The Irish Question revisited¹
Here be ghosts that I have raised this Christmas tide, ghosts of dead men that have bequeathed a trust to us living men. Ghosts are troublesome things in a house (or a family), as we knew even before Ibsen taught us. There is only one way to appease a ghost .You must do the things it asks you. The ghosts of a nation sometimes ask very big things; and they must be appeased whatever the cost. Of the shade of the Norwegian dramatist I beg forgiveness for a plagiaristic, but inevitable title.
Political cultures are shaped by decisions those in the media make to present, or not to present, particular political options to their audiences. To withhold a position from publication is to withdraw it from consideration. This is very much illustrated by an examination of the Irish Question today. What is the Irish Question? If we did but know that we could give it an Irish answer and send it packing. We are, however, presented with few options either for interpreting the past or for considering the future. Narratives are imposed upon moving events which defy narrative structure, or else whose course is determined by currents unseen by those who tell the oft-told stories. Hence the march of events may be misunderstood to disastrous effect. Many political decisions appear to have been made by those who have bought into the ‘hype’ surrounding a plausible story instead of having conducted any kind of independent analysis of the questions at issue.
I will begin by saying that, while Ireland’s independence is many things – a dream, a proposal, a myth, an interpretation of history, a fantasy future – what it is not is a reality for all that twenty-six of her counties constitute themselves as a Republic. Historically, various elements of the archipelago traditionally known as the British Isles have organised themselves in a variety of combinations or configurations, but they have always amounted to a single unit of interdependent parts. Politically that may be denied or ignored, economically it cannot. The Brexit process looks set to bring that uncomfortable fact into stark relief.
The separatist or Republican proposal has always been that Ireland as a single unit could and should be independent from Britain. The modern media accept this claim without question, quibbling only over the question as to whether ‘independence’ should be as a single unit. The reason for this is simply that what has actually happened is generally regarded as having been in a sense inevitable, what is the case as the only option that was ever truly viable, and the only futures that are genuinely possible as those compatible with the accepted narrative or interpretation of the status quo. Hence we have heard a great deal about the prospects for a united Ireland all of it predicated on the assumption that such a country would be much the same as the present Republic only six counties larger.
Historically, the claim to independence was asserted opportunistically in wartime and generally accompanied by suggestions that it was a viable prospect because Ireland’s ‘gallant allies in Europe’, first Spain then France and then Germany, would provide markets for Irish goods and produce within their empires once whichever war it was then in progress had culminated in victory over ‘the British’. The EUrophilia of Ireland’s political class today appears to be rooted in such claims. Indeed, the bipartisan policy on Brexit has about it more than an echo of Sir Roger Casement’s proposal that the Central Powers should act to circumscribe British action in the world on a permanent basis while Ireland acted on their behalf to limit access to the open sea. The post-imperial age and the end of the cold war have very largely brought an end to closed trading blocs and opened the world’s markets to more or less free trade, enabling trade between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom to be cut to not much more than ten per cent of Ireland’s tangible exports in cash terms and something under twice that when it comes to invisibles or services. In the other direction, the United Kingdom runs a trade surplus with Ireland, supplying about a quarter of Ireland’s imports.
Cash terms only go so far, and while it is perfectly possible to devise any number of theoretical schemes to replace any aspect of the current arrangements by trade to the same value with some other trading partner; practically speaking, there is likely to be little change, and such change as there will be will not be made under Irish initiative and is unlikely to be to Ireland’s advantage. The production and procurement of food and drink are entirely integrated, with similar foods crossing the sea in both directions – the North/South aspect of trade is always entirely trivial when compared with its east/west aspect. Ireland might very profitably pursue a much greater level of agricultural self-sufficiency, and it is possible that trade frictions arising from Brexit will result in such a development although I think business as usual with higher prices a rather more likely outcome. Another possibility is a sudden major withdrawal of trade if the United Kingdom were to transfer its dealings with computer and information services companies to their North American operational headquarters. Whether or not that happens will depend on how post-NAFTA trading arrangements develop. The number of Americans claiming to have a little Irish blood is legendary, but few appreciate quite how much of that blood gets there by transfusion rather than by descent. Blood fractions constitute Ireland’s most lucrative export by far, and I would expect that the new abortion laws will see the evolution of a trade in foetal tissues worth quite as much or more – how far that was a consideration for the many politicians who supported the change must be a matter for speculation.
I could carry on making small suggestions as to how this, that or the other might change in future, but all such suggestions are to miss the point which is that even though a supposedly satisfactory Brexit deal was negotiated, Ireland can only be left at a permanent disadvantage by a significant institutionalised division between the peoples of these islands. The difference between the current situation and the much anticipated “no deal” Brexit is that between a slow decline and a sudden crash. EU membership will be of little assistance under current circumstances, and would have been even less help if matters had gone the other way. Ireland was promised an immediate aid package in that eventuality, and we all remember what happened last time round. We also know what the Continental powers and EU institutions have to say about Irish fiscal policy, so we may make an informed guess as to what the future has in store if Ireland should slip back into being a net beneficiary of EU spending as the Brexit effect comes into play. In the unlikely event, that is, that Ireland was ever allowed to become a beneficiary again, even briefly, rather than being simply subjected to ever more menacing demands for cash whatever the domestic costs of paying might be. The EU has, after all, quite literally banked upon Ireland’s making up the greater part of the shortfall caused by Brexit by the end of the last budgetary term². Ireland was making the same net contributions as the UK, €1Bn per annum, and is now due to pay €1¾ Bn over the course of the 2021-27 budgeting period. ‘Europe’ is no friend to Ireland. With the experience of Troikanomics behind them, the EU institutions will be rather less easygoing in future than sometimes seemed to be the case back in the old EEC days. Any failure to keep up the projected contribution rate would seriously inconvenience the central institutions of the EU, so very little short of a catastrophic collapse of the economy would persuade them to accept it. Poland and Hungary have received various threats over a number of policy issues, and an Ireland in default of payment might expect a certain amount of rough handling to enforce a requirement to offer a less competitive corporate tax regime and remove any and all inducements to do business in or from Ireland that might give the country any competitive advantage whatever. The decision to comply with the OECD initiative will do little to appease the firmly held Continental opinion that Ireland engages in sharp practice and should be made to pay the price of her own policies.
It could all have been very different. We are where we are today because the bipartisan Brexit policy was ill-conceived from the outset, being a product of the mythology of independence rather than an objective assessment of Ireland’s best interests. It has done nothing but alienate those in Europe who wanted a quick and easy deal followed by business as usual. Spain agreed with the European Union that the EU would accept the result of a bilateral negotiation over Gibraltar; there is no reason to suppose that the EU would not have allowed Ireland to settle the details of her own future, indeed it was generally expected that Ireland would insist upon doing so. Instead of that, a desire to play the nationalist and beat Sinn Fein at its own game coupled with the myth of a benevolent Continent led Leo Varadkar, the once and future Taoiseach, to delegate the task of negotiating over Northern Ireland to the EU without reference to relations across the Irish Sea. The delegated task amounted to squaring circles as the archipelago is not amenable to discussion other than as a whole. The only deal that would have made any sense for Ireland would have been one that saw a restoration of the customs union of the British Isles without requiring Ireland to leave either the EU itself or its single market (the EEA). No such deal was sought because it would have been seen as an unacceptable compromise of sovereignty as opposed to the acceptable compromise of EU membership in which the rôle of the old enemy was small enough to overlook. An illusion is not maintained without cost and the phantom of independence is generally one of the costliest myths of all.
This decade of centenaries has allowed for a certain measure of reassessment of the events of a hundred years ago; but I would question how far the reappraisal has gone, and whether its fruits are being accorded any relevance today. The hall mark of Irish identity down the ages has been ambiguity; Ireland is generally both one thing and the other, but sometimes neither. A recognition of that characteristic was at the heart of the more serious proposals of the half-century or so surrounding the 1922 Treaty. Ideally, anything to be said about Ireland today should allow ample scope for obfuscation by all parties and some self-deception to go with it.
The centenary of the Government of Ireland Act 1920, the fourth Home Rule Bill, was easy to overlook. It was not a serious exercise in lawmaking but, rather, a piece of legislation as rhetoric, a negotiating position. That is not to suggest insincerity, only a knowledge on the part of its authors that it would be contested rather than implemented. It offered both Northern and Southern Ireland, separated by a border in the present position, home rule with continued representation at Westminster; provision was also made for a joint council and an eventual reunification of Ireland. Representation at Westminster would have offered the reassurance necessary to facilitate an end to partition once the generation that had known bitterness had left the scene, especially as the patriotic loyalty to the Crown of the Irish troops during the War had done so much to dispel that bitterness and the suspicions of earlier years. A further argument in favour of representation was that it would have allowed Irish MPs (who might easily have been supplemented by the admission of the entire Irish peerage to the House of Lords as happened with the Scots peers in the 1950s) to make representations against, and perhaps to block, British measures detrimental to Ireland’s interests.
It was, however, felt that continued representation would have left too many separatists unsatisfied to allow for a peaceful future. It was the sole point of difference on a question of detail between any of those involved in negotiating or fighting over the future of Ireland however they cared to describe themselves; the other distinctions were rhetorical differences between factions divided as to the precise measure of ambiguity they thought appropriate in which to veil the agreement. It was not a position represented when the agreement was made, but neither were positions in favour of immediate reunification or an immediate break with Britain i.e. the views of those most likely to favour continued use of political violence. It should also be noted that the continuing representation position had been systematically sidelined amongst the ‘constitutional nationalist’ faction for decades, so it would not have been represented even if the Irish delegation to the Treaty talks had been inclusive rather than an exclusively Sinn Féin affair; at the end there were no real differences on policy between the Parliamentary Party and the then Sinn Féin, only the difference in character between those who have a visceral attachment to the rule of law and those without such superstitious prejudices.
In the Civil War both sides were led by men who had agreed to accept dominion status, although precisely what that entailed was not clearly defined until the 1930s. It was assumed that it did not include representation in the House of Commons as Canada had no such representation, but peers were a moot question as were the extent to which the imperial parliament could legislate with respect to a dominion, and the degree of independence it might exercise in foreign and military policy. Sir Charles Coghlan, Southern Rhodesia’s first prime minister and the first Catholic to receive an honorary degree from Trinity, who described himself as ‘an Irish nationalist and a Liberal’, expressed profound regret that the separation was too great to ensure that the Empire would always move together. He was also involved in sending gatecrashers to nationalist gatherings before the Great War which invited diaspora representation only from the traditionally anti-British communities in America and Australia and ignored Irish communities in more recently established colonies where loyalty to the Crown and acceptance of some sort of West Briton identity were the norm. The difference being between the descendants of those transported whether for political action or ordinary crime and those driven abroad by poverty or famine on one hand, and the descendants of the many voluntary emigrants military and civilian who followed the flag on the other. How much the former dominate all public discourse surrounding Irish history, and how little is heard of Ireland not colonised but colonising as equal partner in the imperial project.
This all goes to point up the meaninglessness of the party and faction names. It is fair to say that a large majority of separatists were ‘republicans’ once the outcome of the First World War had killed off any hope of an alternative royal family from Germany, and papal hopes of rapprochement with Italy had put paid to any thoughts of becoming the Pope’s new fiefdom. Otherwise, the labels sat lightly to the people with ‘nationalists’ loyal to the Crown, and ‘unionists’ who preferred a dominion to the Union, gave up on the South, and even dreamed of going it alone. The relevance of this is to the present and the near future when neither labels nor party histories can provide very many clues to future conduct.
We hear a good deal about a border poll now because now is the only time since partition when it has looked even reasonably likely that such a poll might be won for reunification, and when I say ‘now’ I really do mean now. Polling has always shown that even the supposedly nationalist Catholics are unenthusiastic about leaving the United Kingdom let alone the Protestants; now, however, the disruption caused by Brexit has led to a temporary change of heart within both communities. When an Taoiseach says a border poll should not be held within five years, he is well aware that when matters have settled the mood will pass and the moment with it. He is aware also that incorporation of Northern Ireland into the Republic would call all aspects of the institutional life of the Republic into question, and shrinks from a prospect he would be obliged to welcome unreservedly whatever his inward feelings on the matter.
From where he stands his misgivings are eminently sensible. He has led one of the great parties back into government after its catastrophic defeat of 2011 and will drop any mention of not going into coalition with Sinn Féin at the next election to give himself as many options as necessary. The political ecology of the twenty six county Republic offers fine if unexciting prospects. A thirty two county country, however, would not be the same only bigger, but a different game with different players. Far from being the culmination of the separatist dream, departitioning might well become the trigger for its drawing to a close. As I was saying, political labels can sit quite lightly, and party history or traditions count for about as much as thistledown on the breeze, so all manner of alignments would be possible and individuals could end up voting for or representing the most unlikely of parties. The Fianna Fail Senator who became a Conservative and Unionist life peer would be remembered as a man ahead of his time, rather than one of history’s outliers. Certain areas of the political spectrum are not well represented in today’s Oireachtas, and it is a truism of political life to say that those who are in are keen to keep those who are out out. Thirty two county politics would fill some of the gaps in unpredictable ways that many would find most unwelcome.
That, of course, raises the prospect of a disguised attempt to limit what the political class might well perceive as the damage by combining continued devolution with disproportionately low representation in the Dail. As the six county unit of Northern Ireland is not meaningful in an all Ireland context, being simply as much land as the Protestants thought they could hold at the point of partition, the unit of devolution would have to be the nine counties of Ulster in its entirety; and, once anything of that kind comes under discussion, the entire structure of the country will be up for grabs. Nothing so radical could be accomplished with simple amendments to the 1937 Constitution; a new, probably entirely federal, constitution would be necessary, and who can say now what that might bring? These considerations are likely to deter the attempt, leaving straightforward integration as the sole option for departitioning.
The political ecology of Ulster is unlike that of the rest of Ireland; and there are deepseated cultural differences as well, many of them applying to the three counties as much as to the six. The Protestants might be predominantly descended from plantation Scots, but the Catholics are and always have been Scots too; a people apart since the coming of the Gael. The historians have yet to establish a firm consensus as to whether Ulster’s union with the other Irish provinces under the High Kings of Tara – the only polity under which the entire island was essentially united without reference to the English or British Crown – lasted longer than its union with southern Scotland in the Dal-riada. We can only speculate as to how far this ancient history has shaped the differences in outlook we have seen more recently.
The fact that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU is best interpreted as having been a vote to avoid foreseeable difficulties over the land and sea borders. It should not be mistaken for an indication of enthusiasm for the European Union. Ulster is EUrosceptic. On the unionist side, the majority moved from supporting the Ulster Unionist Party to the Democratic Unionist Party round about the same time the former reconciled itself to EU membership in the belief that it was integral to the success of ‘the peace process’. On the nationalist side, although Ulster had always preferred participation in political institutions to abstensionism, a majority moved from the EUrophile SDLP to Sinn Féin when party policy was still to withdraw a united Ireland from the EU. It should be noted that Ulster members and supporters are far from enthusiastic about the smooth southern end of SF’s conversion to a remain and reform position. Republicans who have quit SF maintain the previous policy in favour of an Irexit, and the Donegal voters who supported Independent Fianna Fail are still there and still vote EUrosceptic.
Departitioning would amount to bringing the unionists and the loyalists into the life of the Republic. While nationalists and republicans are alike in their objectives and differ only in their methods, a loyalist is not simply a unionist with the makings of a bomb in the outhouse, nor is he very much like the romanticised figure of the brave young IRA man answering the call to arms from hill or farm. They are, rather, drawn from the urban criminal underclass and, while firmly opposed to entering the Republic, cannot be described as British patriots in any real sense. While a unionist taken out of the United Kingdom would very likely see the folly of having abandoned the South back in the 20s and start campaigning for reunion, the loyalist would start having pipe dreams about setting up a mafia microstate, a Kosovo of the west, and initiate a bombing campaign with that goal in view. Support for their bombing for separation would be even lower than it was for their bombing for the Union, but they never had very much interest in gaining popular support as fear was quite sufficient to meet their requirements.
Reunion is an option seldom considered in today’s Republic. It has been well over thirty years since we had a Unionist candidate in Cork, and he came last twice running. Reunion would not, therefore, be the principal issue the reunionists would promote in their appeals to the electorate but it would always be part of their programme. Northern Ireland remains divided; but, while cross-community voting is rare there, a voter from any of the twenty six counties would be most unlikely to consider a unionist or a Protestant to be a member of a different community and would consider the electoral appeals of any candidate on their own merits. Due to the division between the communities, Northern Ireland’s unionists are Protestant, a united Ireland’s reunionists would not be. They would begin by appealing, on the basis of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together agenda that has proven so successful in America, to the socially and morally conservative third of the electorate who reject same sex marriage, abortion and transgenderism. Having secured an electoral base by campaigning on culture war issues they would be in a position to make their appeal to history. By that stage the economic effects of Brexit would have begun to take effect in Ireland, and both the EU institutions and the individual Continental nations would have shown themselves decidedly unsympathetic to a country they see as awkward and given to financial irregularity, so there would be practical as well as theoretical arguments to advance.
The ghosts of the Irish nation have been evoked often enough, but some few among their voices have been amplified and repeated while a majority has had its voice left unheard. What is a unionist? If the definition used is that of members of, or votes for, certain political parties numbers will be somewhat limited. If people attached to movements described as nationalist but nevertheless consciously loyal to the Crown are included that takes in active nationalists from O’Connell through to Redmond. That still makes a minority, but it is still too narrow a definition. In practical terms, every Irish man or woman who has spent part of his or her working life in Britain, or has voluntarily enlisted in its armed forces, or even who has stayed at home making goods or raising produce for the British market or providing services to the British is a unionist. Count them down the generations, count them even now. In practice a majority has always recognised that the archipelago is a single unit whose parts must be coordinated closely if its peoples are to thrive. The ghosts of the prosperous and the miserable testify alike to that, each speaking of the relations pertaining between the islands’ peoples and the effect at various times on the welfare of all. I do not refer merely to economic costs and benefits, but to what we have all lost through disunion in terms of the moral leadership Ireland might have offered, and the balance and wider perspectives she would have received in return. The trust bequeathed has been left unnamed, the implications of the lives of so many dead men left uninferred. The ghosts of the Irish nation have not been fairly polled, so what they ask has not been understood. They must be appeased, whatever the cost.
¹ Footnote: A version of this article was written for Catholics Unplug your Televisions (CUT) at Christmas 2020. A mutual friend has since passed me a copy of Dr. Ray Bassett’s excellent Ireland and the EU Post Brexit He concurs with my view that Ireland should rejoin the UK customs union, but does not draw the same inference that the Varadkar administration’s failure to negotiate to that end was largely responsible for the European decision as to how much of the Brexit bill Ireland should foot. He confirms that the 75% increase in Ireland’s contribution is a figure under general discussion outside Ireland while the Irish media report lower numbers.
² The EU publishes lower contribution figures, which RTÉ prefers, but the first number is the official figure from the Department of Finance and the second comes from adding the projected increase to the first number.
By Prayer Crusader St Philip Howard