The Conservative link and the geopolitics of the United Kingdom

As voters from Lerwick to Penzance prepare to cast their votes on the 6th May they will be afforded the right to do two things that are central to any real democracy. First they will be able to elect a new Parliament from which a new government will be formed to represent them. Secondly, they will pass judgement on the government that has been running the country for the last five years. Yet there is one part of the United Kingdom where these rights have not functioned properly for over eighty years-Northern Ireland.

This forthcoming General Election marks the beginning of the end of a sectarian zero sum game that has blighted the politics of this part of the United Kingdom for too long. The decision taken by David Cameron to field candidates in alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party means that voters in Northern Ireland can now, like their counterparts in the rest of the country can elect a MP who will not only represent their interests, but  will also participate in the government of the United Kingdom. The last Northern Ireland  MP who was afforded this opportunity Robin Chichester-Clark who in 1972 was appointed Minister of State for Employment in the Government of Edward Heath.

The leadership of the Conservative Party seems to have instinctively understood geography. Politics must be done within geography. It cannot help but be influenced by physical constraints and opportunities. In one sense geography is inescapable. Yet it has been the abuse of geography for ideological ends that was responsible for this zero sum politics taking root in Northern Ireland in the first place.

A wise man once said that if you want to grasp the future understand the past. One of the sources of this abuse can be seen in an exchange between  the then British Prime Minister, Lloyd George,  and  Eamon de Valera  which started in August 1921.The former clearly articulated  this vital link between politics and geography : ”The geographical closeness of Ireland to the British Isles is a fundamental fact.

The history of the two islands for many centuries, however it is read, is sufficient proof that their destinies are indissoluably linked …when you as the chosen representative of Irish national ideas, come to speak with me, I made one condition only ,of which our proposals plainly stated the effect that –that Ireland should recognise the force of geographical and historical facts.

It is those facts that which govern the problem of British and Irish relations. If they did not exist their would be no problem to discuss”. de Valera’s response was evasive in the extreme. He replied in a letter  :”I shall refrain therefore from commenting on the fallacious historical references in your last communication. ”As fellow Irish man Kevin O’Higgins acidly observed :”de Valera hates facts like a cat hates water”.

Yet the bequest of this mentality was harmful in the extreme. When the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1922 the geographical closeness that Lloyd George recognised was systematically attacked. One of the weapons of choice was the phrase the “island of Ireland”. This ghostly bequest of de Valera’s managed to be both evasive and deterministic at the same time-yet an achievement!

It wrongly assumed that because Ireland is an island in a geographical sense, it presupposes unity in a political sense. In short geography is political destiny. Nothing could be further from the truth. Geography does not determine political outcomes; it merely conditions, other factors that unfold in a geographical framework.

It is not at all inevitable that there should be a united Ireland pre-determined by geography. In a geopolitical sense the United Kingdom’s only international land boundary between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic conforms to one of the most important regional divides in the British Isles as a whole. It marks off ,in a geopolitical sense, the Scottish part of Ireland from the English part of Ireland.

This raises the question how did this come about? One part of the answer is provided by history. The Medieval Latin name for Irishman is Scotus! The second part of the answer lies in the conditioning effect of geography. To be more specific the reality is that the North Channel at its narrowest part, from Fair Head in Co Antrim to the tip of the Mull of Kintyre is a mere 12 miles wide. The final part of the answer lies in a response to the question what did geography condition?

It has affected a bundle of human associations that has given, and continues to give, Northern Ireland its unique characteristics. For example the industrial revolution that only the North of Ireland benefited from had its origins in a similar revolution that had swept through Scotland.

Today the popular language used by people in their everyday business is the same that you would hear in Girvan or Ayr or any other part of the Scotland. Finally, as the history of the word Scotus suggests the movement of people between these two parts of the United Kingdom has been continuous long before the seventeenth century.

The policy of the Conservative party to bring real democracy to Northern Ireland is grounded in an implicit understanding of  the geopolitics of the United Kingdom. It is not based on the abuse of geography, but on recognising  the flow of the geographical grain. This key element of politics is not new discovery.

It was the founding father of modern geopolitics, Sir Halford Mackinder, who over 110 years ago stated :”The course of politics is a product of two sets of forces ,compelling and guiding. The impetus is from the past, in the history embedded in a people’s character and tradition.

The present guides the movement by economic wants and geographical opportunities. Statesmen and diplomats succeed and fail pretty much as they recognise the irresistible power of these forces”. In short geography must underlie the democratic politics of the United Kingdom if you would not have it subserve sectarian politics.

A longer version of this article was published in Irish Studies Review in 2007.

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  • “Politics must be done within geography. It cannot help but be influenced by physical constraints and opportunities.”

    You have a supporter in your fellow Guardian scribe Simon Jenkins.

    Geography in the widest sense of the concept remains to me the queen of sciences. It holds the key that unlocks the coherence of the physical world as its sister, history, unlocks that of mankind’s occupation of it. Without geography’s mapping of planet Earth, the work of chemists, biologists and physicists is disjointed, mere technique.

    It is geography that applies common sense to the statistical hysteria of the climatologists. It is geography that brings global warming into context and applies the test of feasibility to whatever political priorities are deemed necessary. It is geography that explains why each of us is located where we are, in neighbourhood, nation, continent and planet, and how fragile might be that location. Without geography’s instruction, we are in every sense lost – random robots who can only read and count.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/nov/16/comment.politics

    It’s as if WWW, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Video conferencing never happened.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Mick,

    For jaysus sake get a fecking grip on your Union Jack knickers.

    “This forthcoming General Election marks the beginning of the end of a sectarian zero sum game that has blighted the politics of this part of the United Kingdom for too long. ”

    What a dreadful bit of spin. Sectarianism in Ulster is driven by competing constitutional ideologies and the abondonment by a (potential) British government of their position as outlined in the letter and spirit of the GFA in favour of a partisan approach will do absolutely nothing to end sectarianism and if anything give a massive boost to Republican dissers trying to undermine the still bedding in Peace Process.

    Anything other than a resounding Tory victory will mean curtains for project UCUNF and possibly usher in a period where the most bigoted, sectarian and backward looking party in Western Europe (DUP) will be used by the Tories to get themselves into office.

    Quite how the Tories can argue that a lib-lab coalition is not good for Britian but a government relying on a flat-earth-anti-Catholic party is (as they have been spinning in the Torygraph and Times) is one of the most outrageous politcal examples of double speak you would uncover in month of fecking Sundays.

  • Mick Fealty

    Sorry, guys, that was my fault. It went out under the wrong byline…

  • The point about Northern Ireland being the Scottish part of the island is an interesting one.

    Part of the reason why the Tories have got involved is to try and make themselves look relevant outside England.

    At the moment, it look as if they could even get a lower share of the vote in Scotland than last time, and any Tory Government will have serious legitimacy issues there as a result. One likely result will be more fiscal autonomy for Holyrood, which will itself create new geographical realities for Northern Ireland to deal with.

    The old idea of integrating with Westminster politics as the way to democracy is anachronistic in these circumstances.

    There are increasingly four party systems in the UK rather than one, and the UUP are trying to integrate with an English one that is itself in deepening crisis.

  • Dewi

    For one terrible moment there I thought that was an official Slugger endorsement……

  • Henry94

    Ireland should recognise the force of geographical and historical facts.

    Backed up then and now by the force of British arms in Ireland. This dispute will be resolved one day and the geographical and historical facts will lead to the friendly neighbor type relationship that the vast majority of the British and the Irish.

    Perhaps Mr. Sloan might give us his thoughts on the geographical issue as it affects The Falklands and Gibraltar.

  • Garza

    It is interesting! The Scots people were actually from Ulster and colonised the west coast of Scotland. The orginal people living in Scotland were called the picts.

    The word “Aye” is actually a Scottish world and is rarely head the further south in Ireland you go (in my experience).

    Truth, Britain and Ireland are very intermingled with each other, we are all not very different from each other at all.

  • Mick Fealty

    That would be Dr rather than Mr, if we’re going to insist on being formal Henry… 😉

  • Greenflag

    ‘This forthcoming General Election marks the beginning of the end of a sectarian zero sum game that has blighted the politics of this part of the United Kingdom for too long. ‘

    Too long ? You mean since partition at least . Why should it end now ? Because UCUNF with not a Catholic candidate in sight might and I say might win 1 out of 18 seats in Northern Ireland .

    Mr Sloan needs to take out his brain on matters Irish and give it a good washing and then reinsert in it’s proper place usually located in the cranium and not in his rear end .

    ‘It marks off ,in a geopolitical sense, the Scottish part of Ireland from the English part of Ireland.’

    So there’s no Irish part of Ireland ? in the geopolitical sense of course /

    What a load of drivel .

    ‘Perhaps Mr. Sloan might give us his thoughts on the geographical issue as it affects The Falklands and Gibraltar.”

    Ah ye see there’s extenuating circumstances in those examples because back at the time when God was an Englishman and Brittania ruled the waves those territories were nearby ‘geographical’ acquisitions . Mr Sloan’s waiving of the rules is an old ploy .
    The Tories have no understanding of Ireland -North or South and never had apart from Edward Heath’s brief flirtation with political and geographical reality when he abolished Stormont in 1972 and told the UCUNF predecessors that the game was up !

  • Henry94

    And soon to be Sir no doubt if he keeps this up for the Tories.

  • TheHorse

    “It wrongly assumed that because Ireland is an island in a geographical sense, it presupposes unity in a political sense. In short geography is political destiny. Nothing could be further from the truth. Geography does not determine political outcomes; it merely conditions, other factors that unfold in a geographical framework”.

    If Ireland had always been divided and was never a single nation geographically then your point would be true. Ireland being divided politically and geographically by a foreign government is the problem. There is a short stretch of water between Britain and France does that mean then that there is a French part of Britain and vice versa in France. The fact that we speak a similar brogue can be traced back to the Ulster plantation.

  • Garza

    Since when was Ireland a unififed island country before the English came along? The 8 years rule of Brian Boru??

  • Greenflag

    Garza ,

    ‘Truth, Britain and Ireland are very intermingled with each other, we are all not very different from each other at all.’

    True enough but thats not an issue politically . Our political interests diverged post 1800 and while they seemed to be coming together again in the late 19th century they diverged again post 1920/22 . The geography is permanent but people -actual people will and can ‘upset’ the neat geography .

    Dr Sloan of the University of Reading should perhaps read more on Ireland’s political history before commenting on the geography . When it takes 55 minutes to fly to London From Dublin ( a lot closer in real travel time than anywhere in Scotland north of the Clyde valley and much of rural Wales and England ) can geography be said to be anything other than one condition among many ? Berlin is closer to Warsaw than Munich and Paris is closer to London than it is to Marseilles .

  • Greenflag

    Neither Germany nor Italy were united countries until relatively recent times . Yugoslavia has disappeared into the mists of history as has Czechoslovakia . East Germany is another example of a short lived state . Northern Ireland is a kind of mix between the former East Germany and one of the Balkan States in that it only exists because a larger neighbouring power keeps it going financially and supplies protection services i.e security . As against that a large section of the population who would rather the State did not exist will vote for parties next Thursday which share that view .

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Dewi,

    Do you know why the SDLP is not bunched together with SNP and Plaid in the Nationalist pact corner?

    Not a perfect fit but a pretty good one?

  • Garza

    The above is all nice greenflag, but unrelated to by rebuttal of TheHorse (whom I’m assuming is Horseman?)

    Ireland was always just considered a geogrpahical island, it was unitl much much later a sense of “Irishness” or an “Irish nation” was thought about.. People forget that nationalism as what we know it today didn’t exist until late 18th century.

    Ireland had clans, not a nation, who took in turns to be the High King of Ireland, which was a King in name only. Ireland was kind of like Scotland, although Scotland had a king in the more tradtion sense of the word, but it was fought over by the clans nevertheless.

    As to your message. Nations rise and fall, it has always been, will always will be.

    And the ROI is very reliant on outside economic suport and protection as well, its called the EU.

  • essentially because nationalism is not a natural fit for coalition or integration you’d think.

  • Geographies tend to be used as proxies for people generally but also there is the extreme yet reasonably populist case of Irish republicanism and it’s obsession with an island state, despite the very real existence of separate peoples within.

    Therefore I think there are certain people on the island in question who should perhaps read more on Ireland’s political history before they arrive at a stance which is based so obviously on geography alone

  • Greenflag

    garza,

    The point is regardless of the distant 4000 BC past or the near (1603-1998) past and despite or in spite of the politics and the movement of peoples there is an Irish ‘nation ‘ now . That nation includes people of many differing ethnic and religious backgrounds many of whom have origins in Britain .

    As for ROI being reliant on outside economic support so too is every ‘nation’ within the EU including the UK despite not being part of the Eurozone

    Horse’s point about ‘Ireland being divided politically and geographically by a foreign government is the problem.’ is still de facto truth despite that government stating it has no ‘selfish’ interest in the political division of this island .

    ‘People forget that nationalism as what we know it today didn’t exist until late 18th century.’

    True . It was predated by ‘national ‘ imperialism as any history of Britain, Spain, Portugal , France and Holland will confirm .

    The people of Northern Ireland describe themselves as Irish , British , British Irish , Irish British or Norn Irish etc etc . Each and everyone one of these self descriptions confirms either by assertion or by denial the existence of Irish nationhood . The political expression of that ‘nationhood ‘ is seen in the Irish Republic and in the near ‘constitutional’ acceptance of Irish ‘nationhood ‘ in Northern Ireland which has helped form the improved current political situation .

    Horseman’s blog is on the ball with regard to the demographic shift which is slowly changing the face of NI politics . The logic of the ‘unionist ‘ position of the what you call ‘the very real existence of separate peoples within the island of Ireland and more specifically within Northern Ireland ‘ must in time lead to ‘unionism’ demanding a repartition of NI as the only way they as a ‘different ‘ people can maintain their separate existence .

    I understand there is much opposition among both republicans and many unionists to any talk of repartition but in my opinion for what it’s worth there is at least some measure of political self respect in a unionist demand for repartition . Certainly a lot more than throwing themselves prostrate at the feet of the British Conservative Party who have shown in the not so distant past that they can ‘throw’ the UUP to the wind whenever it becomes politically expedient .

    Horseman’s blog btw is an excellent read for those who want to keep up with the underlying demographics which are powering political change within NI . On the negative side I have to confess that reading Horseman has more or less convinced me that ‘repartition’ as a solution is probably now passe and if it is ever to come to pass it would require a major political cataclysm to emanate from within political unionism . And while the TUV may get a few votes I don’t see them as having any longer term political impact .

  • RJ

    Rapartion is not an Option the only Option is a United Ireland [all of the Island] under One Government and Parliament and President no other
    with our Glorious Marty and maybe Peter in The Dail
    as First Minister and Deputy First Minister
    and getting rid of the Southerners lets show them how to Govern properly and without the Banks going bust,
    we could even go to Westminster and show them How things are Done to Martin McGuiness as the Prime Minister
    and Peter Robinson as Duputy Prime Minister under the Watch of this Government no Bonuses for bankers,
    no Members would get no Expenses or have the Money to pay for Duck Houses there will be No Short trips to Save the Natives ”Sorry Colonis” Iraq or Afganistan then Martin McGuiness and Peter could go over to the United States and show them How to Govern and the Same with the European Union