The return of the repressed

The choppy waters of Brexit may not have been navigated before, but some of the flotsam bobbing around suggests stratagems and patterns that remind us – not encouragingly – of past crises in British political history. One aspect that has recently come into view concerns the relationship between British politicians and Ireland. William Ewart Gladstone referred to the neighbouring island in 1845 as “that cloud in the west, that coming storm – a problem needing “pacification”.

Today’s Republic of Ireland is not only pretty pacific, it has discovered (since 1973) a strongly European identity, which involves – as any Irish member of the Department of Foreign Affairs will tell you – an enhanced sense of sovereignty. British responses to European involvement, as usual, are diametrically different – peaking in the kind of British rhetoric that narrowly won last year’s referendum, and stridently took over Theresa May’s hapless government.

Historical memory

That rhetoric has accordingly paid little attention to European history, and the EU’s importance in combating various toxins endemic to nationalism; it also has ignored, until very recently, the implications of Brexit for Anglo–Irish relations. This is to be expected. Historical memory works selectively, and it is easy to forget that for over a century from 1801, a hundred-odd Irish MPs were a large and integral part of the House of Commons; the novels of Anthony Trollope do a better job of reminding us than most history textbooks. But the Irish presence was not consistently felt, and their importance tended to come into sharp relief at moments of high drama, when they could hold the balance at Westminster.

The period of Daniel O’Connell’s alliance with reforming Whig governments in the 1830s provided one such instance, as did – more spectacularly – the great crisis of 1885–6, when Gladstone‘s government relied on Charles Stewart Parnell’s eighty-five nationalist MPs for its majority, precipitating the Grand Old Man’s hasty conversion to Home Rule for Ireland.

The policy was unsuccessful, voted down in 1886 when the Liberals split over the issue and the Conservatives made the Union a central plank of their raison d’être; it was also powerfully opposed by Ulster Unionist MPs, who from this point formed a distinct and influential body of their own. Another attempt by Gladstone in 1893 passed the Commons but was thrown out by the Lords.

The subsequent period of Tory hegemony meant that the Irish MPs were relegated to impotence once more, until the Liberals’ return to power in 1906. Even then, the size of the Liberal majority restricted the extent to which the Irish leader John Redmond could keep the government up to the mark on delivering Home Rule, about which Gladstone’s successors were notably unenthusiastic. Once again, it took an indecisive election in 1910 to put the Irish MPs back in the front seat.

Threatened insurrection

This time, they exacted a considerable price; the Parliament Act of 1911 restricted the power of the House of Lords, and in 1914 a Home Rule bill was finally passed. But it was first delayed by Ulster’s resistance, amounting to a threatened insurrection, then by the outbreak of the First World War, and finally by revolution in Ireland.

After the Easter Rising of 1916 politics went into meltdown and the running was made by republicans who saw Home Rule as an inadequate sop, and the Redmondites as corrupt collaborators. The post-war election of 1918 reduced the Home Rule MPs to six, returned twenty-six Irish Unionists (mostly from the north), and seventy-three Sinn Féiners who – in line with their declared policy – did not take their seats at Westminster, withdrawing to Ireland and setting up an alternative revolutionary assembly, Dáil Eireann.

At the height of the war that followed, in 1920, a Home Rule Act was finally passed, setting up governments in Belfast (for the six-county unit of “Northern Ireland”) and Dublin (for the remaining twenty-six counties); the provisions for southern Ireland were a dead letter from the start, replaced by the Irish Free State agreed by the Anglo–Irish Treaty of 1921.

Thus – to a collective English sigh of relief – Irish MPs disappeared from Westminster, except for thirteen (initially) representing Northern Irish constituencies. The handful of MPs returned by the nationalist community in the province attended episodically or “abstained”, following the old Sinn Féin mantra; the Unionists attended but kept a lower profile than in the dramatic days of the Home Rule campaigns.

Rather as Northern Ireland remained a sort of reduced and distilled version of the “Irish Question” of the nineteenth century, the Ulster MPs at Westminster represented a kind of prehensile tail of the behemoth that had once been the Irish presence at Westminster. The descent of their province into chaos from 1969 (and the suspension of their own assembly at Stormont) brought them episodically into an unwelcome prominence. So did those realpolitik moments when they had to be taken notice of – as James Callaghan found out in 1979, and the floundering Theresa May has been learning to her cost since June 8.

Political upheavals

The Democratic Unionist Party, with whom the current Prime Minister has had to make terms, is itself a result of political upheavals within Northern Ireland. It was founded in 1971 by Ian Paisley in reaction to an official Unionist Party which he characterized as bourgeois, unrepresentative and – worst of all – getting dangerously soft towards Nationalists and Catholics.

However, the DUP ended by not only replacing the Official Unionists, but stealing their clothes by agreeing in 2006 to govern the province in concert with Sinn Féin – who had themselves outflanked the constitutional-nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party in a similar manoeuvre.

The underlying reality of the supposed coming together of the extremes, with the accompanying destruction of the moderates, unsurprisingly turned out not to be as reconciliatory as the spinners claimed. The proliferation of Orwellian “peace walls” throughout the province is one indication; another is the fact that, with Paisley (senior) and Martin McGuinness called to their Maker, the next generation of Northern Irish politicians, green or orange, have made their mutual antipathy viscerally clear.

One result has been the recent suspension of the Stormont assembly, following Sinn Fein’s refusal to go on working with the DUP leader Arlene Foster after the exposure of her disastrous green-energy policy, in which businesses were essentially incentivized to waste fuel. Another seems to be the DUP’s irrational embrace of Brexit – undertaken, apparently, for no very good reason except that Sinn Fein opposed it. However, under the terms of the May–Foster agreement, support for Northern Ireland’s farmers is heavily emphasized – along with an illogical and delusionary insistence that there be no substantive change to border arrangements with the Republic of Ireland after Brexit stumbles into reality.

Bad news

This indicates that the DUP realize (along with a decisive majority of Northern Irish people) that Britain’s exit from the European Union is very bad news for them indeed.

This is a view taken a fortiorisouth of the border, among diplomats, business people, farmers and most intellectuals (Irish writers were prominent among the signatories of the letter from international authors to the TLS on June 3, 2016, making a passionate case for a Remain vote). Last month I took part in a panel discussion on Brexit at the Dalkey Literary Festival in Ireland, nearly a year to the day after the referendum. I was forcibly struck by the fact that though the panel had been chosen to represent both sides of the debate (indeed, tipped slightly towards Leavers), the audience seemed entirely, passionately and angrily committed to the idea that Britain is embarked on an irrational course of self-harm; and that this self-inflicted blow will have powerful reverberations on the island of Ireland.

This is not just because Ireland has embraced a European identity with some enthusiasm, as was clear from that Festival audience. The UK’s potential economic downturn following Brexit, already ominously spelled out in current British GDP and growth figures, not to mention the pound’s precipitous devaluation since last June, carry alarming indications for Ireland; trade to its biggest export market, the UK, has already fallen drastically since the decline of sterling.

The post-Brexit position of the vast number of Irish citizens living in the UK, for all the reassuring noises made in official quarters, still has to be defined. While London’s prominence in the world of international finance is already being fast eroded, the departing bankers seem unlikely to move to Dublin instead. And above all there is the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

- Times Literary Supplement


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