2007 - 2021

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?

Comments (18)

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  1. Willie says:

    Yes Gordon the tragedy of history repeats itself.

    No good will come out of this current British Beligerence, not here in Scotland, not here in the north of Ireland nor in England itself. The seeds of division are once again being sown and you are absolutely correct to opine about the cretinous father of a cretinous son saying that he doesn’t care if the Irish shoot each other.

    This from a man who’s son is at the heart of English government it tells you all about the rabid cabal that are now effectively at war with Europe.

    Unless reversed this will almost certainly end in bloodshed, and quite frankly, who truly would care if Stanley Johnstone , and or his moron son were one of the first to suffer the gunshot through the head that these morons say they do not care about.

    An insightful article which reminds us all of the fire with which Westminster plays.

  2. Ali McGregor says:

    brexit may not be of the DUP’s making, but it is something they want desperately.

    The EU, uk and US were honest brokers when they formulated the Good Friday Agreeement. A deal not supported by the DUP, the lat thing they wanted was an even playing field were respect for all is enshrined in law.

    DUP what brexit because it undermines the GFA. Other events are falling in their favour too. The uk government is no longer an honest broker in the continuation of the GFA, Mrs May hastened that fate with her ill judged election in 2017 that ended with her now relying on the DUP for her parliamentary majority and bribing them to the tune of £1Bn plus for the pleasure. This is on top of the 0.5 Bn fuel efficient scandal perpetrated by the DUP that has disappeared from view.

    At the end of the day the DUP would see Northern Ireland in ashes rather than as a prosperous region of Ireland.

    In other words religion and manipulation keeps tugging Norhtern Ireland in the opposition direction than it should progress towards.

    As for Scotland, our views are completely ignored not just on brexit, but everything. Thiis byenlarge is because our struggle has been fought on democratic lines and long this must continue. But that should not rule out civil disobedience. How long can Scotland continue to be ignored?

    The only country in the EU not to have an influence on the outcome of brexit is Scotland. This is a deplorable situation brought about our subservient position within the uk union and tory rule in England, neither will change if we wait. We can”t change tory rule in England, but we can change the uk union by leaving it. Leaving the uk would reduce tensions between Scotland and England , each can follow their chosen destiny, free of interference.

    As for Northern Ireland”s position in the uk post Scottish independence, it would be unsustainable, the forces pulling all Ireland into one would be irresistible.

    The uk is a colonial construct to enhavpce a greater England, it’s deminse can’t come soon enough!

    1. Jamsie says:

      Brexit will come whether there is a hard border imposed by the EU or not.
      Ireland will suffer most of it does impose a hard border.
      Irish economists are already forecasting the effect of Brexit on Ireland and it is not good.
      Scottish Independence wil not happen any time soon.
      People like the author will see to that.
      Division will get the cause nowhere especially the Oirish kind.

      1. Jack collatin says:

        I wonder how much they pay the team of teenage trolls to be ‘Jamsie’?

    2. Gordon Guthrie says:

      My point is that the DUP are not the drivers of this process, their role is and has been reactive, and that we focus on dissident republicans as the only threat to peace at our peril.

  3. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Just like us, Ulster said Remain. England said Leave: cajoled in part by dark capital channeled through the DUP, via Scots Tories. … perhaps originating from one of West Asia’s mono-ethnic regimes, who would love to see Europe reduced to their level of spite and autocracy.

    The author is right about something, Scotland and NI are connected for weal or woe. Tutting through the blinds at our unruly neighbours over by won’t suffice, once we take self-responsibility. Nor will blaming all ills on Etonian imperialists raised on bile and Machiavelli. Yes, we should welcome and support everyone with a Scottish affinity.

    But auguring dreary steeples helps nobody. The 1920s won’t be back, nor the ‘70s, nor the 1640s, unless we invoke them by a very determined necromancy. The steeples’ mortar is rotten, loosened by decades of peace and centuries of Reason. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland (British, Irish or some concoction) are like the article’s author – mixed origins – and multi-polar, 21st century, quietly secular, appalled by the phantasms of their history. They could be made to man the tribal trenches again, but only in extremis. Talking up conflict, instead of democracy, rights, equality, tolerance, prosperity, is wicked – whether you’re in London, Brussels or Edinburgh. Nobody in NI can justifiably fear the post-Catholic, multicultural South. Neither should Scotland hold up a beacon for those who can’t thole their loss of Supremacy.

    Arlene’s position is understandable, given the trauma of her childhood. Let’s work to defuse the unexploded bombs in everyone’s psyche, though, cultivate and accept diversity. That way nobody needs to spawn chaos from desperation – not Arlene Kelly Foster, or any new Cathal (William St.John Burgess) Brugha.

    1. Gordon Guthrie says:

      This article is principally not about the North, it’s really about England and how England sees herself, and how Ireland, north and south is a foil, a mirror, something against which England mismeasures herself.

      I sincerely hope we do not see a return to the old days, but given how Westminster pols are acting right now I am fairly fearful of a bad turn, a No Deal Brexit looks the most likely option to me.

  4. florian albert says:

    ‘The EU doesn’t solve these double minority problems, they just make them meh…’

    After Northern Ireland, the Republic and the rest of the UK joined the EEC in 1973, the violence there continued. Something like 2,800 more people died before ‘The Troubles’ came to an end. Events in Euskadi unfolded in a parallel way. The EU kept out and the violence ended – a couple of decades later – when the insurgents came to accept that the nation state could withstand their ongoing assaults.
    The strong likelihood is that Brexit will not bring back political violence to Northern Ireland and the status quo will remain because the majority of voters will want it that way.

    1. Alf Baird says:

      “the status quo will remain”? Well, we might wonder how Westminster considers NI. Is NI a strategic asset/territory? Tory behaviour suggests NI to them is rather an afterthought. Other than Brexit, NI is seldom in the news now. There is currently not even a government there, NI is run by faceless unelected civil servants. We understand the strategic value of Scotland to Westminster, with Scotland having two thirds of the UK’s EEZ and one third of the GB land mass, plus loads of disproportionately high value exports (oil&gas, energy, whisky, fish, aggregates, agriculture, tourism etc) that gives the UK a rather less embarrassing trade balance than it would otherwise have. And then there are the hundreds of social/public institutions in Scotland which tend to recruit professionals from south of the border, the attraction of the pristine environment, Edinburgh, rural areas, and more modest property prices (than south of the border) attracting significant numbers of professionals and retirees etc, perhaps 50,000 people per annum according to the census, and some one million since devolution. But what is the strategic value or importance of NI to Westminster? Does anyone know?

    2. Gordon Guthrie says:

      The problem with that argument is it was also true in 1922 and 1967, only a tiny minority wanted violence. The old EEC with only trade deals and not freedom of movement and the single market had almost no impact on the border.

      After Mrs Thatcher’s great legacy (SM/FoM) it started happening post 1992 and had a dramatic effect on the border – which the achievements of the GFA added to considerably. Mrs Thatcher began the work of bringing Dublin into play in 1985. The Tories are trashing her legacy.

      1. florian albert says:

        The IRA had three military campaigns to end partition. All three failed. The last campaign, from 1969 till (roughly) 1994 cost the lives of about 400 Republican activists.
        The penny has dropped; armed struggle is a dead end. There is almost no appetite for a renewal of this failed strategy.

        Freedom of movement has been part of the Common Market/EEC/EU since day one of the Treaty of Rome. It has never been a particular issue in Ireland. People have always crossed the border to work, shop and socialize. (The border as a security problem was a different matter.)

        My guess is that a fudge of some sort will be cooked up.
        Neither side, pro- or anti-Brexit, cares much about the partition of Ireland per se. For each side, it is a stick to beat their opponents.

  5. Utterheb says:

    Gashty – There is undoubtedly a very palpable sense of dread emerging over this inexorable slide towards the dismemberment of stability as we have known it.
    I see the European migrant workers and settlers as a boon to the prosperity of both Scotland and the wider UK. Quite what the rationale behind the current direction taken by the Treeza team with regard to non UK citizens is utterly beyond me.
    What right minded politician would casually discard that the very people that have brought prosperity to many sectors of industry, fishing and farming?

    1. Gashty McGonnard says:

      Utterheb – Not sure why you addressed that to me?

      To answer your question: a Tory politician would do that. They think robots and Africans will be doing all the work soon, and neither will demand votes, rights or residency.

  6. Graham Ennis says:

    Goodness!. The eloquence, the poetic writings!. If the subject were not so tragic and serious, (History tells us all things Celtic eventually end up tragic), then I would applaud all that was written. But what is written is the death knell of the UK, and it will be a struggling, horrible death. No Celtic political issue involving the English state ends any other way, and I cannot see this one being an exception to the rule. In practical terms, the contractors have already been awarded the job of building border posts, and the hard border is due to arrive on 1st April, 2019. At 0.00 hours. I will now wager that in the first 60 minutes of the “New Border”, loud explosions will be heard near said border posts. The deep tribal instincts of the Irish and their traditions will awake, like Mordor. There are a large number of retired Republicans and dissident Republicans, who will not accept the new frontier, and who possess the knowledge, skills, and means to make the spark that will reignite the war. All it takes is a single Republican bomb. The anger, amongst retired Republican veterans, the sense of betrayal of the Treaty that ended the War, the stupidity and intransigence of the Loyalist politicians, is a lethal mix. I say this with zero encouragement that such things should happen. If the last war was bad, this one will be worse, if not shorter. All of it avoidable, all of it evil. But I think that the track down which things are now hurtling, towards BREXIT Day, is now near unstoppable. It will end in a crash, so far as Irish affairs are concerned. That, in turn, will cause a crisis in Scotland, with its 120,000 “Loyalists”. Plus Tories, and other anti-social elements on the right. There is a danger things might spread. I am expecting, post BREXIT, that things in Scotland will go down the Catalan route, with all its potential for danger. Again, all of this avoidable. But never, ever, expect that the UK establishment will ever do anything sensible and rational. It usually takes a bomb under their backsides, to make them see sense, as Thatcher discovered. I think the old Chinese curse, of being forced to live in interesting times, is upon us.

    1. Jack collatin says:

      Och, Graham, time is the great healer.
      I doubt that the sons and daughters of the Upper Middle Class residents of Malone Road are committed Unionists now. (Think Bearsden or Newton Mearns leafy inner ‘burbs Middle Classdom to the uninitiated.)
      In the South of Ireland the Catholic Church has lost its grip on the population, and not before time.
      The Irish, both North and South are modern Europeans.
      Arlene and the Creationists rely on a diminishing band of disillusioned poor who cling on to God Save The Queen No Surrender mantra to mitigate the increasing poverty and penury the DUP, and the Brit Government pile upon them.
      ‘We are the Peepil’, indeed.
      The Uk is finished, The die is cast. England wants to ‘take back control’; well, 17 million plus change of them want to make Britain (England) Great again.
      Scotland will remain within the EU and decide our own fate from now on in.
      Ireland will reunite, of that there is no doubt.
      However I struggle to imagine a return to the Reign of Terror of the last 3 decades of the twentieth century.
      The game’s up for Imperial England.
      And not before time.

      1. Gordon Guthrie says:

        The problem is you could be describing 1967, it only takes a small minority to kick off a process of destabilisation.

  7. Jack collatin says:

    Mr Guthrie,
    a lovely piece, but your morose description:
    ‘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”.
    gave me a slight ‘ouch’.
    St Pat’s Church in Dungannon and Enniskillen Castle can hardly be described as ‘dreary steeples’.
    Perhaps après Le Deluge Brexit there may be the odd barnacle or seaweed draped over the ramparts, but…
    It’s gonna get messy.

    1. Gordon Guthrie says:

      Oy m8, I didn’t say that it was old Winston S Churchill 😉

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