The Question of Northern Ireland

By Wedd, George | Contemporary Review, April 1996 | Go to article overview

The Question of Northern Ireland


Wedd, George, Contemporary Review


In 1066 And All That there is the very pertinent observation that whenever the English think they have found an answer to The Irish Question, the Irish change the Question. There is not only a tragic but also a surreal quality to the present state of affairs after the IRA exploded its huge bomb in London's Docklands on 9 February. Never can so many solutions, or at least Next Steps, have been in circulation. Now we are told that all-party talks or at least talks among those parties who have renounced violence - will begin on 10 June. Proximity talks, where the parties are under the same roof but not in the same room; elections to a kind of Constituent Assembly to generate a negotiating committee (an idea with both French and American precedents); a referendum on whether violence in politics is a good idea or not; and, at the far edge of Nationalism, a resurgence of the old idea that 'the Brits are the problem' and can and must be driven out by violence. For anyone interested in political philosophy, the whole thing has become a kind of laboratory experiment, raising, in a way rarely seen in Western society, questions about the nature of the State, the Nation and Authority which we hardly ever encounter.

There is a Corsican independence movement which annoys France; and a Basque separatist movement which does more than annoy Spain. But in neither case does the metropolitan government show the slightest sign of being willing to consider the fundamentals of the state in the way both Britain and Ireland have been driven to do.

The principle of democratic government, which is, as Churchill said, the worst possible except for every other kind, rests on two qualifications. The first is that though the majority must have its way it must not tyrannise over the minority. 'Tyranny', in our sensitive times, may be defined to include massive discrimination in employment and in the allocation of council house tenancies - we do not know what real 'tyranny' means. The second is that there must be a realistic chance, every so often, of the minority becoming the majority. These two qualifications reinforce each other; because the majority-for-the-time-being knows that time will bring chances, it must hold back and not be carried away by the feeling that 'we are the masters now'. Thus when Government changes at Westminster, individuals are not persecuted and contracts are not torn up. And when one party holds power for much more than a decade, an uneasy feeling builds up that this in itself is wrong, irrespective of the merits.

Northern Ireland shows what happens when these two qualifications fail. It was a discriminatory society: does anyone remember now that when the recent troubles began in 1969, they began when a large Catholic family which thought it was at the head of its council's waiting list was passed over in favour of a tenancy in favour of a single Protestant woman, because it was a Protestant house that was vacant? The first Prime Minister of the Province described Stormont as 'a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people', and was openly proud that he himself employed no Catholics. That this discrimination was the mirror-image of what was happening in the South is not quite irrelevant, although the South got away with it - and the British Government helped it to do so by running a scheme of financial compensation to Southern loyalists resettling in Britain, a scheme which was wound up by Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1929. The South reduced its non-Catholics at one point to 2 per cent although the figure is higher now. The North has noticed this precedent. Under one extreme scenario, the British Government might have to brush the dust off the papers on the Irish Grants Committee (if it can find them: the Public Records Office denies having them). Oddly, one of the loyalists who re-settled was that deranged patriot William Joyce, who entered history briefly as Lord HawHaw, with his radio broadcasts of Nazi propaganda.

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