Can We Learn from Irish History?
Redmond, Robert S., Contemporary Review
CAN the Downing Street Declaration signed last December by the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic lay the foundations of a permanent peace in the island of Ireland? There are grounds for optimism provided there are cool heads and a determination on the part of politicians to avoid the quick fix. So many sad mistakes have been made in the past. One must hope that lessons will have been learned.
Above all, the political parties in both countries must, somehow, accept that the next generation is far more important than the next general election. Long term solutions are needed and must be sought. It is time to reflect that the Treaty of 1922 which set up what was then known as The Irish Free State and the Province of Northern Ireland has cast long shadows. Too many of the constitutional problems with us today stem directly from mistakes made with the best intentions seven decades ago. All could well be lost again in the long term unless everyone works together with goodwill to exploit an opportunity which seems to be there. This time, the result must be permanent and inviolate.
In particular, partition was seen by the then British Government as no more than a temporary expedient. Everyone, (with the possible exception of the Tory leader Bonar Law, who was happy with the idea of entrenching the Unionist hold on Ulster), seems to have expected that given time, passions would cool and co-operation would develop between Northern Ireland and the new Free State. How anyone thought this possible in the light of the florid language of what was called the Solemn League and Covenant signed by some 250,000 Ulster people in 1912 is a good question. Those folk had pledged themselves to fight, to |use all means which may be found necessary to defeat the ... conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament'.
The mechanisms proposed in 1922 such as the Council of Ireland were never allowed to develop. Partition became a fait accompli set in a mould which has proved unbreakable. The Unionists have seen virtually every move as an attempt by a foreign power to take them over. They look upon the Irish Republic in much the same way as Falkland Islanders see Argentina. Their determination to resist has always been reinforced by terrorists who have tried to force the issue. It is beyond logic to think people can be forced into lasting friendship by being bombed and shot at. The Official IRA and, for the past quarter of a century, the Provisional IRA (PIRA) have, without doubt, worked against the United Ireland they claim to want. If only NORAID and other sympathisers overseas could have understood that!
But is terrorism really going to end? Even if PIRA lays down its arms for a while, is there not then a danger that, just as PIRA succeeded the Officials, there will be another madcap organisation ready to continue or renew the fight? The only sensible hope is that co-operation will develop and the world will see that Ireland will never be united by the bomb. Then support will wither away. The best way to defeat the bomber must be to tell the truth and go on doing so loudly and clearly.
The British Government has always maintained that it will uphold the democratically expressed will of the majority in Northern Ireland. In the light of what has happened, whether one is Unionist or not, this must be recognised as plain commonsense. What is more, the Government of the Republic, in spite of the clauses in the constitution claiming the whole island, offensive to some, has agreed. One would think Unionists would now be reassured enough to be happy to enter into talks with Nationalists and seek some way of living together peacefully. In the end, all Irish men and women have got to live on the same island and must find a way of doing so.
John Major has, however, now gone on to say that his Government is neutral about the Union and will support it only so long as the majority want it. If the Northern Irish people ask for a United Ireland, legislation will follow. More recently, in an attempt to |clarify' things for Sinn Fein, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has added:-- |. . . those who aspire to a sovereign and United Ireland, the declaration sends a message that should reassure. Lest they suppose the British Government would pursue a colonial or strategic ambition to their detriment, it says the Government has no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland'.
Such statements ought to convey a clear unequivocal message to all -- particularly in America -- who still seem to think Britain treats Ulster as an oppressed colony yearning for freedom. To Unionists, on the other hand, it indicates that the English really want to be rid of a difficult relation, more keen to preserve their Protestant identity than to be truly British. They will be only partly reassured by Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, who has said that even though Partition was wrong in 1922, there is now no way round and no short cut through the requirement for agreement and consent. The issue of Irish unity cannot be forced either militarily or politically.
Unionists are made no more comfortable by recent opinion polls taken on mainland Britain. It is clear beyond doubt that British people are very detached from Ulster's affairs. Fewer than 20 per cent regard themselves as strongly Unionist. Few want any say in the future of the island of Ireland. They say the whole question is a matter for a referendum taken in the six counties and nowhere else. This is not music to the ears of the Unionists. They have a strong belief that their Protestant majority is being eroded by a more prolific Catholic birthrate; that one day it will be overtaken. Even if this |danger' were relevant, the grounds for it are shaky. At the time of the 1921 census (i.e. just before the Treaty) the Catholic population was shown as 39.7 per cent of the total. In 1991, it was 38.4 per cent. Catholic emigration explains why there has been no significant change. In any case, the belief that all Protestants vote Unionist and all Catholics Nationalist cannot be sustained. It never could. Charles Stewart Parnell (who was a Protestant) and John Redmond who succeeded him as Leader of the Irish Nationalist Party in the Victorian House of Commons, never saw the Irish Question in sectarian terms. They tried hard to counteract the |Home Rule is Rome Rule' slogan. Redmond is on record as saying:-- |I deny altogether that every Protestant is anti-nationalist'. He called constantly for statements by the Irish Bishops that the issue between the two factions (Nationalist and Unionist) was political and never moral or religious. Nevertheless, as one Irishman said recently that if one takes religion out of the history of Ireland, it becomes a bore. It is such a pity that this has been allowed to happen. It leads so many observers to reach totally wrong conclusions. Nevertheless one has to recognise that it is a myth firmly in everyone's mind as fact.
The Downing Street Declaration does not tell us on what grounds it might be decided that public opinion had changed. Still less are we told how it would be tested. Most assume that a referendum would precede legislation for constitutional change, but is this correct? Here is a vital matter to be clarified in early stages of negotiation if genuine fears are to be quelled and another serious mistake avoided. To that end, it will be both timely and pertinent for everyone to look at what happened on March 8th, 1973. The electors of the six counties of Northern Ireland were invited to answer one of the following questions:
DO YOU WANT NORTHERN IRELAND TO REMAIN
PART OF THE UNITED KINGDOM?
DO YOU WANT NORTHERN IRELAND TO BE
JOINED WITH THE REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
OUTSIDE THE UNITED KINGDOM?
The Nationalist and Republican Labour Parties followed the Social and Democratic Labour Party lead in calling for a total boycott of the poll. They declared that neither question represented the point of view held by anti-unionists and, therefore, the whole thing was an empty exercise. Quite why they said this is obscure and difficult to understand so long after the event, but the abstention does tend to confuse any attempt to learn lessons from what happened.
The result was meant to convince overseas supporters of the IRA, but, because of the boycott, it did not. Yet 57.4 per cent of the |total' electorate opted to stay in the UK and only 0.63 per cent to join the Republic. It was a secret ballot and, therefore, it is impossible to say for certain how the religious denominations actually voted. Nevertheless, observers at the time spoke about Protestant abstentions and about some Catholics who voted Unionist. There is no real reason to doubt this contention. If, however, we cannot be sure that all votes were cast on sectarian grounds in 1973, how can we forecast with confidence what might happen in, say, another twenty years' time?
Britain and Ireland are separate nations developing in their own ways within the European Union. Ireland belongs to the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Britain left the ERM last September and shows no sign of rejoining. Their industries and their economies will not necessarily evolve on parallel lines. They have different industrial bases. Britain retains much of its traditional heavy manufacturing. Ireland is moving from a dependence on agriculture to an expansion of light engineering, electronics and high technology. The Irish economy has been growing steadily less dependent on exports to Britain and has been increasing trade with Europe. All these factors are likely to weigh more heavily in public opinion than might have been the case in the past. In the field of social services and taxation, there is concern in the UK that an ageing population is putting increasing burdens on the rest. In the Republic, by contrast, half the population is Udder twenty-five and a third under fifteen. In both countries, what might be called the dependants (i.e. the non-earners) have been an increasing burden, but from different directions. It must be a brave individual who will gaze into the crystal ball and forecast future public opinion from that background. It is, however, reasonable to suggest that in a future referendum a substantial number of voters -- Catholic and Protestant -- will be influenced more by the way they see their own personal interests than by any ideological or denominational sentiments. At British general elections, the |feel good' factor is said to have great influence. Would not the same kind of thing affect a referendum?
There will, of course, always be some who will take a hard line on one side or the other even if their numbers decline. This must mean that the outcome of a future referendum may not be as clear cut as one would either expect or hope. All who enter into any negotiations need to ponder on this problem in order to avoid some future disaster. It is all very well for present day politicians to make statements about respecting public opinion, but they must say how it is going to be measured, when and under what circumstances.
Suppose that some day, 50.5 per cent of the votes actually favour constitutional change. Under the terms now being expounded, the British Government would legislate to hand over the Province to the Republic. It would be in breach of faith to do otherwise. Suppose, however, that the total poll was round 70 per cent. (In 1973, the turnout was only 58 per cent). What would be the attitude of the 49.5 per cent who wanted the status quo? Some might respect a democratic decision assuming that the 30 per cent abstainers were indifferent to the result. Others would argue that only a minority of all the people had opted for change. Might they not then start some form of militant action? In that event, the Government and people of Ireland would find themselves trying to absorb a thoroughly awkward set of activists. They might find that they had jumped from the IRA frying pan into the extreme Loyalist fire.
Let us not forget that in 1911, the Conservative Party argued against the policy and tactics of the Liberal Government in forcing through the Parliament Act restricting the Lords' veto. They said it amounted to illegitimate use of a Parliamentary majority. Might history not repeat itself in some form? Let us not forget, either, that when the same Liberal Government of Asquith announced that it proposed to introduce legislation to give Home Rule to Ireland, there was a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Associations, Unionists and Orange Lodges in Belfast which:-- |recognised that the public peace of this country is in great and imminent danger . . . knowing that such a step will inevitably lead to disaster. . .' and which resolved:-- |to take immediate steps to set up a Provisional Government for the Province of Ulster to come into operation on the day of the passage of any Home Rule Bill'.
In 1911, an Ulster Women's Unionist Council was set up to organise defiance in Ulster and resolved:-- | We will stand by our husbands, our brothers and our sons in whatever steps they may be forced to take in defending our liberties against the tyranny of Home Rule'.
Perhaps one might think that all this is fighting talk of eighty years ago; that things would be different in the future. Listen to the likes of the Democratic Unionist MP the Rev. Ian Paisley before jumping to that conclusion. Dare one suggest to Albert Reynolds that he reflect on the awful thought that if he presses too hard for unity of Irish people, one day lan Paisley might be a member of the Dail!
Dick Spring, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of the Republic appears to have recognised the dilemma. He is on record as saying that any constitutional change must be made with the consent of the Unionists. The idea of giving them a veto may not have gone down too well with Nationalists or others fed up with the way Unionists take a wholly entrenched and negative attitude to everything (Ulster says NO!). It does, nevertheless, show an understanding that a period of peace now could go horribly wrong one day. We need to recognise that Ulster Unionists have a very real fear of what would happen if, even with the very best possible intentions, there is a wrong decision; that they will fight for what they want.
This has to be faced early in negotiations whether Sinn Fein is present or not. Somehow, all sides must have no doubt about how and when public opinion in Northern Ireland may be tested. This time, there must be no possibility that any political party or other faction can object to the wording of any question on a ballot paper. Full agreement must be achieved in good time. By now, surely, all realise that the way in which words are put together is of supreme importance in Irish affairs. No one must be given any excuse or cause to advise supporters to boycott a poll. Indeed, there may be an argument for making attendance at the poll compulsory on pain of a heavy fine. This, of course, would entail provision for a |don't know' vote.
This is not to say that there should be any firm plans to hold a referendum by any particular date. It is simply to reach agreement on a procedure to be adopted when necessary.
With hindsight, it can now be seen that to set up a Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont was a tragic mistake. The Unionists did not want it at the time, but they controlled it throughout its life. Its power to preserve partition may not have been laid down beyond argument, but that was the effect. As a result, every election was a kind of referendum. If the Unionist majority had disappeared, everyone assumed that Ulster would join the Republic. This meant normal political matters were never considered by the electorate. It was a |one issue' parliament where no alternative government existed -- the antithesis of democracy.
If only elections held in Northern Ireland -- whether for Stormont, Westminster or Europe -- could be free of discussion about the Border, sanity might begin to prevail. What might be called |normal' politics could gain the ascendancy. It will happen, however, only if the Unionists can feel secure and their fears are assuaged. In this connection, we ought to take note that lan Paisley is to fight this year's elections for the European Parliament on the single |issue' of the Downing Street Declaration. Is it too much to ask him to put really relevant election matters before the people? Perhaps it is impossible to persuade him that anything is relevant other than partition. If so, it is time for him to be marginalised and for Ulster people to be told how he is denying them a proper voice in affairs.
There remains yet another danger. Ireland commands the attention of the British public only when it is giving trouble. If peace is restored, indifference and apathy may return. Britain will forget as it has done in the past. Once people stop killing each other and, particularly, British soldiers, it may be difficult to maintain any sense of urgency for the negotiations. There can, therefore, be an argument in favour of selecting negotiators appointed by the British Government who can never be accused of seeking a political party advantage. Whatever happens, those who are involved must be able to conduct affairs with a determination that the lessons of history will be learned. They must think |long term'. They must show that it may be several generations before there can be an atmosphere of complete and mutual trust. The fighting talk of the militant Unionists and the outrageous behaviour of the terrorists have got to be allowed to melt into a long forgotten past. When one remembers that, to some Irish minds, Oliver Cromwell ran his reign of terror quite recently, this is a tall order.
Can the British ever deal properly with an Irish question? Winston Churchill once said that anyone who claimed to understand Ireland had simply failed to study the facts. It is also worth recalling the words of John Redmond, commenting on the landslide victory of the Liberal Party at the 1906 General Election:-- |While they are strong enough to do justice to this country, they are not strong enough, no matter how large their majority, to govern this country against the will of the Irish people'. Can we not learn something from that? Perhaps it is the job of Great Britain to set up negotiations and then do no more than sit back and let the Irish sort things out for themselves. If this is to work, of course, all Irish parties must first learn to sit at the same table without acrimony.…
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Publication information: Article title: Can We Learn from Irish History?. Contributors: Redmond, Robert S. - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 264. Issue: 1539 Publication date: April 1994. Page number: 197+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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