Partition at 100: the British Problem

Northern Ireland and its history have fascinated me continuously pretty much ever since I first learned how to use an atlas when I was a kid. Looking at political maps, I would internally wonder why this corner of the island of Ireland was a different colour from the rest – though it took me a little longer to query what a “political map” was, and what a “relief map” was, and what exactly is so “relieving” about seeing the outlines of countries’ mountains, forests and lakes…

With my interest so whetted, I was understandably pleased to learn that my school’s 1993 A-Level History syllabus would include the Home Rule Crisis of 1912-14 (as part of an overview of British history in the first half of the 20th Century), but even before such studies I was keen and eager to read up about Irish history on my own steam, and learn as much as I could about the background as to why we in South Yorkshire (and elsewhere in Britain) kept hearing Ulster accents on the evening news every now and then. One question I do regret not asking my history teacher Mr Cooper was, whether waving the Union Jack a lot really is all it takes to threaten violence against a legally elected government and somehow get away with it…

The point is that I’d had to wait until I’d left compulsory secondary education before my educators in England considered Irish history to be worth teaching.

We’re exactly a month away from the centenary of King George V’s royal assent to the fourth Home Rule Bill – the first time that Partition was formalized in a legal document. As we look back over the past century, the effects of Partition on Ireland are well documented, but its effects on Britain are less often discussed. Robert Kee in his celebrated book The Green Flag wrote about how the chief fault of the British when it came to Ireland had been one not of oppression but of neglect. His book stops with the collapse of the Boundary Commission of 1925, though, and the chief fault of the British vis-à-vis Ireland since then has been characterized as much by ignorance as by neglect.

It’s a safe bet that the deal that would ultimately be thrashed out in December 1921 satisfied very few of the protagonists: Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith and their team hadn’t wanted partition or an oath of allegiance to the British Crown, the Ulster Unionists hadn’t wanted their own parliament, and most legislators in London no longer wanted to hang on to any part of Ireland a minute longer than they had to. That last point is arguably evidenced by the ultimate irony of the Anglo-Irish Treaty: the part of Ireland that had least wanted Home Rule – Unionist Ulster – was the part that ended up getting it, and in a far stronger form than had been promised to the whole island of Ireland seven years before. It was why such a huge measure of devolution was granted to Sir James Craig and his first government: given the choice, Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George would gladly have let go of all of Ireland, had his deputy, the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law (whose father was a Coleraine Unionist clergyman), not threatened to pull the plug on his Coalition if he did. The expansive Home Rule deal for the Belfast parliament was considered the next best thing to a united Ireland free from Britain – from the point of view of pro-nationalist politicians in Britain, at least.

Had the government in Westminster genuinely considered Northern Ireland an equal part of the Union, they would have had it fully integrated into the British system like Scotland and Wales. Remarkably, only a handful of Northern Ireland’s Unionist leaders, such as the Bangor barrister Bob McCartney QC, ever pointed this out. In the years after the Anglo-Irish Treaty a rule was introduced in Parliament at Westminster that forbade anyone there from raising Northern Irish issues for whatever reason. For the first two decades after Lloyd George’s death, it was customary for his biographers to laud him as the Man Who Solved the Irish Problem (and note the terminology there: as far as most historians in Britain were concerned, it was always the Irish Problem, rather than the British Problem in Ireland). Put simply, the general feeling in London after 1921 was less one of ‘Hurrah! Justice for everyone!’ than of ‘Thank God we’ve got them all out of our hair!’ With such a mindset, it thus became relatively easy for so many in British society thenceforth not to bother themselves about Ireland or the Irish.

Ignorance among British people about Ireland, its people, history and culture has always been a much bigger problem than Irish ignorance about British people, history and culture. I remember when, as a cub radio reporter doing my work experience at Cool FM in Newtownards, I got a call from a friend asking me ‘When are you coming back to the UK?’ My answer included a brief but diplomatic geography lesson…

Three years ago, when the Northern Irish Backstop was high on the news agenda, Channel 4 News broadcast vox pops, inviting people in Britain to draw the Border on a blank map of Ireland. Needless to say, none of them in the news item drew it correctly – indeed, one man seemed to think the Border ran from Dublin to Galway! Some pro-Brexit figures let off steam over how the Border was affecting the Brexit process, and predictably enough, most of them blamed the difficulties not on the British government for failing to do their homework on the issue, but instead on the Irish government for daring to put their own interests first. In December 2018 one (so far) unnamed Conservative politician, forgetting which century he was living in, remarkedWe simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this. This simply cannot stand. The Irish really should know their place’, while six months earlier the comedian and UKIP supporter Lee Hurst had tweeted:

I’m not being funny, but fack the Irish border. If they don’t want a hard border let them leave the EU as well.

Such ignorance gets very alarming, though, when it reaches the highest levels of government. During his tenure as Brexit Secretary last year, the Tories’ chief idiocy spokesman Dominic Raab somehow managed to get away with admitting to Sylvia Hermon in a Select Committee meeting that he hadn’t read the Good Friday Agreement (in another Select Committee meeting attended by Sammy Wilson, Raab drew hoots of laughter by calling the stretch of water between Ireland and Britain the Red Sea!). In September 2018 the then NIO Secretary of State Karen Bradley gave an interview where she unblushingly admittedI didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.

You don’t have to be a supporter of the IRA’s campaign to know that the people of Britain generally pay attention to Northern Ireland and its issues – and Ireland in general – only when they are forced to. Even then, the ignorance can show. During the Belfast flag protests of 2012-13, one particular caller to Stephen Nolan’s Five Live phone-in, having graduated from the Harold Wilson School of Calling People Spongers, was keen to vent it forth:

Once again, we’ve got Northern Ireland kicking off, and I, like most Englishmen, I’m sure, have no affinity with these people, I have no empathy for their situation. I see them as little more than a drain on our rapidly diminishing resources. This is a squabble in a medieval province between two groups of people, one of which shouldn’t even be there. One of them – it’s – they’re basically Scottish people in a foreign country… I can tell you this: people in England would readily get rid of Northern Ireland tomorrow: it is nothing more than a drain on our resources…

“Tom from Hertfordshire” may be an extreme example of this viewpoint, but even before the flag protests there had been signs in that direction: in August 2001 a Guardian/ICM poll reported that only a quarter of people in Britain questioned thought Northern Ireland should stay in the Union, while over 40% reckoned it should become part of a united Ireland. A Sky News poll in November last year reported that at least a quarter of pro-Brexit voters questioned thought Northern Ireland and Scotland leaving the UK would be a price worth paying for Brexit. More recently still, a YouGov poll from April this year reported that 54% of people questioned in Britain were not bothered either way whether Northern Ireland did leave the Union.

Almost a century has passed since a line was drawn across Ireland, and it isn’t just nationalists there who are pointing to the irony of Brexit, a process whose supporters have promised will mean Britain can Take Back Control, having the potential to lead to a partitioned Britain. If the final deal between London and Brussels turns out to be the Hard Brexit over which Boris Johnson and his cabinet of clowns are salivating – and which was promised by precisely nobody during the Referendum campaign – then it won’t just be Scotland looking eagerly at an exit from the Union. It isn’t just Britain, though, that will suffer with a Hard Brexit – Ireland will, too, and on both sides of the Border (if the experts are right, of course). Both islands’ economies are heavily dependent on mutual trade, and any kind of disruption to that will have knock-on effects on jobs and livelihoods on both sides of the Irish Sea – unless, of course, the Johnson government finally sees the light and commits to staying in the Single Market and re-joining EFTA (I, for one, continue to live in hope…). The award-winning columnist Fintan O’Toole is one commentator who has plotted a direct line from British ignorance of Ireland and the Irish to the Brexit vote, as he argued in his first opinion piece after the Referendum…

The rather patronising English joke used to be that whenever the Irish question was about to be solved, the Irish would change the question. And now, when the Irish question seemed indeed to have been solved, at least for a generation, it is the English who have changed the question.

Recklessly, casually, with barely a thought, English nationalists have planted a bomb under the settlement that brought peace to Northern Ireland and close cordiality to relations between Britain and Ireland. To do this seriously and soberly would have been bad. To do it so carelessly, with nothing more than a pat on the head and a reassurance that everything will be all right, is frankly insulting.

However Brexit is worked out, though, in an age where almost everyone is online, with unlimited access to a wealth of historical sources, there is no longer any excuse (if there ever was) for continued ignorance among people in Britain about Ireland and its history. During the Troubles, a period marked with considerable television censorship, the only serious attempts at explaining the context behind the news on the small screen came with Robert Kee’s Ireland – a Television History for the BBC and RTÉ in 1980, and Thames Television’s The Troubles documentary of 1981 (narrated by Rosalie Crutchley). Now, though, the conflict is over, there is less censorship, and it’s surely time for this ignorance to be done away with for good. At the very least, it is time for us in Britain to make good on the appeal seven years ago from the Guardian‘s Emer O’Toole to ‘look Northern Ireland in the eye.

Perhaps some imaginative television could provide an answer. The journalist Orla McAndrew recently praised Derry Girls for doing its bit to educate a British audience, while one of the stars of the show, Dylan Llewelyn (James, the “Wee English Fella”), agreed, in an interview he gave to Joe.ie in February 2019, that it was time Irish history was properly covered in British schools:

They don’t teach that in UK schools, ever, and I think it’s a bit mad because [Ireland] are our next-door neighbours, and we should know about that stuff – so yeah, it’s been an eye-opening experience.