The border between North and South has plagued Britain and Ireland from 1921 to today.
At a British-Irish Association conference around 1980, Garret FitzGerald, the former Irish prime minister, mouthed familiar Dublin platitudes in his soft, charmingly flustered manner about the inevitability of his island’s reunification. This caused one of his audience, Merlyn Rees, Northern Ireland secretary 1974-76, to explode.
“Garret,” he said, “for two years I had to listen politely to people like you mouthing this nonsense. Now, I don’t have to. If a British minister turned up at the border one morning and handed you the keys to Ulster, saying ‘Here it is — all yours’, what would you do, Garret? What would you do? I’ll tell you. You’d all have coronaries.”
In the face of Rees’s unfeigned fury, to which I was witness, FitzGerald collapsed into amiable waffles. The Labour politician was correct, of course. The Irish have been asserting since partition in 1921 that they want a united Ireland. But the last things they want in it are thousands of recalcitrant Protestants, more than a few of whom are unreconstructed Cromwellians.
Where British Conservatives match the Irish in hypocrisy is in asserting an emotional commitment to Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom, something that is sincerely felt by only a few neocons. Lord Salisbury observed a century ago that the average English voter had “little interest in, and less understanding of, Irish affairs”. Today, many of us are ashamed that Democratic Unionist MPs, who care for nothing beyond their local sectarian interest, hold our entire body politic to ransom.
Diarmaid Ferriter, an Irish historian, quotes Tony Blair’s description of the Orange Order’s leaders as “unbelievable people...there is nothing more irritating than sitting in a room with someone who claims to be British but who treats you as though you are nothing to do with Britain, even though you are prime minister”.
This short, angry book considers what the Fianna Fail prime minister Jack Lynch called “an imposed deformity whose indefinite perpetuation eats into Irish consciousness like a cancer”. Ferriter suggests that the Brexiteers’ careless attitude to the border shows how “clownish Tories revealed the depth of their ignorance and contempt when it came to Ireland”.
No sensitive Englishman can explore Ireland’s history without lamenting that our forefathers set foot there. In 1913-14, the Conservative opposition, in one of its imperialistic frenzies, supported Ulster’s Protestants in arming for civil war, to escape citizenship of an independent Ireland. The Ulstermen were led by Edward Carson, whose twin claims to notoriety are that, as a barrister, he contrived the destruction of Oscar Wilde; and, as a politician, that he was a prime mover in the creation of Northern Ireland.
In the fraught 1920-21 negotiation with Westminster, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith (the original founder of Sinn Fein) accepted partition as the price of southern independence, being duped by the British into supposing this a short-term expedient. Instead, the unionists created Fortress Ulster, in which discrimination against Catholics was institutionalised. In 1980, the poet Paul Muldoon asked: “You remember that village where the border ran / Down the middle of the street, / With the butcher and the baker in different states?”
The unionists should never have been allowed to opt out of Ireland’s independence. Yet this book admits that some Irish nationalists sought to make the best of the border, as offering a chance to foster a “pure” Gaelic identity, unsullied by the “black North”. Until the 1960s, such was the priest-ridden Republic’s poverty that many Northern Catholics were thankful to stick with the UK and its welfare state, hence some of the hypocrisy that Rees deplored.
The accession of Britain and Ireland to what was then the Common Market began a welcome process, which has continued, of strengthening cross-border relationships, fostered by rising southern prosperity and falling Catholicism. A diminishing number of Northern Irish people remain committed to their isolation, dependent on British taxpayers’ handouts.
Yet the 2016 UK referendum has rewound the clock. The Brexiteers continue to pretend that a solution to the border issue, once more intractable, is a mere technicality. Ferriter quotes Boris Johnson’s remarks in June 2018: “It’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way. We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly.” Jacob Rees-Mogg suggests that the British government should “call Ireland’s bluff”. He dismisses Dublin’s assertion that a new international border would breach the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
The terrible twins are thus far right, in that it is grotesque that tiny Ulster still casts its shadow over the fortunes of two nations. Yet for more than a century British Conservatives have indulged Ulster unionist fanaticism, of which today’s imbroglio is the outcome.
How to escape? To many of us the logic of Irish reunification is irresistible. Partition was a crime and a folly. A majority in Northern Ireland (55.8%) voted against Brexit. If the island became reunited within the EU, then Johnson, Rees-Mogg and their friends might achieve the unadulterated, glorious British isolation that they dream of.
Logic stands little chance, however. Ferriter suggests that Theresa May should regret her assertion that her party “will never be neutral in expressing support” for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, which flies in the face of the Good Friday peace process. It seems likely that Brexit will reopen Ireland’s historic wounds.
Few British people will read this book because they cherish the disdain towards Ireland that has caused successive Westminster governments to wreak havoc there. But if a resumption of the Troubles proves part of the price of Brexit, then we shall have only ourselves to blame. Andrew Bonar Law, then Conservative leader, said in 1920 that he had concluded that the Irish were “an inferior race”. When Law’s successors appear to embrace the same contempt for our neighbours, we should not be surprised if some of them revert to behaving contemptibly.