Ireland: the Mirror in which England Misunderstands Herself
One of the great appeals of the Sealed Knot Of The Churchilliad is that every suburban one of us can be a Winston in their turn. And in the fools’ folly of this Churchillian Autumn Brexit I get my turn to lugubriously intone “as the Brexit deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again”.
Ireland is the mirror in which England misunderstands herself, or rather a hall of mirrors, a hall of distortion, of phantasms, tall Britannia and small.
Stanley Johnson, the cretinous father of a cretinous son, declares that he cares not if the Irish shoot each other. But it was never an Irish war. The UK cities of Belfast and London/Derry were bombed flat, the British Prime Minsters Thatcher and Major, narrowly and not so narrowly, survived assassination. The Westminster MP Bobby Sands first smeared the wall of his British prison cell with his shit and then starved himself into the patriot grave.
Britain and Ireland, like so many others, had a double-minority problem. The new Irish state was blessed with the ‘best of ethnic cleansing’ – the poor economy saw the Irish leave for work as individuals, but their British neighbours as families.
As I walk the streets of my new home in Berlin I see the golden Stolperstein, or stumbling stones, one for each victim of the nazis: death, deportation or emigration. The one by the house speaks of Karl Spicker – deportiert verschollen – deported missing.
In Virginia in the County Cavan, next to Auntie Marie’s house, there is a mark of emigration, a giant stumble stone – the slab where once stood the old Orange Hall: a centerpiece in this mostly planterly of Irish towns, named for the integrity of the perfumed hymen of Lizzie Wan herself.
Protestants, emigrated, ostensibly for work.
I think of what Belfast would look like with Stolpersteins: Sheena Campbell shot in the York Hotel where my office lunched. The poor scaffies murdered down Kennedy Way during the terrible murder week at the end of 1993, a fat, fat cluster around Carlisle circus, the one out east for yon lassie up from the country , rompered and dumped in a wheelie bin that time.
The double minority problem in the north, in the UK, haunts us still.
Stormont was a clone of Westminster in institution and ethos, and the Stormont that made Northern Ireland a cold house for Catholics is the Westminster that is making a cold house for our native born French and Lithuanians now.
And the Nothern Ireland that was misgoverned by Direct Rule by Ministers and Henry VIII decrees for 46 years is England in dress rehearsal for the iniquitous Brexit Act.
The remainers in their turn curse the DUP, the Coleraine coelacanths. There would be no golden sett in Arlene Foster’s childhood kitchen, for her father miraculously lived after they kicked the door in and machine gunned him in front of her. There would be neither one where she pulled her friend off the primary school bus, her hair on fire, because the driver of the bus too lived.
Sure the DUP made their choice, but in a referendum they never asked for. England voted out – despite Northern Ireland voting remain – this Brexit is not their doing.
The British see Fermanagh and Tyrone as an exception, a quirk a throwback, the Rees-Mogg of territorial politics, when it is in fact a norm.
In living memory Arlene’s kitchen drama played out between Czechs and Poles in Tschechin, French and Italians in Nice, Italians and Slovenians in Trieste, Germans and Poles in Silesia, Hungarians and Slovaks in the ribbon of Magyardom north of the Danube. On and ruritanianly on, and I write that as a devotee of Ruritanianalia, visiting the Slavic Wend and Sorb towns south of Berlin in my first week here.
The League of Nations made elaborate efforts to address double-minorities but they only took in the Åland Islands, disputed between Sweden and the new Finland.
The European Communities (first Coal and Steel, then Euratom) took a more brutally direct approach. German rearmament was needed and nobody trusted Germany. In her turn Germany distrusted France, the then occupier, and would be annexer, of the Saarland.
The foundational principles of the European Union are an elaborate architecture of institutions, laws and governance predicated on distrust and indifference. Distrust of the near neighbour and indifference by the far.
The EU doesn’t solve these double minority problems, they just make them meh…
But leaving the EU brings them all back. For all the vaunted ‘peace-keeping’ of Nato it is impotent in the face of a gunman in the hedge, the up-and-under in the wheel arch of a car. Nato defended against the Soviets, but the EU defended us against Europeans, against ourselves.
People tend to react to the institutional and structural framework they are in – there is no ‘national character’. The peculiarly 1920s turn of British politics since the referendum is a reflection of the decision made: to return institutionally to the 20s.
Where the UK is poorly served, is by her Westminster politicians, by her English politicians and their Socratic unexamined political life.
Writers and politicians reach for tropes of 20s nationalism without an inner voice to say “Woah Nellie!”, without a language to describe institutions and relations – finding the language new and thrilling. Like a teenager ‘inventing’ wanking.
Scotland and the SNP too see ourself distorted in these mirrors: “We are not imperial Britain, when we go the North becomes a problem for the Brits and the Irish and anyone but us”. But geography will not be denied.
We are half-brother to the North: the Scotland of my mum being called a wee pape by her uncles and of my dad’s dad and his pal buying a bottle of Catholic Jamesons in the war when the Protestant whisky went off. And corking it, where the cork remains, when it came back on.
A UK of England and Northern Ireland will not endure, and we will have to think of what relationship we should have with our other nearest neighbour – with the Protestants in particular – the Catholics have their protectors close to hand.
But ould Ireland may not be done with Brexit yet.
The Commons curates her lore: suffragettes in cupboards, swords on ribbons. But there are tales lost in the weeding.
Bernadette Devlin darting across the floor of the House to lamp Reggie Maudling after Bloody Sunday.
Brexit lurks like Cathal Brugha. The 2nd President of the Provisional Republic, the 1st President elected by the Dail Eirann, took the boat and slipped into the lobby of the Commons in the spring of 1918 to work out how many gunmen he would need to murder the cabinet if Parliament voted for Irish Conscription.
What Roisin Dubh awaits? What lunge? What blow?