Living on an island or in a state?

I met Garrett FitzGerald in Dublin airport on Thursday. Rarely short of a word or two he was unusually quiet, pre-occupied, perhaps, with a talk he was to give this weekend to the Irish Association on Northern Ireland in 2020. A tall order! Whatever he went on to say about the future, he shared his take on Irish history (subs needed) this morning with readers of the Irish Times. Here’s a few highlights:To the citizens of the Republic, Northerners have become denizens of another state. He sketches the historical reasoning:

Conquest, in other words, was always potentially reversible. However, the post-Reformation settlement of much of the north-east of our island created an extraordinarily intractable problem. Religious differences blocked eventual assimilation of the settlers by indigenous Irish culture, as had in considerable measure taken place with pre-Reformation Norman and English rural settlements in Ireland.

And centuries of mutual hostility were guaranteed by the consequent irresolvable conflict between the new unassimilated settlers on the good land of Ulster and the former owners of that land; a conflict that industrialisation merely transferred to a new 19th-century urban setting.

The depth of that conflict was never fully grasped in the rest of the island, whose people never came to terms with its reality. Any chance there might have been of a gradual, very long-term, resolution of this conflict if the island had remained united was blocked by Partition.

It was partition, or ‘separate development’ that drove the wedge even deeper:

In developing a Roman Catholic ethos in the Constitution and laws of the Republic (as it eventually became) and in giving priority to the revival of a language that was alien to almost all the Protestant people of Northern Ireland, the division between North and South was greatly deepened – without any thought for the consequences for the dream of eventual Irish unity.

Paradoxically, he argues that Unionists were less partition minded:

…on the Protestant unionist side, their artificial electoral majority within the six-county area never translated itself into a psychological sense of being actually a majority. Because of decades of Southern hostility and of Northern nationalist resistance to their rule, the Protestant unionist community could never lose a sense of being a threatened minority on the island of Ireland. In that key respect, and at the deepest level – that of fear – unionists in Northern Ireland continued to think in all-Ireland terms.

Nation building in the south produced quite different pre-occupations:

In sharp contrast, the nationalist people of the rest of the island, while retaining at least a theoretical commitment to Irish unity, rapidly became deeply involved in the construction of their new State, with its own complex set of new institutions. Within a very short period, we in this part of Ireland, for practical purposes, ceased to think of the island as our home, but came to identify primarily – one might say almost exclusively – with our new State.