— SkyNews (@SkyNews) November 25, 2017
There is no word for schadenfraude in Gaelic, or English, for that matter. Still, the Irish can be forgiven for feeling more than a touch of it as their needs seem to be one of the key – and very possibly the hardest – of issues to be resolved in the Article 50 negotiations. It is probably fair to say that of all the issues which exercised voters over the years in relation to the EU and Britain’s role in it (immigration, control over laws, the right to have a free trade agreement with nameless faraway countries, the amount paid to the EU), the effect on Ireland of our EU membership and possible departure was not high on the list.
The idea that the Irish might veto the start of trade talks has triggered a bout of condescending fury amongst certain newspapers and politicians. How dare a small poorer island so dependent on Britain challenge Britain’s right to determine its own destiny in whatever way it sees fit? Such impertinence! And yet, impertinent or not, British politicians now face having to grapple with how to accommodate Irish interests and the minutiae of Irish politics, both north and south of the Irish border, a task made even harder by the government’s dependence on DUP votes for a majority.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this has come as an unwelcome surprise to many of the romantically optimistic Brexiteers, reinforced by a perception that in the 17 months since the referendum the hard thinking about how to reconcile the government’s preferred Brexit with the Northern Ireland agreement, the CTA and all the other ties that bind Ireland and Britain simply has not been done.
It is not the first time, of course, that the question of Ireland has dominated – or persisted like a recurring bout of shingles in – English politics.
From Tudor times onwards, no English government has been able to ignore Ireland. Indeed, a policy for Ireland was essential Mostly, this was for strategic reasons to protect Britain’s flank from Continental invasion, often aided by the rebellious Irish (Wolfe Tone). Sometimes it was because the very existence and legitimacy of the English constitutional settlement depended on victory in Ireland (the Battle of the Boyne).
On occasion the constitutional settlement was changed as a result of events in Ireland (the Act of Union). And ever since the Reformation, the religious question added an extra level of friction which poisoned Anglo-Irish relations in a way which it is hard for a largely secular society accustomed to a mildly apologetic Anglicanism to understand. And throughout, always, the question of land: who owned it, who benefited, who was dispossessed, who could live on it, how many mouths it could feed – or, tragically, not. A question which, together with Irish demands for a form of self-government, took up a significant amount of Parliamentary time and governmental energy throughout the 19th and early 20th century, in a way unimaginable today.
The Irish question was never a sideshow, much as some might have wished it so. A small country on the edge of a great Empire, an island whose main export was its people, almost in spite of itself, punched above its weight in its impact on the politics and culture of its dominant neighbour.
And even in the last century when Ireland (or the greater part of it) broke away, Irish nationalism continued to have an impact, though less on Parliament and more on those institutions which underpin or support the rule of law and security: the army (the Curragh Mutiny and the Tory party’s support for violent resistance to Parliamentary decisions are an ironic counterpoint to the current Labour leadership’s past support for violent Irish nationalism, though Corbyn is unlikely ever to draw attention to it.)
The police and English judiciary (whose investigations of terrorist crimes and responses to miscarriages of justice in the 1970’s were not their finest hour) and the Northern Irish authorities, whose behaviour resulted in Britain being found guilty of degrading and inhumane treatment.
It is not surprising that having finally put this bloody and neuralgic history behind it, best exemplified by a few well-chosen words by HMQ at Dublin Castle and a symbolic bow before a memorial to the dead, Ireland should feel so concerned by the prospect of a reintroduction of hard borders and all that this entails.
So. Can Britain learn any lessons from this long shared history? Might it too now become once again an island country on the edge of a large dominant polity but punching well above its weight? The romantically nostalgic Brexiteers must hope so.
Or is another Irish example its more likely future? The example set by the Ireland of the 20th century, perhaps? A country which, after barely taming its internal divisions following its messy departure, retreated into itself, played little part in world affairs, seemed content with a traditional and stifling cultural zeitgeist (recently revealed to have hidden a multitude of sins), exported its young, was seen as a problem by its neighbours (when they were wearily forced to pay it attention) and only rediscovered its mojo when it rejoined a larger stage.