IRELAND and ENGLAND
Part 5 – to the present (2019)
We left this story with Ireland partitioned. Naturally there were people on both sides of the border who were cut off from those with whom their sympathies lay. By and large, however, the Anglicans of the Free State made their peace with the new political realities. They adopted the solution that the Orthodox Church has done in similar circumstances: autocephaly. That is, they set themselves up as an independent church and called themselves The Church of Ireland. The Catholics of the Six Counties were not so fortunate. The Presbyterians treated them as second class citizens and discriminated against them in all sorts of ways. For example, electoral wards and constituencies were gerrymandered so as to reduce the effectiveness of the nationalist vote.
The British Government were delighted not to have an Irish Problem. They left the North to its own devices, while trying to maintain friendly relations with the South. The “Treaty Ports” were returned to Dublin in 1938, Westminster having decided that there would be no more European wars in the foreseeable future. Even Churchill, who had initially been a bellicose supporter of “sending the Black and Tans back in”, changed his tune radically when his wife Clementine upbraided him and told him to consider what his views would have been if he had been born an Irishman. The general British public were also broadly sympathetic. Not all would go so far as the Reverend Conrad Noel, who flew the Irish tricolor over Thaxted Parish Church in Essex. Years of migration had mixed up the peoples of the British Isles. Though where immigrants from both communities of Northern Ireland coincided in large numbers, that is, in Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh, ancient hostilies were nurtured. For many years Liverpool returned an Orange Order Member of Parliament to Westminster.
Perhaps mirroring the uncompromising protestantism of the Belfast authorities, the Dublin government proceeded to ignore the unification ideal symbolised by their own national flag, and pursued an aggressive pro-Catholic policy. Their aim was a land of happy peasants all speaking Irish and being reverentially deferential to the authority of Holy Church. Thus the Free State became, in the words of one commentator, the world's only elected Fascist state. The comparison is not so much with Mussolini's Italy and especially not with Hitler's Germany. It is rather with Salazar's Portugal, Dollfuss's Austria, Father Tuso's Slovakia, or Franco's Spain. Thus the Free State became comically backward compared with the Six Counties. When anything failed to function it was blamed on the British.
In 1936 Stalin promulgated a new Constitution for the Soviet Union. This was perhaps the most liberal and enlightened constitution ever drawn up anywhere. The only problem was the clause that reserved “the special position” of the Communist Party. Tens of millions of people were murdered, enslaved and exiled while this exceptionally humane document was in force. The Irish copied this, except that their constitution acknowledged “the special position” of the Holy Catholic Church. Essentially this gave the Church the right of veto over legislation. It also dismayed the Catholics of the North and is one reason why they remained quiescent for so long. Samuel Beckett, a Dublin Protestant, declared that there was more freedom in Nazi-occupied Paris, where he was living, than in De Valera's Dublin.
De Valera went further during the War. Ireland was declared neutral and Hitler's representatives were given every courtesy. This did not meet with universal approval in the Free State. A hundred thousand Irish citizens fought in the British forces against Hitler. That was a vast number out of a total population of around three million. The Admiralty begged Churchill to let them take back the Treaty Ports by force, so as to be better able to take measures against the German submarines that came close to winning the War for Hitler. Churchill refused, on the grounds that to do so would have put a strain on the loyalty of those Irishmen who were serving in the British forces. The German Secret Service, the Abwehr, sent agents into Ireland equipped with bulky radios, German pistols, funny accents, wads of forged banknotes, clothes with German tailors' labels, and instructions to make contact with the IRA. Since the IRA were in those days pro-Soviet and were waging a minor armed conflict against both Irish governments, the Dublin authorities quickly rounded them up. It is now realised that the leaders of the Abwehr were fighting their own private battle against Hitler. Irishmen who had served in the British forces were treated scandalously badly by the Dublin Government. Mostly they lost their pension rights, and quite a few felt obliged to emigrate.
In 1949 the Irish Government decided to go the whole hog and declare a formal Republic. This was meant to be a slap in the face for Britain. However, Attlee's government did not see it like that. They simply passed a Government of Ireland Act to acknowledge the position, and changed their brass plate in Dublin from “High Commission” to “Embassy”. Irish citizens continued to have preferential status in Britain. In the North, the Unionists continued to send Orangemen to Westminster, while elected Nationalists refused to take their seats. Really, they couldn't. They could hardly swear allegiance to the King or Queen when they had been elected to refuse that very allegiance. During the early sixties the sister of a friend of mine was the mistress of a Northern Irish M.P. His election still holds the record percentage turnout of any election anywhere: 106%! The Northern Irish slogan “Vote Early And Vote Often” applied. (Any elector who had died or who had emigrated was personated by supporters of all the candidates.)
There is a wonderful post-war newsreel clip of Seán Lemass being driven through the streets of Dublin having been elected Taoiseach. He is hunched up in the back seat of the car wishing he didn't exist, while the Cardinal-Archbishop, seated next to him, is waving triumphantly to the crowds. The mistake that the Americans made over Prohibition, that is, making what should have been ordinary legislation constitutional, was repeated in Ireland. Contraception and abortion were made unconstitutional at the behest of the Church. (It is noticeable that the Catholic Church has always been the most anxious to encourage fertility in regions where there is a substantial protestant population.) Nevertheless, in Ireland not everthing is as it seems. A friend of mine used to supplement his student grant by taking a suitcase full of contraceptives to Dublin on a regular basis.
“Who do you sell them to?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can hardly display your wares in O'Connell Street and bawl 'Buy me and stop one!'”
“I sell them to priests, many of whom want to alleviate the misery and the poverty caused by unmanageably large families.”
Two important crises arose that ended this rather unsatisfactory state of equilibrium. The first was in the Province, where Catholics started to complain about unfair allocation of housing. This soon got violent. The Belfast Government employed a protestant police force, the 'B' Specials, to attack the demonstrators. The Catholics looked for a force to defend them from both the 'B' Specials and from self-appointed psychopaths. The British Secret Security Service thought they were being very clever. Firstly, they (or somebody) arranged for the most notorious psychopath to be found in a telephone box with two rifle bullets in his head. The cause of death was registered as “suicide”. Secondly, they contrived, on the principle of “divide and rule” for the Marxist IRA to be split in two. Their creation, the Provisional IRA, went on to be the most effective terrorist organisation in the whole of Europe. It is beyond my aims or my ability to write a history of Northern Ireland's troubles. Let us simply look at some of the consequences for Britain.
The Britsh Government, whether Conservative or Labour, disowned any connection with the warring tribes.
British political parties refused Northern Ireland citizens the right to join them. So much for the “United Kingdom”!
The British Government took direct control of the Province and disbanded the 'B' Specials. They also made it illegal to discriminate in matters relating to housing or employment on the grounds of religion. (This didn't work. Applicants were simply asked where they went to school. “Our Lady's Bleeding Heart College” or “King William's Glorious Victory Academy” gave the required information.)
By James Callaghan's time, the late seventies, all the basic political grievances had been dealt with. However, by then the proper politicians had been marginalised. The Protestants as ever were well aware that the British Government would sell them down the river as soon as democratic politics permitted. So, whenever the IRA went quiet, Protestant gangs would shoot up the odd public house or betting shop just to stir them up. Americans of Irish extraction, many of whom did not even know that there was such a thing as an Irish Republic, were funding the IRA. This money was used to purchase weapons and explosives from the Czech Communists. The armaments were smuggled into Ireland via General Gadafy's Libya, and the money went into numbered Swiss bank accounts.
In order to maintain their recruiting drive, the Provisional IRA carried out various outrages on the British mainland. One of these, the Birmingham Pub Bombings, was to bring about an important change to the organisation and status of the British secret services. What had happened was that the actual bombers had arranged for some innocent Irishmen to take the immediate blame, so as to give the real criminals time to make their getaway. No doubt they expected the case against these men to be dropped once the police had completed their investigations. Unfortunately, the innocent were convicted even though the British and the Irish governments knew who the perpetrators were. Shockingly “MI5” (the Home Office Security Service) and “MI6” (the Foreign Office Intelligence Service) could not present the evidence that they had because they did not legally exist. The Irish Government kept the case alive, and finally John Major gave these organisations formal legal status and made the identities of their Directors part of the public record. Previously, newly appointed heads of the security services used to be wined and dined by the Soviet Embassy; their identities were secret only to the public who paid their salaries.
Returning to the Republic, momentous changes were taking place in the 1980's. One view is that it was “a generation thing”. A new political generation had replaced the old guard that was prone to blame the British for the country's continuing poverty and inefficiency. An important milestone was reached in 1982, when the Irish Government, which had suffered greatly from Mrs Thatcher's absurd monetarist policies, set up its own currency. Previously the Republic's pound was the same as the UK pound. After some preliminary hiccups, the cause of the European Union was embraced enthusiastically, and EU development money was channelled into the Republic. Taxes on foreign companies were reduced, and the “Celtic Tiger” was born. This happened very suddenly. On my first visit to Co. Wexford I stood out as a foreigner because I had a big car. On my second visit, two years later, I stood out as a foreigner because I had an old car. Once the UK and the Irish Republic were part of the same country for trading purposes, the racketeering and fraud over the Northern Ireland border, that had sustained the various private armies, could no longer exist. So peace broke out, though not without some knocking of heads together by President Clinton.
Unfortunately this sudden access of wealth caused a property bubble, for which the Irish Government was unprepared. This exactly mirrored similar problems that had occurred in Japan, the UK, Iceland and the United States. When the bubble burst, the Irish banks were left owing £7 billion to British banks. In perhaps David Cameron's one display of statesmanship, he gave that sum to the Irish Government to bail them out. He made a memorable speech in Parliament about how he recognised that relations between Britain and Ireland had often been fraught in the past, but that fraternal feelings overrode all that. Cynics on both sides of the Irish Sea pointed out that he was really bailing out the British creditor banks. On the other hand, he did not have to. This led to the historic visit of the Queen, who, clad in green, addressed the Dáil in Irish. Though this was presented in Britain as a triumph for the Queen (which it was), it was also a triumph of diplomacy by the Dublin authorities who deserve much of the credit.
And so everything is rosy on the island of Ireland in the Year of our Lord 2019. Well, no. And it is entirely the fault of the British! The attempt by the UK to secede from the European Union has contributed to the breakdown of the “Power-sharing Executive” in Belfast, with criminal gangs jockeying for position should a border be re-established between the Province and the Republic. All the same, perhaps for the first time in recorded history, wealth per head of population in Ireland is greater than it is in the UK. Since the UK is noted for its massive, and increasing, inequality of wealth distribution, it follows that in real life the citizens of Ireland are more prosperous than their troubled British counterparts.
Ironies continue to exist. The Revd. Ian Paisley, leader of the most intransigent Protestants, separated the Irish Presbyterian Church from its Scottish roots. Thus the most important link keeping Northern Ireland in the UK was severed. The British Government has made it clear that they would gladly see Ireland reunited (and would no doubt pay the Republic handsomely to help with administrative costs), provided only that a democratic mandate could be secured. But the Republic, nominally devoted to securing a united Ireland, is more than concerned about having one and a half million highly politicised northerners taking over their institutions, as they could very well do. So, by a final irony, Northern Ireland's government (now suspended) is run by two groups who loathe and distrust the British Government, while relations between Dublin and Westminster have been conducted with the utmost cordiality for a generation.
We must wait and see how Brexit pans out.