the case of the Irish, this was mainly because of both insularity and an underlying conviction that – at best – Ulster Protestants are boring bible-thumpers who are good at do-it-yourself but never had an original idea. As Professor Paul Bew once pointed out when ticking off the normally brilliant Professor Joseph Lee for writing of the ‘sterility’ of the Ulster Protestant imagination, ‘this in the very period when C. S. Lewis, E. R. Dodds, Louis MacNeice and Ernest Walton were flourishing: everything from Narnia through brilliant Greek scholarship, outstanding poetry to Nobel prizewinning work in atomic energy.’

This being a largely middle-class group, it occurred to no-one to mention the outward and visible culture of Ulster Protestantism – their bands and parades, which reflect their pride in their origins, and their outstanding musical tradition which, because of its public association with Orangeism, has been successfully rubbished as sectarian drum-thumping. It was clever republican propagandists who – during a period when they were winding up Protestants by stopping them marching – said and wrote that ‘Some traditions are not worthy of respect’.

Few people pointed out the paradox. For many years, Sinn Féin has been the most right-on party in Ireland. It makes common cause with minorities, trumpets its anti-racism, multiculturalism and love of diversity, and invites to its annual West Belfast Festival hosts of foreign artists from the Mugenkyo Taiko Drummers to the Afro-Cuban All Stars, who perform in the time available between cemetery walks and lectures, films and plays about republican suffering and the wickedness of the unionist oppressors. Sinn Féin is a great believer in modish moral relativism: all cultures are good, except that of Ulster Protestantism. In this they are abetted by left-wing Protestants. (‘Orangeism is one of those outmoded ideologies of the petit bourgeoisie that we must rid ourselves of.’)

Of course the Ulster Protestant temperament, its suspicion of intellectuals, its reluctance to boast and its fantastic ineptitude in public relations have a lot to answer for here. Despite the fledgling Irish state’s appalling record of banning and driving out its artists, nowadays southern Irish culture is a huge money-spinner and is talked up all round the globe. Homosexuality was illegal until the 1990s, yet the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who is not known as a reading man, opens Wilde’s bar and Bosie’s Bistro and discourses on Oscar apparently learnedly, while – apart from the intellectual and dethroned leader of unionism, David Trimble – Ulster Protestant spokesmen are notorious for ignoring their writers and artists and speaking only about one book – the Bible.

While republican paramilitaries inflict mawkish short stories, bad poetry and even the odd dishonest novel upon the world, the contribution of the thugs and half-wits who dominate loyalist paramilitarism has been to shame their whole community by intimidating their fine playwright, Gary Mitchell, out of the working-class estate from which he drew his inspiration. (Republicans hate honesty and criticism just as much as loyalists do, but they intimidate more subtly and with an eye out for the cameras.)


‘The Northern Catholics never shut up whingeing and the stiff-necked old Ulster Prods, of course, told their side of the story with all the charm and subtlety of an aardvark.’

The first time I was exposed to Northern Catholic whingeing was at university in Dublin in the early 1960s. Having heard from a Belfast girl about the horrors of discrimination, we then learned that she had her fees paid by the British taxpayer and was on a full grant. In the Republic, at that time, there was not even free secondary education, and my gifted working-class boyfriend had to earn his way through university by canning beans in Kent every summer. For him it seemed preferable to be a second-class citizen – as she alleged – in Northern Ireland than a first-class citizen in the Republic.

A few years ago, to show how inclusive they were, the West Belfast Festival invited me – who they regard with deep and justified loathing – to be on a political panel. I tried to explain to the 800 or so Sinn Féin sympathisers that, while it was always tough being a minority, being a minority in the United Kingdom was probably as good as it got. I also mentioned that the Protestant minority in the south had had a rough time, which had been airbrushed out of history. This community – which has been brainwashed with the MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) message to such a level of absurdity that they compare themselves with Palestinians and South African blacks – listened politely and then laughed. They had known I was bad. Now they knew I was mad.

But goodness, what brilliant spin merchants and propagandists are Northern Ireland Catholics. Through rhetoric and ruthlessness, republicans, the main perpetrators of violence on the island, have hijacked the human rights industry and convinced most of the world that they are the victims. John Hume – who, from my considerable experience of him, was someone who couldn’t stand Protestants – effortlessly projected himself as a man of inclusiveness and ecumenism. David Trimble, who was seen as a bigot, is anything but, and has a group of friends from Catholic nationalist backgrounds who include a retired IRA terrorist.

Trimble saw the need for his people to communicate their message to the world, but he could never do the easy charm or use language he didn’t mean. There was a striking contrast when he and Hume made speeches at the Oslo ceremony where they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Hume talked a good deal of familiar high-sounding and optimistic stuff about, for instance, grasping and shaping history ‘to show that past grievances and injustices can give way to a new generosity of spirit and action’, and ended by quoting Martin Luther King.

Trimble made a thoughtful, realistic and positive speech that drew on Edmund Burke and Amoz Oz and George Kennan (one of the main architects of post-war American foreign policy), and told bleak truths. Remarking that the safest course with such a speech was ‘to make a series of vague and visionary statements’, he continued:

‘Indeed are not vague and visionary statements much the same thing? The tradition from which I come, but by which I am not confined, produced the first vernacular Bible in the language of the common people, and contributed much to the scientific language of the enlightenment. It puts a great price on the precise use of words, and uses them with circumspection, so much so that our passion for precision is often confused with an indifference to idealism. Not so. But I am personally and perhaps culturally conditioned to be sceptical of speeches which are full of sound and fury, idealistic in intention, but impossible of implementation; and I resist the kind of rhetoric which substitutes vapour for vision. Instinctively, I identify with the person who said that when he heard a politician talk of his vision, he recommended him to consult an optician!’

What both communities had to leave behind was the ‘dark sludge of historical sectarianism’ that both had created, he added:

‘But both communities must leave it behind, because both created it. Each thought it had good reason to fear the other. As Namier says, the irrational is not necessarily unreasonable. Ulster unionists, fearful of being isolated on the island, built a solid house, but it was a cold house for Catholics. And northern nationalists, although they had a roof over their heads, seemed to us as if they meant to burn the house down.’

Northern nationalists were outraged at what was represented as a snide attack; republicans greeted the speech as a ‘reactionary diatribe’; Tim Pat Coogan said that giving Trimble the prize had been like Caligula making his horse a consul; and a London-based Irish diplomat, echoing the view of the south, told me the whole speech was a disgrace. Northern Ireland Protestants showed few emotions other than deep suspicion.

In due course, prickly, mistrustful Northern Irish Protestants did for Trimble. They also did for the Reverend Brian Kennaway who, with the help of like-minded recruits to his Orange Order education committee, made a valiant and initially successful effort to explain Orangeism to the wider world. In recent years, the Orange Order has suffered from chiefs with the collective imagination of a myopic wood louse and the brains of a flu-stricken hen. Alarmed and paranoid, they dissolved Kennaway’s education committee: few even of his enlightened brethren came to his defence.

Lord Macaulay, writing of the seventeenth century, made a brilliant comparison between the Scots and the Irish temperaments:1

‘In natural courage and intelligence both the nations which now became connected with England ranked high. In perseverance, in self command, in forethought, in all the virtues which conduce to success in life, the Scots have never been surpassed. The Irish, on the other hand, were distinguished by qualities which tend to make men interesting rather than prosperous. They were an ardent and impetuous race, easily moved to tears or to laughter, to fury or to love. Alone among the nations of northern Europe they had the susceptibility, the vivacity, the natural turn for acting and rhetoric, which are indigenous on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.’

Unfortunately, the Scots who went to Ulster in the seventeenth century – like the Ulster Scots who would go to America in the eighteenth – were planters and pioneers locked in combat with the native population. The hard physical work entailed in working the land left little time for learning other than practical skills, and the siege mentality that developed was inimical to outside influences. (The same siege mentality has often been decried by nationalists, but as a unionist once observed, ‘We’d get rid of our siege mentality if they’d lift the fucking siege.’)

In the quarter-century that I’ve been a student of Northern Ireland, I’ve learned that – contrary to the notion that we will become one happy family when the Protestants see the light and realise that they want to be Irish – we have in Ireland two different tribes, who come from two radically different traditions and who therefore have completely different thinking processes. The roots of unionism, as Trimble pointed out, are in science and the Scottish Enlightenment, which revered reason, discipline and objectivity; the roots of nationalism – dominated by a religion grounded in pre-Enlightenment Scholastic philosophy – are in Romanticism, emotion, subjectivity and mysticism.

I am always amused by the annual shock-horror when a Presbyterian clergymen declines to participate in an ecumenical service. As the present Moderator, the Reverend Harry Uprichard, put it on one such occasion: ‘My concern is that the involvement of inter-church worship to that degree publicly aligns those of the reformed faith with those not of the reformed faith.’ This is a perfectly logical and consistent intellectual position and has nothing to do with bigotry. From a Catholic perspective, however, although a generation ago it was a mortal sin to go to a Protestant service, emotion now dictates that inclusiveness is all and they will happily pray along with Protestants and, no doubt, Scientologists and Satanists too.

These traditions are reflected in the rhetoric. Ulster Protestants often seem rude and aggressive to Catholics, who they often find insincere and gushing. (To be described by an Ulster Protestant as ‘genuine’ is a huge compliment.) Not surprisingly, Ulster Protestants often turn out to be nicer, and Catholics less nice, than they seem on the surface. Differences are particularly marked when it comes to the written word, as Trimble again pointed out. Protestants like absolute clarity; Catholics are masters of creative ambiguity. That has led during the peace process to disastrous misunderstandings as well as deepening distrust.

Reason versus emotion are visible too in voting patterns. Ulster Protestants (‘I mean proper Prods. Decent unionists who support the state and don’t kill people.’) do not vote for paramilitaries or their spokesmen. Ulster Catholics do. But Protestants are perfectly prepared to vote for people who come across to the world as raving bigots as long as they are law-abiding, while Catholics will vote for murderers as long as they claim to be peace-loving.


‘I pay as little attention to Irish politics as is humanly possible. If they are not bombing London, I forget about them.’

I don’t blame the English for having become bored and irritable about Irish politics. Essentially, Ireland is a small, attention-seeking country to the west about which English people feel faintly guilty, and which seems forever to be taking offence and demanding a disproportionate amount of money, care, time and apologies. Some of its people are great fun; others are a nightmare.

As an emigrant to Britain from the mid-1960s, I had an old-fashioned and now unfashionable view that, if you aspire to live in someone else’s house, you should obey the house rules. Unlike many of my countrymen, I thought it impolite to sing rebel songs about the wicked Brits or to demand special treatment on the grounds that I was of an ethnic minority. Having left Ireland because it was under the authoritarian and misogynistic rule of the Irish Roman Catholic Church, I was deeply grateful to my adopted country for taking me in and treating me extremely well. ‘I admire the English for their great hospitality to foreigners and their kindness to strangers’, observes one of my characters. My sentiments exactly. This attitude is described in republican circles as ‘colonial cringe’.

Not only are the English stunningly tolerant, but they like the Irish very much indeed. Neither in my private nor my professional life did I knowingly encounter any prejudice. Irish victimology is forever harping on about how Irish emigrants in the middle of the last century had to endure signs in English boarding houses saying ‘No Irish’. I win no friends by pointing out that your average English landlady wanted a reliable, dull lodger, not someone who was likely to get drunk and bring friends home at dawn. ‘If one could only teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen,’ observed Wilde, ‘society here would be quite civilized.’ Certainly – a century later – my English husband and I found that the ideal recipe for a dinner-party was four parts English to two Irish disinhibitors.

There were, however, a few English types who drove me, and still drive me, mad. There were the angst-ridden breast-beaters who revelled in apologising abjectly for all the sins committed by their ancestors in Ireland. ‘Ah, but you brought us benefits as well,’ one might begin in response, only to be interrupted by earnest assurances that no people in the history of the universe could have behaved worse than the English. I used to snap something about how, if we had to be conquered, I’d rather have been so by the English than the French or the Germans or the Spanish, but that cut no ice with their orgiastic self-abatement.

Then there were the British lefties whose raison d’être was to turn every emigrant into a self-pitying burden on the British state. In the 1980s, in particular, shedloads of money cascaded into the begging bowls of Irish emigrant groups and institutions. There was a period, for instance, when left-wing councils poured hundreds of thousands of pounds into appallingly run Irish centres: it took mismanagement on a heroic scale to bankrupt the Irish Centre in Liverpool and to wreck the Irish Club in Belgravia. Yet as these scandals were thrashed out in the Irish emigrant press, their management committees showed no shame: they just demanded more subsidies. This was the period when self-appointed spokesmen for the Irish community were demanding ethnic status, which would give the Irish lots of special privileges and grants, including the right to have a liaison officer in every council, borough or public institution lest the most articulate race on earth might be unable to find the correct words to demand their rights.

Finally, there is the kind of institution that gives grants to notorious grievance-researchers to chronicle discrimination against the Irish. I still remember two complaints in one such preposterous report: the first from an Irish clerk in a social security office who complained that, when Irish people came on the line, her English colleague would suggest she deal with them; the other from an Irish claimant who complained that there was no one Irish in her social security office, so she thought she was probably missing out.

In my early days in London, I led my life almost exclusively among the English, but the bombings and killings made me decide to get involved in matters Irish and do what I could to oppose the IRA. There was the British Irish Association, where I was initially convinced by John Hume’s argument that the Irish were a divided people rather than two different tribes. It took me a few years of getting to know players and groundlings on all sides to realise this was rubbish.

Around the same time, I was plunged into the world of Irish emigrant politics when I agreed to be chairman of the British Association for Irish Studies (BAIS) – a new organisation dedicated to bringing authentic culture from all the traditions of Ireland to the British party. What motivated me was the discovery that money was being poured into what can best be described as the Sinn Féin version of history, and there was no organisation to stand up for academic integrity and excellence. I almost choked when I had to listen to a retired lady bomber give a lecture sponsored by Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council in which she said that no people had ever suffered as much as the Irish. The BAIS, which still flourishes, won support from British politicians as well as commercial organisations and did a great deal to take scholarship – including the Irish language – out of politics.


‘The Irish are a very strange people,’ said Pooley [an upper-class English policeman].

At British-Irish conferences, nice, decent liberals from London and Dublin strain to understand each other’s point of view on Ireland, and differences of temperament and thinking are obscured. One of the most illuminating experiences I had in terms of understanding the relationship came at a British-Irish conference that had been deliberately planned so as to exclude the subject of Northern Ireland. ‘Let us,’ said the organisers, ‘model this on Konigswinter, and we will be able to focus on that which unites us rather than that which divides us.’ So it was decided that the conference theme should be the European Union.

Yet what was starkly revealed was that the English mindset is Protestant and the Irish is Catholic. As Macaulay said, we are indeed like a Mediterranean nation. At every turn, in looking to the future of the EU, English diplomats urged caution, thinking things through, seeing the implications of arguments, putting brick on brick, and so on and on. ‘But surely,’ cried the Irish, ‘we must have vision. We must think in a European way. We must make a leap. We must remember the Holy Roman Empire.’

I realised that weekend that I no longer thought like an Irish Catholic. Having served my time in the British civil service before it was New Labourised, I had no time for unquantified vision and was preoccupied by the law of unintended consequences. I put on the blurb of one of my books later that I was ‘intellectually English and temperamentally Irish’. Inevitably, it caused several Irish people great offence.

However, intellect is not enough. An English failing that, at times, causes me despair is an inability to see evil when it is staring it in the face. When, in the early 1990s, I wrote The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843-1993, I was staggered to find how many brilliant English minds in the 1930s persisted in thinking Hitler was susceptible to reason. When this tendency is in harness with the Irish propensity to wishful thinking, life is good for the bad people. ‘The British and Irish governments’, says an enraged realist in my novel, ‘think that if you invite terrorists to conferences and cocktail parties, they’ll give up murder.’

In 1998, David Trimble spoke of his worry ‘that there is an appeasing strand in western politics. Sometimes it is a hope that things are not as bad as all that. Sometimes it is a hope that people can be weaned away from terror. What we need is George Kennan’s hardheaded advice to the State Department in the 1960s for dealing with the state terrorists of his time, based on his years in Moscow. “Don’t act chummy with them; don’t assume a community of aims with them which does not really exist; don’t make fatuous gestures of good will.” ’ Of course, the British Government ignored him.

As unionists have come to realise, being friends with the Irish Government is far more important to the British Government than being loyal to unionists. After all, Ireland is a European and UN partner and, because of her links with Irish-America, can be extremely influential in the USA. When I wrote a book about the Foreign Office in 1993, I learned about three styles of diplomacy. Grotian diplomacy was defined by Harold Nicolson as ‘common sense and charity applied to international relations’; Machiavellian diplomats used ‘coercion and bribery’; and Kantians sprang from the assumption that mankind is fundamentally benevolent and will respond to unilateralist gestures of goodwill. British and Irish diplomats have practiced Kantian diplomacy as republicans played by Machiavellian rules. The mess we have today was heralded by the catastrophic decision to allow paramilitary prisoners out of jail without prior decommissioning, which left loyalist and republican areas under the boot of thugs and criminals. Its most catastrophic legacy is the destruction of the middle ground of Northern Ireland politics in the anxiety to appease. In this the Irish and British Governments worked hand-in-hand. Their relationship has never been better. Shame about Northern Ireland.


1 Macaulay, T.B. (1849) History of England, Vol. I, chapter 1, part 4.

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The above essay appears in Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined II (British Council, September 2006)


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