THE LADYBIRD BOOK: “LEARN ABOUT IRISH HISTORY; THE BACKSTOP”
BREXIT. For the Outsider there is fascination in observing how the elite in a major economic and political power seem hell-bent on wrecking it. For the Insider, and Ireland is an involuntary Insider, there is trepidation and fear at the extent of the potential real and collateral damage as Britain seemingly stumbles towards a crash out from the EU.
It’s not inevitable. Teresa May appears to be running the clock down, with a vital vote in Parliament on the Withdrawal Agreement – the least bad option -scheduled for mid-January. But a defeat, which seems likely, will leave precious little time left to come up with an alternative to the chaos of a hard (i.e. no deal) Brexit. Moreover there appears no palatable option that might get through Parliament, such is the paralysis in the British body politic.
As this reality seeps in, the anti-Irish rhetoric of the Brexiteers has intensified. As they see it, Ireland, through the Backstop, is frustrating Britain’s Manifest Destiny of departing the EU painlessly and on favourable terms. Recently one anonymous Tory MP (a Party “grandee”) commented to a BBC reporter: “We simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this. The Irish really should know their place.” This came hot on the heels of former British Cabinet Minister Priti Patel, who, several days earlier, pondered why Britain had not used the possibility of food shortages in Ireland after a hard Brexit, to exert pressure in the negotiations with the EU.
Not surprisingly, on both sides of the Irish Sea there has been considerable adverse reaction to these comments and neither person seems likely to feature on many Irish Christmas card lists now or in the future. Yet they are merely the latest expressions of impotent rage from Brexiteers of that ilk that an issue ignored during the Referendum campaign has reared up to bite them in the posterior. An issue moreover that is intrinsic to an international agreement to which Britain signed up and which is fundamental to the peace settlement in Northern Ireland.
For their benefit, there follows a very brief potted history of Ireland since 1840. This might also interest Teresa May, who apparently, when addressing EU leaders in September, asked them how they would feel if their countries were “carved” in two, reaffirming several days later that any deal which “divides our country in two” would be bad.
Ireland, conquered and misruled by Britain over several hundred years, and formally part of a “United Kingdom” after 1800,suffered a massive famine in the 1840s when the staple food of millions – the Potato – was destroyed by a blight , Phytophthora infestans. Upwards of a million people died of starvation or disease between 1845 and 1849, with another million plus fleeing the country. The trickle of emigrants to the USA became a flood; 1,289,307 arrived in the USA in the decade 1846-1855 alone. The Irish rural underclass was decimated; those who couldn’t afford to leave starved.
Ireland’s population, 8,175,124 in 1841, fell by over 20% to 6,552,385 in 1851 and sank to 5,798,000 in 1861. It continued to fall until well into the Twentieth Century and even now the population in the Republic, at 4.70 million, is 1.8 million below that in 1841, while Northern Ireland only “caught up” with pre-Famine figures at the turn of the Millennium. The British (“our”!) Government’s efforts at relief were pathetic and woefully inadequate. The most that can be said is that the (“our”) Government’s woeful reaction to the catastrophe fell short of accepted definitions of genocide in that there was no official murderous intent, though, as the late Professor Emmet Larkin remarked to me, it would not have been allowed to happen in the Home Counties.
The Famine proved a political watershed, giving an impetus over time to the separatist strain in Irish nationalism, which led eventually to the 1916 Rising (the huge post-Famine Irish communities in the USA providing considerable moral political and financial support). Any residual pro-British sentiment among most Irish received a coup de grace when the British commanding general shot fifteen of the Rising Leaders, the executions (ninety were planned) stopped only by the hasty personal intervention of British Prime Minister, Asquith. A brief but savage struggle for independence from 1919 – 1921 ended with a treaty establishing, in 1922, the Irish Free State.
There was unfinished business, however. The north- east of Ireland contained a sizeable non – Nationalist majority – the Unionists, identified by being overwhelmingly non- Catholic – who, for obvious reasons, were the preferred “Irish” of the British authorities. To cater for them Britain partitioned the island, carving a statelet along county boundaries rather than community lines, thus producing a sizeable Unionist majority but with a Nationalist minority of one third. The delineation of the Border was fudged, with a Boundary Commission (on whom Nationalists throughout the island had pinned hopes) suggesting only minor changes. Thereafter the border issue was frozen but unaddressed for decades. Britain applied some constructive ambiguity to the status of the Irish in Britain and Ireland, many of whom settled in Britain as economic migrants. They were given freedom of movement, residence and access to the British Welfare state similar to UK citizens.
All might have been well, with the British Welfare State after 1945 lifting all boats, had the Unionists not pursued a consistent pattern of anti-nationalist discrimination for decades in areas of employment, housing and local government. By the Sixties something had to give- and it did. Eventually civil unrest and political violence broke out and took several thousand lives in the quarter of a century after 1969. The much poorer Republic developed separately and more slowly, without the crutches of the Welfare State and the annual subsidy of billions from Westminster. EC and later EU membership helped change that.
A complicated and tortuous Peace Process began in the late 1980s, encouraged and assisted by the Irish and British governments and the European Union. Paramilitaries on both sides declared ceasefires in 1994, and, with the guns silent, political dialogue between the two communities in the North began. It was slow, but eventually culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which cemented and defined relations within Northern Ireland, between both parts of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. The Agreement was endorsed by massive majorities in both parts of the island (far greater than 52-48!). Integral to it was an open Border in Ireland which has functioned well in the two decades since, underpinned by common membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union. Lasting peace and prosperity in Ireland seemed assured.
Cue Brexit, where the vote in the North was an emphatic 55.8% Remain. In the Leave negotiations Britain committed to maintaining this open Border, declaring “in the absence of agreed solutions the UK will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union, which, now and in the future support North South Cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.” The Backstop. Wordy but clear. And not Ireland’s fault! Agreed solutions” are likely but if not the Backstop is the guarantee that perfidious Albion will not again do Ireland down.