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The old familiar places

November 28, 2017

Television Quiz show, University Challenge, first broadcast in 1962, has switched question master and channel and has reflected the changes in academic institutions and their students – but one thread has remained constant.

Ask a question centred on the culture, history, or geography of Scotland, Wales or Ireland and, unless a team contains a student from those far flung corners of the world, there are liable to be blank faces. Place Aberdeen on the map? Sorry, mate. In what century did Owain Glyndŵr live? Haven’t a clue. Where is the Hill of Tara? Nope.

Now, you might wonder why a young person brought up in, say, Warwickshire, should have the information to answer questions centred within three or four hundred miles of his upbringing – if you were rather insular. And maybe it isn’t important.

But then, ask students from Ireland, Wales, or Scotland similar questions about England and you are liable to find they know the answers. Place Bristol on the map? There ye go. In what forest did Robin Hood live? No problem. Where is Stonehenge? Pinpointed immediately.

So, if these young people represent the brightest and the best, and are capable of answering loads of questions which many of us don’t even understand, why this Celtic blind spot? And why does it not operate in reverse?

The simple answer, of course, is that, in educational and media terms, information about the country of 50 million souls outweighs the information provided about the countries of 5 million and 3 million. You may say this is just the way of the world, the consequence of comparative size – except, it doesn’t seem to work that way between France and Germany or Belgium and Holland. Let’s not get into the question of autonomy here, but clearly, that has an effect, and one which Ireland still has to fully offset even after  nearly a century of independence.

However, this is not merely a question of self government. It is more a question of whether education is inward or outward looking, and the signs are that, in England, popular knowledge of these islands is, geographically, rather limited.

How else to explain the acceptance of the Brexit promises, so obviously based on falsehood? Why are “values” based on wars from a century ago, and the suggestion made that this shows the best of the “British people”? How come the ignorance of the harm done by colonial exploitation, or the easy stereotyping of “foreigners”? Why the generally unchallenged view that “British fair play” and “English Justice” are the best in the world – when the evidence suggests both claims are dubious at best?

It is perhaps ironic, or inevitable, that it would be a Scot who wrote the wise words:

“O wad some Power the giftie  gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!”

Lack of self awareness can be annoying in those yet to mature, and has caused many an embarrassment or mistaken decision. That can be coped with – what is more worrying is when it is a feature of the body politic, as it seems to be at Westminster just now: a  lack of self awareness and an ignorance of, or disdain for, the impact of decisions and actions.

If the apparently “best educated” in the land grow up with a general blind spot when it comes to other countries – especially those in these islands, and if they go on to make crucial decisions in governance, then we can all suffer. It is interesting to note that, whilst English exceptionalism can lead to a kind of xenophobic nationalism, in Scotland and Wales, there has developed a more outward looking civic nationalism, where independence is not about flags and superiority but about an effective, connected governance, and a welcome to citizens from elsewhere as part of the nation.

The reason this is particularly important just now is to be found around the Irish Border issue as part of Brexit. As seems to be their general approach, those charged with effecting Brexit apparently take an “It’ll be alright on the night” approach to the problems that would follow the construction of what would  become a hard border on the edge of the EU.

Well, it won’t be alright.  And the fact that they think it will be betrays a long recognised  aspect of British politics: they know nothing about Ireland – and don’t particularly want to remedy that state of affairs. There are a whole swathe of folk in England for whom, sadly,  Ireland is no more than Terry Wogan, Guinness, and leprechauns.

As always, history is involved, and we only need to go back as far as the creation of the Border in 1922.

When arrangements were being made for Partition, there was an understanding on the Irish side that a border would be drawn round areas of Ulster which contained  largely a Loyalist/Protestant majority. Though demographically this could never be exact, it was fair to expect that Co Antrim, North Down, North Armagh and East Derry would remain under UK control – roughly a third of the current 6 county state. Free State politicians were confident that this would not prove to be a viable entity in  the long term. This optimism was abetted by an agreement that there would be a review of the decision by the Border Commission after some years of operation to see if the borderline should be adjusted.

However, the Commission proposed  a border not just around “loyalist” territory but one which included the largest area of land that could maintain  a unionist majority, thus stranding thousands of nationalists within a state which was openly set up as “A Protestant State for a Protestant People.” The promised reappraisal was never carried out.  After the “initial” border was operational, the absence of the chance for restructuring was a particular blow to nationalists living in Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry, South Down and South Armagh.

Behind this lies much of the angst that the border has caused through the years – even when there were no “Troubles”. What most English politicians fail to realise is that the Border Commission’s partition of Ireland was so  incompetently carried out that it led to a novel and film: “Puckoon”, by madcap humourist, Spike Milligan, who admitted even he could never have thought up anything as bizarre and unworkable.

The border cuts through fields, houses and businesses. Even more tellingly, it cuts towns off from their hinterlands: Derry’s natural hinterland is Donegal, folk in Leitrim and Longford are as likely to shop in Enniskillen as they are to go to Sligo; Donegal folk receive hospital treatment in Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital. It is, in every possible sense an “unnatural” border, and as such is porous and, without military intervention, basically impracticable.

Generally speaking, English politicians are either ignorant of these facts, or dismissive of them. And, without being overly alarmist, as has been said today, if you put up customs posts, as EU law requires, then  they will be attacked as well as  circumvented, and that will require military protection, and that will offer an excuse to some for “retaliatory” action.

The vast majority of meat exports from the six counties are processed in the 26 counties, so how would a border impact that trade? Thousands live in one jurisdiction and work in another. Virtually everybody who lives along the border crosses and recrosses it many times every day. There are well over 300 crossing points. No wonder the people of the six counties voted decisively to remain within the EU.

None of this information seems to have reached, or at least resonated with, anyone in Westminster.

The Brexiteer claim that this is some sly trick by the EU and Ireland to force a re-unification of the country is laughable. Anyone with any knowledge of contemporary Irish politics knows that, no matter what might be said in party manifestos, neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael are keen on re-unification, and all the challenges it would bring. Both parties, and many in the Republic, are happiest with a 32 county state remaining an aspiration: it would be nice, but maybe not yet. Leinster House politics is shambolic enough without adding another 6 counties into the mix.

The truth is that the current situation, where the border is of little import to those who live on either side of it, suits nearly everybody. The DUP can claim they are still “British”, and nationalists can  point to the invisibility of the border and the many cross border initiatives to demonstrate that unity is steadily approaching.  Like the original Partition and various initiatives through the years, the Good Friday Agreement was the familiar model of the British “kicking it into the long grass”. It will do for now  – and then we can go back to forgetting about Ireland.

Those of us who remember the start of the Troubles have a clear recollection of the ignorance in England about the six counties, an area they had forgotten about since the 1920s, with a short exception during World War 2.

The vast majority of people in England, including politicians, had no idea of the voting system, the housing allocation, the gerrymandering, the employment practices, or the bigotry which permeated the  six counties of the province,  and were flummoxed at the growth of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid sixties.

Ironically, the incumbent Prime  Minister of the statelet, Captain Terence O’Neil, either by temperament or political instinct, was of a mind to meet at least some of the Civil Rights demands, but was hounded out by extreme members of his party. An informed Westminster Government might well have come to his aid, insisted on changes, and possibly avoided the escalation to paramilitary warfare. The irony, of course, was that the extremist loyalists were arguing against their six counties becoming the same as Britain; they preferred their position of inbuilt electoral and social superiority.

The reaction of Home Secretary James Callaghan, as he later admitted, was one of bewilderment, yet, despite the admonishments of the likes of Gerry Fitt – far from being a militant Republican –  the UK government was hopelessly ill informed about the realities in the six counties. They repeated the mistakes of ignorance by permitting Internment in August of 71, which, possibly  more than any other event, promoted the state of unrest from protest to full scale armed insurrection – with the tragic consequences.

Though it roils easily off the tongue, the oft repeated aphorism is deadly accurate: “Ireland’s trouble is that the Irish can’t forget their history and the English won’t remember it.”

The only solution to such a situation is skilled negotiation and a willingness to adopt a means of progress that all sides can live with. The dropping of the territorial claim by the Republic from their constitution, and the acceptance of “unity by consent” were two very important examples of this. It’s informative to note that the meat of the Good Friday Agreement was ground out by the American George Mitchell, and Irish politicians, rather than Westminster knowledge.

In the Brexit situation, a deal to allow the six counties (and Scotland who also voted heavily to retain EU membership) to maintain their position in the single market and the Customs Union, would be best in terms of the impact on people’s everyday lives.

Unfortunately, the politics of the situation means that Westminster, and the DUP, are unlikely to accept this.

Brexit was conceived as a party political strategy to allow David Cameron to face down his right wing Eurosceptics, and it failed miserably when the vote went against continued membership. Its toxicity lingers on, as the Westminster Government, ill-prepared and seemingly without a strategy, find themselves beholden to the DUP, and reduced to ill founded hopes that all will turn out for the best.

Without informed and skilled negotiations, this will not happen.

Of course, the people who will suffer from this incompetence are not the Tory politicians in Westminster, nor the hopelessly divided parliamentary Labour Party in opposition, but the people of Leitrim, Donegal, Sligo, Derry, Monaghan, Fermanagh, Louth, Armagh and Down, as well as the farmers of the six counties in general and those dependent on trade on the island of Ireland.

There’s a danger that English politicians will again pay the price for their ignorance of the Irish situation, be it in a veto, or in the support of the other EU members for the Irish position.

And this time, it seems like someone has cut the grass, and it’s no longer of a length to cover a fudged solution.

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