The (Os) Bourne Identity
Distance can lend enhancement to the view. I suspect that most people here in Ireland were not in the least surprised at the demeanor of George Gideon Oliver Osborne when he told the Scots that the pound sterling wasn’t theirs. Unlike the North Britons post 1707, there were few native Irish who believed that the 1800 act of union was anything other than a piece of paper to rubber stamp England’s ownership of Ireland.
The 20th century on this island was dominated by the national question and the relationship of the people of Ireland with the Westminster state. The folk memory of an atrocity tends be about 90 years and there is no one alive in my father’s county who can emotionally remember what British state functionaries did in Mayo boreens to unsuspecting natives in 1920.
My Donegal trio have little knowledge of those times as I didn’t pass any onto them. It has no relevance to their lives as young Irish people in the 21st century. In the 26 counties we are no longer owned by the Westminster tribe and in the North we have a plan to work through the long process of reconciliation towards a shared future where Britishness and Irishness have parity of esteem.
A couple of weeks ago I was at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in Wexford town. The county itself has excellent republican credentials and will forever be in the wider Irish imagination associated with the 1798 rebellion. In my father’s county it was known as Bliain na bhFrancach – ‘The Year of the French’. It must have been a worrying time for Gideon’s ancestor Sir Thomas Osborne, 9th Baronet.
He sat as a Member of Parliament in the Irish House of Commons for Carysfort between 1776 and 1797 and served as High Sheriff of County Waterford in 1795. In November 1783 he succeeded his father in the baronetcy.
As a peasant army was raised across the island against British rule things didn’t look good for Gideon’s tribe for a few wonderful liberating months, but alas, in the age before the Flying Column and Mick Collins’ squad the Brits finally got the better of us.
With the rebels vanquished by a modern army, the King’s chaps carried out slaughter and torture on an industrial scale. The political response in Westminster was to bring in the Act of Union in 1800 and they thought the Irish problem was settled. It wasn’t.
My first Sinn Féin Ard Fheis was, as I recall, held in a large tent in Ballyfermot in Dublin, but this event in Wexford exuded on-message professionalism. These are changed days and in the tea room I was brushed aside by bright young Shinners on a mission. However, I spotted one familiar face from the 1970s. Intensely political all of his days, he immediately wanted to be briefed on the situation in Scotland. For him, 2014 belongs to Alba and he didn’t understand anyone in the room who didn’t get that.
In the week before Osborne delivered his pound sterling speech, my old comrade from County Cavan had storyboarded the entire movie scene for me. He reasoned that if the Yes vote continued to creep up then “the Brits will let them know who is boss”. By the “Brits” I knew to whom he was referring, and it wasn’t a person on benefits in Hull or a classroom assistant in Liverpool.
He was referring to the ruling tribe that has dominated this archipelago since the creation of the British polity.
From our vantage point we both fully expected that the Bullingdon chaps would bring the artillery to bear on the Scots and have a big grown up conversation with their tartan teenagers about the realities of the UK. This is the talk that the Westminster elite had to have with secessionist types in Ireland a century ago. The Etonians tasked with dealing with Paddy during the Home Rule crisis clearly did not think they were dealing with equals.
A vital component in the poxy resin of Britishness that glued the conquered countries of the ‘Celtic Fringe’ to mother England was a belief among some of the subjugated natives that they were partners in a collective enterprise. For the local elite in Scotland in the imperial age this certainly had some truth.
Osborne’s delivery, his voice dripping with the phonetics imprinted by a childhood defined by privilege, was pitch perfect in summing up that, for Scotland, it isn’t a level playing field in this UK thing. If this had been a fitba match Gideon was, in the middle of the second half, re-ordering the rules. Indeed he was bending them like Beckham.
It was Viceroy of the Rovers stuff. In telling the Scots that they can’t have the pound sterling revealed the sham nature of the union. This is no partnership being renegotiated or dissolved, this is a people, historically annexed, being reminded of their subordinate status. There isn’t anything in the least surprising to most Irish people by this stance from the Westminster clan.
Some people in Scotland, who had been labouring under the touchingly naïve assumption that they are partners in a union, may have been startled by this intervention. Here in Ireland it all looks very normal. It is how we expect the Westminster chaps to behave when they have issues in the Celtic Fringe.
One thing that Ireland can teach the people of Scotland is that the more reasonable Paddy was to his masters in London, the worse it got for people here. After a century dominated by the national question here in Ireland, it is only now that the Bullingdon boys know that there is a green line here that they daren’t step over.
The Queen honoured generations of patriot dead at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin in 2011. However, the colonial gene is still sturdy among the Bullingdon chaps. When they speak to the Scots they actually can’t help themselves, especially if they perceive that they don’t know their place anymore.
‘Jock’ – always the dependable functionary – is now behaving rather like a Fenian. The means are, thankfully, different, but the desire for independence comes from the same place. That is why the response from Osborne is so instantly recognisable to many people in Ireland even with only a cursory knowledge of our British problems.
“Look out for hirelings, King George of England; Search every kingdom where breathes a slave.”
Perhaps Gideon thought himself a little regal as he was telling the Jocks that they weren’t partners, but possessions. If he did, I doubt if anyone in Wexford would be surprised; he is, after all, heir apparent to the Osborne Baronetcy of Ballentaylor and Ballylemon in neighbouring County Waterford.
This is how they speak to lesser breeds and a key part of the Irish revolution a century ago was to realise that the union was a sham. I think Gideon may just have facilitated some learning in Scotland on that matter.
Whatever the technicalities of the pound sterling, it is clear from Ireland that Westminster has an issue with their devalued moral currency. But then, they always did.