Saturday 3 January 2009

The Irish Question

I suppose those post is more for the benefit of overseas readers- the bulk of my readership- but it is also for the vast majority of UK readers who have never really troubled to understand the troubles. And why there is no easy answer.

Someone once said 'You can't solve the Irish question- they'll only ask another'.
Since the Irish Question then was a different Irish Question, he was right. There has been an Irish Question for a very long time. Just that each new answer, brought in a new question.

To understand how it began, geography is the only necessity. It starts with the Anglo-Norman monarchy. A fairly unique state in it's day. The most centralised of European monarchies and one whose people had something unique at the time, a sense of nationhood. The administrative efficiency of the state was such that it could largely be left to run itself whilst its Kings tried to conquer France. England itself became pretty immune to threat of foreign invasion during the middle ages. And with a burgeoning population, it was logical that the peripheral Celtic peoples of the British isles would end up as its subject states. It is hard to see any alternate history where this wouldn't have happened. To make itself a force to be reckoned with, England needed to shut it's back doors. Plus, of course, the best way to keep ambitious nobility busy, is to give them somewhere to be busy. Wales provided somewhere to be busy for a while, but they soon ran out of Wales to conquer. Scotland was a unified monarchy and attempts to conquer it proved more difficult. Ireland, with it's feuding provincial monarchies was superficially easy. It fell to the conquerors like France fell to the Nazi war machine.

Only it didn't. Not really. The English may have never militarily defeated the Scots, but Scotland became anglicised over time. And when it united with England finally, it was almost a marriage. Not always a happy marriage, but one in which both parties gained something. The Scots didn't come in with a grudge.

Whereas Ireland was always at the edge. And attempt after attempt was made to destroy it's culture by sending fresh colonists. But after a hundred years or so, the last wave of colonists would have gone native. Indistinguishable from the natives in so many ways.

And the reformation in England caused a good reason for Ireland to have hope. Catholicism is often seen as an expression of Irish Nationalism, and at a deep level it is. The Irish, unlike the English, felt no reason to change their religion because their King told them too. Maybe if they didn't, there was a chance they might get help from elsewhere in getting their own King again. Not one sitting in London.

And it was under James I that one colonisation attempt was made, in which the settlers didn't go native the same way. The colonisation of Ulster, up till then the most rebellious of the Irish provinces, the one which held out most tenaciously against the English. The colonists sent, were die-hard Protestants.

After the glorious revolution of 1689, Ireland effectively became a country ruled by a foreign elite, almost an Apartheid state. It was a British colony, exactly like Virginia, having it's own parliament, but that parliament still subject to the Westminster one, where Ireland wasn't represented. As in England, Catholics could not vote or be MPs. But unlike in England, Catholics were the majority.

Thus Ireland- All Ireland- was run by the Protestant minority. The ascendancy. It is the establishment of this period that is celebrated by the Orangeman during Orange Day marches, the victory at the Boyne brought this into being, the siege of Derry was a key event in it.
The century when Ireland was ruled by a Protestant minority.

The first Irish Question, appeared at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1782, the Irish parliament was freed from subordination to Westminster. The British government was somewhat subdued by the effects of the American revolution. And the next eighteen years saw Ireland infected by ideas about liberty and the rights of man, just like anywhere else.
And it seemed that the ascendancy was in danger. There was pressure to give the vote to Ireland's Catholic majority.

And the ruling Protestant minority was apprehensive. They resisted.
Pitt, the British Prime Minister, came up with a solution.

It was actually more popular with Catholics. Protestants hated it, because they felt they'd had their ascendancy taken away from them. But Catholics saw it as a step towards equality of treatment.
Ireland united with Britain to become the United Kingdom. The Irish parliament was abolished and from now on, 100 Irish MPs sat at Westminster. And Pitt allowed Catholics in Ireland to VOTE, but not sit as MPs.
This actually turned out to be a blessing for English Catholics, as the pressure from Catholic voters in Ireland meant that in 1829, the UK allowed ALL Catholics to vote and not only vote, but be elected to the House of Commons.
And this had positive effects for Catholics across the UK, as anti-Catholic legislation was slowly repealed throughout the century.

But opinion regarding the Union changed.
Most Irishmen now began to see the Union as holding Ireland back. Because Irish voters were outvoted by the English, and removing the remaining stranglehold of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy on the country, could not happen whilst the House of Lords could veto legislation. the famine proved to many Irishmen, that England did not care for the Irish people, it cared for English interests in Ireland.

The hardline Protestants began to realise that the Union preserved to them what remained of their superior position. They had it, because Britain was a Protestant country.
They feared that without Britain, they would not be able to defend themselves from 'Papist' rule.

And it is in this attitude amongst the Northern Protestant Community that so much of the problem comes from.

The history of the Home Rule movement and how it's failure led to the Easter rising, the troubles and ultimately that partition of Ireland is a long and sorry tale.

And one can say that the partition was a mistake.

And yet one looks at the civil war of 1922, one looks at the troubled history of Ireland up until the second world war and it's hard to see how a united Ireland could have made it. It was hard enough without a quarter of the population being hostile Protestants.

But the twenty six made it. The twenty six counties have had a successful history during the twentieth century, against the odds. The history of free Ireland, is a story any Irishman can take pride in.

The six counties is a different story.

And the problem was that that the northern majority, the Protestant population saw their six counties as now having become a country. In which they had a hostile minority who sought to be annexed by a neighbour.
The minority saw it differently. They saw themselves as being forced to live under the subjagation of a group of people who despised them on account of their religion, and would rather be ultimately governed by foreigners than fellow countrymen of a different religion.

The problem was- and is- neither side realistically accepts the other side has a leg to stand on.

The Protestant view is that Northern Ireland is a country. In that country, the majority of people vote to be part of the United Kingdom.

To the rest- who happen to be Catholic, but that is only relevant really in the sense that being Catholic they don't accept the Protestant view- the six county state is an arbitrarily chosen group of counties which has arbitrarily been given a position they shouldn't have had to begin with.
It is rather like the voters of the the four South Western English counties were allowed to say: The UK will never have a Liberal Democrat government. But we want one. Therefore, we should be allowed to secede and form our own state. Solely on the basis that in this part of the country, we don't like being governed by the people the rest of the country want to be governed by.

To a North of Ireland Catholic, the arguments of Protestants that they are a democratic majority, is spurious. Because the validity of the unit in question to have self determination is spurious.

And of course, in reality, they're right. The six counties have no democratic legitimacy. The problem is, they DO exist and it would be very hard, now the six coubnties HAVE been separate so long, to deny what has become an accepted fact. It's a bit like a public footpath; what wasn't originally legitimate has become so.

And both sides in the six counties have to face another uncomfortable fact.
No one actually wants them.

If the British government could get rid of the six counties, it would. And not just Labour governments. A Tory one would as well, though it wouldn't admit it. Most British people too, would be glad to see the back of this festering sore. Because it erupts every now and then, and it will again. There's only so far any peace process there can go before the hardliners on both sides realise they're talking at cross purposes and always will be. Because one side think they're British, and the other think they're Irish. So bombs on the mainland will be back one day.

And then there's the cost. Not just in money, but in lives of British soldiers. And in how the UK is perceived across the globe, because whilst the UK has that millstone round it's neck, it gets the blame. It's a negative legacy of colonialism, a reminder of the blackest parts of our Imperial past and of recent times too.

But would any Irish government REALLY want a united Ireland?

If the UK cannot deal with a situation where it has a million people on side, and whose terrorists largely REACT to the IRA, and only half a million people hostile to the UK, how can an Irish Republic of three million people hope to take it on? Because then the loyalists would become the more aggressive of the paramilitary groupings. The violence in the six would be greater than it has ever been. And little Ireland to take that on?

Most people in the south want a united Ireland, or so they think, but it is a united Ireland in which Ian Paisley's voice isn't heard. Or the voices which have grown up cheering him.
And that's still a pipedream.

A united Ireland could be a very unstable Ireland.
And things have got along fine south of the border without the six.

I must admit myself, to having come up with what I think would be the ONLY viable long term solution. Except I can still see it has problems.

If a Stormont style parliament was restored, under normal democratic rules, thereby guaranteeing permanent majority rule in the six.
But a transition period agreed to hand over actual sovereignty.

So the six counties would exist as an autonomous unit within a united Ireland. Like Scotland does within the UK as a whole.
It's whether the Loyalists would accept it.
Maybe it's even worse than things as they are now.

It really does seem to be one of the questions, there can never be an answer to.

And if one day, it IS solved...

They'll only ask another.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I always find it so intriguing how history ripples on for decades and decades. I sometimes find that we in North American are a little too cut off from our history, in all honesty, or that it is an artificial consciousness of sorts. My boyfriend is Irish, an bonafide born across the ocean type (unlike me, who apparently is a quarter so, but many generations back), so I've learned a lot from him about this notion of culture and history.