If We Are Ever to Solve the Ulster Question, Britain and Ireland Must Let Go of Their Confrontational History and Learn to Become Good Neighbours

By Lloyd, John | New Statesman (1996), September 13, 1996 | Go to article overview

If We Are Ever to Solve the Ulster Question, Britain and Ireland Must Let Go of Their Confrontational History and Learn to Become Good Neighbours


Lloyd, John, New Statesman (1996)


Irelend is a separate country. The obvious fact must be recognised fully before a settlement is possible in Northern Ireland: it must be recognised above all by the Irish.

Real separateness is much more than the possession of a flag, an anthem and a government. The "failed states" in the world often fail, in part, because their neighbours cannot or will not cease meddling in and destabilising their internal affairs - or they themselves cannot let go of their neighbours.

In the tumbling apart that preceded the fall of the Soviet Union, examples of these types could be found everywhere - in the murderous meddling of Russia in the Transcaucasian states, in the inability of Belarus to find a nationhood of its own and thus falling back on a dependence on Russia.

In Central Europe, however, the many possible destabilisations which one state could inflict on the other - Poland on western Ukraine; Germany on Kaliningrad (Russia), Sudetenland (Czech Republic) and Silesia (Poland); Hungary on Transylvania (Romania) - have all been eschewed or halted. Borders, even if resented, are respected and agitation about them largely confined to rightist groups. The governments have, for the moment at least, let go.

But Ireland, alone of the states of Europe, has not let go. It retains in its constitution articles that claim suzerainty over the six counties of Ulster, as well as the 26 of the Republic. It fed and tended the myths of the Republican martyrs, and has stressed that their work is undone. The duty of the Irish government to represent "Nationalist Ireland" - meaning the Catholics of the north as well as the population of the south - has been a steady part of the ruling rhetoric. It has been the largest element in the failure of Northern Ireland as part of a state.

Britain, by contrast, has let go - perhaps too much. Its stress on the fact that Northern Ireland is part of Britain only because of the wish of the majority and for no strategic reason of British policy is - however interpreted - a flag of indifference. At an extreme, it is saying don't blame us, it's those Unionist people with the bowler hats and the big drums.

Ireland is the opposite of a failed state: it is one of Europe's postwar successes, currently enjoying an economic boom. It is increasingly becoming a country from which the young, gifted and energetic will no longer leave in larger numbers than from any small state.

The coalition government of John Bruton has gone much further than previous governments in moderating the reflexive republicanism of the Irish nomenclatura. He does not speak of nationalist Ireland; his outburst of condemnation of the British government after the Drumcree march, though unfair, was also atypical. He appears happy to see the unity of Ireland put on such a long timescale as to be invisible: unfortunately his foreign minister, Dick Spring, is not, and he commands much of the negotiation process with the British.

Bruton's strategy, necessarily moving in a crabwise fashion, is the best hope the British and the Irish have of providing the context within which a settlement might be found. Ireland's success as a modern European state depends on its renunciation of the active pursuit of unity. …

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If We Are Ever to Solve the Ulster Question, Britain and Ireland Must Let Go of Their Confrontational History and Learn to Become Good Neighbours
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