Meghan Rice holds an MA in Early Modern History with a specialism in Irish and British History from King’s College London. She is passionate about both Gaelige and Ulster Scots and has worked with various groups and individuals from both communities in Northern Ireland to help foster a better understanding of the peace process among the diaspora. Tweets at @MeghanJRice
With the understandable furore surrounding a potential DUP- Tory coalition, now being dubbed a ‘confidence and supply agreement’, many people in the UK, outside Northern Ireland, are only now becoming fully aware of some rather difficult-to-swallow DUP facts. In spite of Northern Ireland being part of the same UK many strove to preserve when faced with the prospect of the Scottish independence referendum, it is surprisingly little considered by people in other parts of the UK. It leads one to ponder how is it that people can so passionately defend the idea of the UK without a proper understanding of all it’s component parts? The answer is pervasive, cropping up again and again since time immemorial in the Government, the school curriculum, and in the media to name only a few aspects of UK life – Anglocentrism. The current political situation resulting from the outcome of the General Election provides an excellent catalyst for people in the UK, but England especially, to help remedy Westminster’s chronic Anglocentrism by making a concerted effort to become better informed about Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The importance of developing a better understanding of the UK as a whole has been starkly highlighted by this election. To this end, don’t stop at just investigating the DUP simply because they are currently the only Northern Irish party with the ability to immediately impact your patch. Take this as a golden opportunity to understand more about Northern Ireland as a whole; the political climate, yes, but also the people, history (it’s your history too!), cultures, economy, and rich natural landscape. Most definitely be clear on the difference between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the relationship between the two. Additionally, expand your knowledge of your nearest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, with whom you share a very significant land border and, therefore, with whom your Government must negotiate many elements related to Brexit strategy.
In the case of Northern Ireland’s history, it is worth remembering that the Nationalist/Republican/Catholic community there has had to deal with, at best, naked sectarianism and discrimination and, at worst, various forms of violence directed towards it since 1922. This formed the root cause of the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement and the modern ‘Troubles’ which, similarly, as long as it didn’t directly impinge on so-called ‘mainland’ Britain, many were happy to ignore and turn a blind eye to the suffering and abuses of authority inherent in that part of the UK. In this sense we are witnessing a wave of historical repetition whereby suddenly the wider UK population can no longer avoid the complex issues of Northern Ireland bleeding into their otherwise separate way of life. To avoid having to continue in the same vein yet again in future, the personal and political will to become educated, and in some instances re-educated about the nuances of Northern Ireland, must be embraced fully by wider UK society.
In the interests of fairness, and for those who are new to Northern Irish politics, it is important to note that the DUP do not represent the views of all Unionists and certainly not the views of all the of people of Northern Ireland. I know many reasonable, compassionate, open-minded Unionists doing great work to better cross-community relations, attempting to drag Northern Ireland out of the dark ages in terms of LGBTQ rights and women’s rights, and who are passionate supporters of protections for minority indigenous languages including Irish aka Gaeilge as well as Ulster Scots. I am proud to have worked with them on various projects and to call them friends.
On the other side of the coin, the closer one looks at the DUP, the more obvious it becomes that they cannot be seen simply as a Unionist counterpart to the Nationalist/Republican parties. Although opposite the DUP with regard to the constitutional question, they are not necessarily always so in terms of being socially progressive. For example, while the main Nationalist/Republican parties do favour marriage equality, the SDLP for example, hold exactly the same highly restrictive views on abortion as the DUP. Sinn Féin’s policy on a woman’s right to choose is marginally better allowing for abortion but only in the often difficult, if not downright impossible, to prove cases of sexual crime, life of the mother including suicide risk, and more recently, in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. They have also criticised criminal prosecution based on abortion and have suggested that such prosecution should not be brought against individuals procuring or facilitating abortions. Bottom line, politics in Northern Ireland is not black and white, nor is it simply orange and green, and cannot be easily understood based solely on a given party’s stance on the constitutional question; you must dig deeper in order to fully understand.
In relation to the constitutional divide and the sectarianism which has all too often accompanied it, in spite of some lingering tensions and occasional flare ups, it is also important to take the time to recognise how far Northern Ireland has come in terms of reconciliation and peace. It is equally if not more vital to remember that the peace process is just that – a process, ongoing and by no means complete – a process which your Government are co-guarantors of via the Good Friday Agreement. Become educated about the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and its international importance; as someone living in the UK, it is absolutely your business and not just because it may affect the possibility of a ‘confidence and supply agreement’ with the Government in Westminster. Now, facing the complications of Brexit, the continuing peace process needs your knowledgeable personal investment and support in order to keep politicians on track with regard to the UK’s obligations to uphold and safeguard it via the Good Friday Agreement.
In 1935 Winston Churchill said, “When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.” He was referencing efforts to maintain the independence of Austria but similar could be said of successive UK Governments’ general attitude towards Northern Ireland and the dismal record of human rights violations that persists there to this day. Some of those same human rights violations, such as the criminalisation of a woman’s right to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy, only concern most people the rest of the UK now that they risk facing the effects of them personally under a potential DUP-Tory deal. These same human rights violations were being perpetrated in the same part of the UK before this week. Where was the public outcry before now?
In the interests of not being caught out yet again and, more importantly, of being aware of the injustices faced by people in Northern Ireland – a component part of the same UK you live in – the will to become educated and remain informed must lie with the individual. The sheer scope of the public catch-up being done in relation to the possibility of a Tory Government being propped up by the DUP, whose party policies are actually quite well-known, clearly demonstrates that neither the Government or public education nor even the media in ‘mainland’ UK can be trusted to provide regular and reliable information, if any at all, with regard to Northern Ireland.
Now is the perfect time to make a personal commitment to knowledge and understanding of and engagement with all component parts of the UK. That, if nothing else, is a positive to have come out of this General Election.