The first state visit to Britain by an Irish president this week has caused me to wonder what all the fuss and suffering over the “Irish Question” was all about. And I say this reluctantly, as a former Irishman myself.
Growing up in Dublin in the 1950s, with all those proud tri-colours flying from every flagpole, was a wonderfully revolutionary experience. There was something exciting and daring about being against the British ruling class, about being different. We had a culture of our own, Irish football, hurling (I still have the scars), the Irish language taught in every school, the poetry of WB Yeats, the plays of Bernard Shaw.
But actually, all of this could have been achieved under Home Rule. What I am fondly remembering is culture not politics. And, looking back on the last 100 years, I can’t help feeling it’s the politics that has let us down. If Gladstone’s policy of “home rule all round” had been adopted in the British Isles back in the 1880s, we would all have been better off.
Instead we had a rebellion in Dublin in 1916, just what we didn’t want in the middle of the First World War. We had a civil war in Ireland which cost over 3,000 lives and left a legacy we are still dealing with. The two main political parties to this day, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are derived from the two opposing sides in the civil war and their leaders and individual members can trace their families back to the tribal divisions of those dark days.
Then in the 1960s until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, we had what we call “The Troubles” – a typically Irish euphemism for marches, demonstrations, knee-cappings, bombings and shootings which left another 3,000 dead and thousands wounded. And there is still an uneasy truce and power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland.
Ireland has also had an uneasy economic history. It muddled along as a butter and cheese economy until it joined the EEC in 1973. It then did the dirty on its neighbours by cutting its business taxes to attract foreign investment. It seemed to hold a referendum on EU membership every other year, changing it’s mind each time. It then went money-crazy, imaging itself as some sort of Celtic Tiger roaring away on 8 per growth, building offices and housing estates like players on a Monopoly board, until it all came crashing down in 2008. Now Ireland has lost a generation to unemployment and emigration. It has endured pay cuts and public service reductions on a devastating scale. It may have come out of the EU/IMF rescue programme, but unemployment is still around 11 per cent.
The churches, on both sides of the Christian fence, have not exactly covered themselves in celestial glory over the last 100 years either. They have fuelled sectarian divisions with their separate schools, workforce and housing segregation and doctrinaire political stances on issues like divorce, contraception, abortion and censorship. Both Protestant and Catholic churches have, if not condoned the violence of the terrorists on either side, have not done much to encourage their flocks to turn the terrorists over to the police or refrain from provocative marches.
Both churches have lost much of their standing in the community – just like in the rest of the British Isles. Only one in five Catholics now goes to weekly mass. And the way the child abuse scandal was handled has certainly turned people away from the Catholic Church.
What a sea of troubles ! And yet it could have been so different if Ireland had remained a united nation, within the union of the four nations on the British Isles. The visit of President Higgins ( his name sounds a little less Shavian in Gaelic, Michael O’huiginn) is a gesture which says “Let bygones be bygones.” His father fought for Irish independence but now has he himself put it: “We all wholehearted welcome the considerable achievement of today’s reality – the mutual respect, friendship and co-operation which exists between our two countries.” Three years ago the Queen went to Dublin to say much the same thing.
Both sides have much to apologise for. The kings of England (and Scotland for that matter) regularly trampled across Ireland in their quest for power. They imposed a class of uncaring landlords. Westminster used Ireland as a useful “rotten burgh” to swell majorities in parliament. The Black and Tans did some pretty nasty things during the 1920s. On the other hand, the Irish leaders twice deserted their neighbours in their hours of need – in the First World War and the Second.
But for all that, we are part of the same British-Isles culture. We share the same language (Gaelic is spoken by just 90,000 Irish people). We share much the same music, from pop to folk. Whole swathes of people have gone back and forward across the Irish Channel. Humble farmers like my forebears moved from Scotland to County Antrim. The Anglo-Irish elite like the Churchills ( Winston spent his early childhood in Dublin) have left their mark in the form of grand houses and estates. And coming the other way, we’ve had everybody from navies to broadcasters flocking to seek their fortune on mainland Britain.
That’s why I find it bizaare that Michael Higgins should be singled out for a full blown state visit – as if he were the president of Peru. This small elderly academic looks more like the Mayor of Galway (which in fact he was). And like most Irish folk, he’s no stranger to mainland Britain. He’s a graduate of Manchester University after all and has been here 13 times since he was elected president in 2011.
In short, Ireland is no more different from England than Wales is or Scotland. I’ve got to ask: was the political turmoil of the last 100 years worth it ? The honest answer is No. And might this all have a bearing on this September’s referendum on independence in Scotland ? Yes, admittedly in different times and difference circumstances. But, as the old Chinese proverb has it, “You should be careful what you wish for.”