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.