In the Ireland of 2016 the British community (Protestant and unionists) still carry the curse of plantation, Cromwell, the famine, the Black and Tans and one-party rule Stormont. (Read ‘Being a planter‘ here.)
The Protestant and unionists are the villains, by birth levied and vilified with historical wrong. Catholic is Erin and virtue, Protestant is Saxon and guilt.
When Americans think of Britain they think of Monty Python or Downton Abbey.
When the French think of Britain they think of bad food and warm beer.
When the Irish think of Britain they think of a rapacious, brutal Empire and its pitch-capping mercenaries.
As any civic republican should know, allegiance to a country does not mean advocacy or approval of government policy, especially not centuries past policy. The citizen is not Whitehall.
It was Britain who gave to the world a model of democracy that embeds an Opposition and the option to punish a government and install a new one that may remedy and atone for the old one.
Yet the republican left conflate the ordinary British citizen with the small British elite. As any leftist knows, it is the height of moral repugnance to allow the the act of a mad few to colour the upright many. A phobia of a large demographic is forbidden today, except it seems for the British community in Ireland. Do we live with britophobia?
My Britishness can be summed up in four Bs – Bevan, Beveridge, [Eric] Blair, BBC.
I am not Trevelyn, have no connection or fondness for him, and I do not advocate his free market principles on the importation and distribution of corn reserves.
But if a traditional republican is to hear me self-identify as British I am suddenly an “imperialistic blood-sucker” and defender of the centuries long destruction and plunder of Ireland, it’s people, language and culture.
It goes without saying that this is not the case for me.
John Stuart Mill wrote in ‘Chapters and speeches on the Irish land question’ that while Britain ruled cruelly in Ireland, his generation could not be held responsible or atone for past misconduct. He wrote in his publication in 1870:
“The Irish were taught that feeling [disaffection] by Englishmen. England has only even professed to treat the Irish people as part of the same nation with ourselves, since 1800. How did we treat them before that time? I will not go into the subject of the penal laws, because it may be said that those laws affected the Irish not as Irish but as Catholics. I will only mention the manner in which they were treated merely as Irish. I grant that, for these things, no man now living has any share of the blame; we are all ashamed of them; but “the evil that men do lives after them”.”
But Niall Ferguson wrote in 2003:
“Drawing up historical balance sheets is never easy. When it comes to British Ireland, it is especially hard. Even today, four centuries after the first plantations, the ‘Brits’ are a long way from being forgiven for their sins.”
The curse Cromwell et al. is strong. Almost everyday the words of James Craig are thrown at me, “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people” (in various forms); and it seems like every single major speech by Sinn Fein cites this infamous maxim.
But of course we must remember, republicans especially, what George Boyce wrote:
“[James Craig’s] statement in 1934 that he stood for ‘a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state’ must be seen in the context of de Valera’s claim that ‘we are a Catholic nation’.”
The enduring statement and restatement of Britain’s historical wrongs covers the whole spectrum, from Twitter trolls to Áras an Uachtaráin.
A few months ago Michael D. Higgins said that the Easter Rising has not been subjected to the same fault-finding edge as British imperialism.
But Irishness for the last century has been been shaped almost entirely as opposition to British imperialism and “800 years of British oppression” – a refrain I was born on the wrong side of and have heard my whole life.
In his speech Higgins gave us a glossary of British misconduct.
“A London that regarded [Michael Collins] his people as inferior, his Irish culture as worthless, and his language as an object for replacement by erosion or coercion. It was not as an equal citizen he stood in London.”
He mentions the famine, pikes and the 1798 rebellion. He quotes Britain as a “mighty rapacious and material Empire” and recalls the many foreign revolts. The Briton is always the jailer, the eviction officer, and the Black and Tan (never the social reformer or inventor).
Yet the Irishness of today, as restated by Higgins, is formulated in total opposition to and absolute abhorrence of Britain.
Michael D. Higgins said in his speech that “no single side had the monopoly of either atrocity or virtue”. But as things stand currently, Britishness is synonymous with unpardonable atrocity, and [republican] Irishness with impeccable virtue.
When I say to people south of the border that I’m British (as well as Irish) they look at me as thought I’m having a GUBU moment.
There is little to no concept in the south and among northern nationalists that a person can be Irish and British and the two identities can cohabit. I have written before that the south suffers a terrible ignorance of the northern Protestant unionist.
The core of this problem, I believe, is the coupling of the present ordinary British citizen with past British misconduct.
It is also to do with a deep ancestral beating-heart tribalism and antipathy to Britishness.
People can garland Ireland’s independence from Britain with the lofty ideals of equality, but they can also explain it in terms of simple tribal atavism; as Michael Collins wrote:
“The British form of government was monarchical. In order to express clearly our desire to depart from all British forms, we declared a Republic. We repudiated the British form of government, not because it was monarchical, but because it was British. We would have repudiated the claim of a British Republic to rule over us as definitely as we repudiated the claim of the British monarchy.”
Forgetting his objection to historical amnesia, in a recent speech to the Scottish Parliament Higgins perfectly insulated himself against the fact that Scotland is British and a Scottish majority are happily so.
Modern Britishness does not make me or anyone a champion of Empire, and George Orwell (Eric Blair) taught us that. Orwell was scathing in his criticism of Empire and the British ruling elite, but that didn’t diminish his Englishness or Britishness.
Modern Britishness is about the solidarity of the welfare state and the NHS, and the sense of togetherness that the BBC brings.
This post is not a defence of the British record in Ireland, but an effort to articulate a Britishness that has no connection to Britain’s past but rather, to Britain’s present and future. A note for republicans to maybe decouple British past with British citizenship.
I am deeply critical of Britain’s past, but that doesn’t make me any less committed British. This is proper and healthy, criticism is not repudiation.
The British writer and biography of field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson Charles E. Calwell wrote:
“The Black and Tans were] the greatest blot on the record of the coalition and perhaps on Britain’s name in the twentieth century.”
Herbert Asquith said:
“Things are being done in Ireland that would disgrace the blackest annals of the lowest despotism in Europe.”
Britishness may not be fashionable (thanks to the left), but that doesn’t make it illegitimate.
Fintan O’Toole wrote that the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 2011 signalled the death of anglophobia. He was wrong. Irishness and the Irish still define themselves by what the evil Empire, Britain and the Black and Tans did to them. In 2015 Gerry Adams still talks about the plantation and “our colonial history”.
An Irishness than perennially demonises Britain and vilifies anyone who self-identifies as British is not ethical. The “ethical Irishness” of Michael D. Higgins has much work ahead.