In 1922, when Westminster imposed a border in Ireland, they were attempting to put that country’s strife on the back burner. The proposal was accepted by all sides because they were tired of conflict and wished to end it in some way. Like every fudge, it worked because, in its vagueness, it was possible for all sides to claim a “victory”.
The Unionists believed they had a guarantee of a permanent majority in “their” part of the island – a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people” as James Craig had it. The Republicans accepted it because, with a promise of a “renegotiated” border within a decade or so, they believed a smaller statelet would prove unsustainable, and unity would follow.
Westminster were able to say that they had solved the conflict between these “crazy irish people” and focus their attention elsewhere.
Having drawn a border that had no historical or economic logic, and meandered bewilderingly across 500 kilometres of countryside, they retreated and focused on other matters.
They called it “The Irish Border”.
When the Troubles erupted in the late 1960s, they took most in Westminster by surprise. The British public had virtually no knowledge of the six counties, and for the government, for decades, it had been “out of political sight, out of political mind”. A statelet which prided itself on being, in a later phrase, “as British as Finchley”, was, in actuality, about as different to Britain as was possible. Elections were gerrymandered, public services were provided on a sectarian basis, the “forces of law and order”, primarily the RUC and their auxiliary force, the B Specials, were run on sectarian grounds and contained bigotry on a large scale. In much the same way as blacks in America’s southern states, the minority community were kept in their place and deprived of opportunities for advancement, economically and socially.
When resistance and then violence forced the six counties on to the political agenda, there was little understanding in Westminster of what had ignited the fuse. Ignorance had indeed been bliss. The Unionists presented it as “an IRA uprising” and, not having the knowledge to dismiss this claim, Westminster attempted to quell the problem by involving the military, a move which, ironically, quickly converted a civil rights movement into a Republican insurrection. London eventually learned that, while the six counties were very different to Britain, they were also not amenable to the kind of “end of Empire” army policing which had been employed in Malaya, Aden, Yemen and other colonised states.
After a generation of violence, a point was reached when all sides were looking for an excuse to stop. The Good Friday Agreement was another masterpiece of fudge, again appearing to give all sides a reason to claim victory. The Unionists saw the removal of the Republic’s constitutional claim to the six counties as a copper fastening of their position “within the Union”; Republicans saw shared government, alongside the clear demographic growth of the “minority community”, as a route to re-unification; Dublin saw the economic benefits of peace on the island and a relaxation of their claimed responsibility for a part of the island that they no longer actively sought. In London, there was a sigh of relief, and delight at another chance to take the six counties off the political agenda.
The British called this a solution to “The Irish Conflict”.
True to form, once Westminster re-focused away from Ireland, they lost any chance of understanding the processes that had been set in flow by the Good Friday Agreement. Whilst wilful ignorance after 1922 had allowed a sectarian statelet to become entrenched, rather the reverse had happened after 1998.
Despite political leanings, in every day life, folk will generally be led by what is convenient. In unionist gatherings, there will often be references to “Derry”, rather than “Londonderry” because it’s easier, especially when none of the “other community” are present and a political point does not have to be made. Republicans, equally, will avail themselves of “British” culture in terms of entertainment and sport from “across the water” despite public avowals of it being “foreign”. It’s just the way people are.
The Good Friday Agreement in its many clauses facilitated this smoothing out of differences. Without checkpoints and the threat of violence, it became easy to live in one jurisdiction and work in another; similarly with medical treatment – folk from Letterkenny receiving treatment in Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital, for example. Most meat processing for the six counties was undertaken in the Republic, much of the Republic’s agricultural product found its way north. The natural hinterlands which applied before the imposition of the Border and were made unworkable during much of the Troubles, were reinstated. On the ground, in trade, social life and day to day events, the Border virtually disappeared. Its “legal” continuation continued as a comfort for those who desired it, but the truth was that everybody -– whatever their political beliefs, benefited and took advantage of its “disappearance”. That was the real “peace dividend”: people could operate in their everyday lives without the hindrance of an imposed division.
Ultimately, folk from all communities appreciated this easing of routine and the convenience. Friends and relatives in the area of north Leitrim, from where my family hails, had retail choices again. Depending on time of year, shopping needs, or time available, they could shop in Enniskillen, 30 miles away, Sligo 20 miles away, or Carrick 18 miles away. Belfast, Derry and Armagh, though further, were all possibilities, irrespective of which jurisdiction they occupied. The same, of course, applied to social and cultural events or family visits. “Normalisation” meant only the “usual” considerations of time, expense and choice were involved in deciding the destination, not the thought of checkpoints, delays, and forced diversions..
Much of this, of course, was invisible to Westminster. As par for the course, they had presumed the “problem” solved, and turned away to other things. The difficulty is, like cosmetics or fraud, a political fudge has to be nurtured carefully to keep up the pretence of a solution.
Such was the desire for peace amongst folk in the six counties and around the Border regions that even the prolonged dissolution of the Stormont Parliament failed to rock its foundation. Even in the face of some spectacular ignorance from Westminster Parliamentarians, the people in the statelet decided to keep on rubbing along together, albeit with increasingly bitter rhetoric. Preserving the everyday “normality” was seen as a priority, and the fudge had enabled both communities, and those who would consider themselves “neutral”, to live in a social atmosphere which supplied most of what they desired – politically, and from day to day. The RCI scandal and the stand off over Irish Language legislation raised the temperature – leading to that suspension of the Parliament, but, though frustrated, most folk could live with that – as long as their everyday life was mostly unaffected.
Then came Brexit, followed by the May 2017 election.
Much of the UK Government’s economic “peace dividend”, gained from the demilitarisation of the six counties, was diverted back to gain DUP support, and the Tories proved themselves, not for the first time, woefully ignorant on Irish affairs. They spoke of preserving the UK, whilst supporting a party which promulgated policies in the six counties which made the statelet very different to Britain – a familiar story.
In turn they first denied there was a difficulty with the Border, then claimed to have solved it, and finally tried to diminish the size of the problem. Throughout all of this, the 27 EU states have supported the Republic solidly – there could be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. It seems everybody except the Brexiteers has an understanding of the chaos and conflict which will be caused by a return to a visible border.
Pragmatism being particularly embedded in the northern Irish psyche, many hitherto “loyal British citizens” have hastened to preserve their European status by claiming Irish passports. Never mind border checkpoints, the need for their protection, the delay to trade, and the almighty paperwork, post-Brexit, the six counties will be a statelet of people who may be Irish and EU citizens or British and non-EU citizens, and some who will no doubt keep a foot in both camps. The implications for the interaction of government and people are enormous.
At Westminster, they call this “The Irish problem”.
As they say, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat their mistakes. Virtually all I have written about here has been caused by the presence of the British in Ireland and yet they continually delude themselves that it is an “Irish” problem.
This refusal to take responsibility infects all their decisions. Their cry before the Independence Referendum in Scotland was that, as “equal partners” in the Union, we should “lead not leave”, that our contribution was valued. Even before the result was offcially announced, David Cameron had made it plain that this was nonsense, and this position has been further stated by a refusal to give the Scots Parliament a voice in Brexit despite 62% of the country voting to remain in Europe and a disproportionate weight of fall out from Brexit landing on our country – especially in agriculture and fisheries.
Lest this should be seen as a “nationalist” issue, I’m sure folk in the north of England would concur with my view. George Osbourne promised they would be “the powerhouse of the North” and then the government turned away, satisfied that the problems of the north of England could be settled by a phrase.
Talking of phrases, few have been better satirised than in James Robertsons’s take on BBC News, where they introduce a ten minute news programme, for what they quaintly describe as the “nations and regions”, at the end of “the main news”, by announcing: “And now the news where YOU are,” as opposed, of course, to they news where THEY are – which is the important stuff. This, from the Establishment broadcaster, is a perfect representation of a UK/London centred view of the world. It not only diminishes the other countries of these islands, but it limits the ability of folk in England to establish their own identity – outside of Spitfires and roast beef.
The demand for independence in Scotland is largely fuelled by increasing realisation that London sees everything through a particular prism. Of late that has more and more been an isolationist view of the world and a quite bizarre harking back to war time as the “best of times” when, apparently, Britain “stood alone”.
To progress and move forward, a country needs to be open to all influences and learn from a wide range of approaches. Whether this involves a welcome to immigrants, an adoption of international approaches to solving problems, or a realistic perception of its place in the world, all of this is necessary if its citizens are to have the best future. Diversity brings strength.
Scotland is stymied currently by only having political access to other countries and ideas through the prism of the UK; just as Ireland faces suffering from the ignorance, wilful or otherwise, of politicians, when it comes to Brexit and a hard border. Basically, if something is not in the interests of the south east of England, then it is not deemed worthwhile, irrespective of its impact on other parts of these islands. It is laughable that the UK Government, having announced its intention to leave the EU, should then demand a negotiated exit on favourable terms for one country out of 28.
If politics is not seen as being about ordinary people and their every day lives, then we are back in the days of gunboat diplomacy and international sabre rattling.
A government unable to say: “This will damage our people, we are not doing it” – particularly when that stance is influenced by internal political party wrangling, is not fit to govern.
And a system which allows that to happen, which ignores the will of the Scottish voters and their Parliament, which diminishes the Good Friday Agreement by taking sides in the six counties, and which promotes to leadership such a narrow elite, is clearly broken.
It’s time to fix it.