Current Affairs Politics

Going, Going, Gone

Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland – The Last Remnant Of The British Colony In Ireland

Up to the 1980s the British Labour Party was generally supportive of ending Britain’s centuries-old colonial interference in Ireland by drawing down the shutters on the last remnant of the beleaguered colony in the north-east of the country. Many in Labour saw themselves as “persuaders for unity” on the island of Ireland, a mantra once as important in British left-wing and liberal circles as the “two-state solution” is today in relation to Palestine and Israel. Unfortunately the leadership was never as visionary as the massed ranks and today Labour – like its rivals in the Tories and Lib Dems – pursues a policy of “ignoring for unity”. The hope is that a reunited Ireland will simply emerge without anyone noticing it (until it is too late, that is). That rarely discussed understanding is articulated by Kevin Meagher, associate editor of the  insider website Labour Uncut, writing for the centre-left New Statesman magazine:

“What would the reaction be if it was Northern Ireland or Wales rather than Scotland facing a referendum next month about quitting the UK? Would our political leaders be cancelling their holidays, trudging the highways and byways, desperately trying to convince people there to stay?

Northern Ireland, in contrast, is of no strategic importance whatsoever. This was enunciated as the British government’s view as far back as November 1990 when then Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brook proclaimed that Britain had “no selfish, strategic or economic interest” in the place.

“The principle of consent” has been the fig leaf for successive governments ever since. As long as the majority of people want to remain part of Britain, this wish will be upheld. Of course, this is hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo. No one in British politics seems to care about making the case that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK, as they are happy to do with Scotland. (Indeed, threats to the status of Gibraltar or the Falklands elicit more muscular responses).

The Good Friday Agreement effectively placed Northern Ireland in an ante-chamber.

Indeed, nowhere else in British politics are our political leaders so sanguine about sovereignty. Where Scotland is seen to be an opportunity worth holding on to, Northern Ireland is quietly regarded as a problem eventually worth jettisoning.

The Britain that Unionists claim kinship with is long gone. The only reason Northern Ireland’s status is not more openly questioned is down to inertia; a relief that the Troubles are over. One day that will not be enough.

This is set in the context of British-Irish relations having steadily improved over recent decades.

Things are changing in the north too. While the “sectarian headcount” may be a crude measure of political allegiance, it is worth noting that Catholics now outnumber Protestants at every level of the education system. (As they now do in the former unionist citadels of Belfast and Derry). Northern Ireland’s in-built Protestant unionist majority is shrinking; while the integrative logic of an all-Ireland offering to the outside world, essential in terms of investment and tourism, makes the gerrymandered border seem an anachronism.

In time, a similar referendum to the one we’re seeing in Scotland will play out in Northern Ireland. When it comes, it will be hard to imagine the English people and the British political class busting a gut to keep it.”

19 comments on “Going, Going, Gone

  1. Graham Ennis

    Well, as was once said to me by a prominent Brit politician (Labour) “The actual attitude (Not for public distribution) amongst most UK politicians is that The North is a major nuisance and embarrassment to the UK. It costs them several billion pounds a year in subsidies, is full of uncouth ranting “Loyalist Fanatics”, and is always at risk of re-exploding. Their UK constituents are even more vocal. They object to the subsidies, the previous violence, and the attitude of the natives. (As seen on TV). Broadly speaking, half of them would agree with a policy of the Royal Navy towing the place out into the North Atlantic, and sinking it with navel gunfire. The other half are not so extreme, and would simply like the Navy to tow it down to the Falklands and give the whole lot to Argentina. (I kid you not. The North is NOT popular in the UK. Given this, this puts the “Loyalist” community in a bad position. Most people simply wish they would go away. If there was a Scottish style referendum, and it was a YES, they would happily dump the place ASAP. So the loyalists are now between a rock and a hard place. in short, they are doomed. The nationalists need to run on a platform at the next election of holding a referendum. They would probably win. Problem solved.


    • A Yes vote in Scotland would speed the reunification of Ireland by a decade or more. The “Irish colony” simply wouldn’t be sustainable in political and economic terms. I’m hoping for a Yes but it’s looking a long-shot for the moment.


  2. Within Northern Ireland the Nationalists would certainly not win and in the unlikely event that they did win, it would certainly not be problem solved, in fact it would just be the start of the problem. Just imagine the horror within the political establishment in the South and a substantial proportion of the population there, at the prospect of integrating nearly a million erstwhile and unwilling unionists into a new state : chaos would ensue.
    There will have to be reconciliation within the North first, which, given the legacy of the troubles, will probably take a few generations. I would also like Nationalist Ireland to produce a detailed plan of how the integration of N.I. into the rest of the island would be achieved, with the emphasis on finance. I’m sure all the erstwhile Nationalists, with relatively well-paid public sector jobs, would like to know if they are going to keep their jobs and pensions. So can we have some meat, rather than wishful thinking.


  3. Comments are closed on the New Statesman piece but it’s worth pointing out that there was no comma in the British government statement of 1990. Instead of saying that Britain had “no selfish, strategic or economic interest”, it was actually that they had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” – a minor difference but a very important one.


    • True and something that escaped the notice of many at the time in the popular media and Irish political classes. That said the situation seems to have changed so much I cannot imagine youngish British Unionist/Nationalist politicos like Cameron, Clegg and Miliband being prostrate at the thought of a Yes vote for the reunification in Ireland. On the contrary. One suspects that they would merely go though the referendum motions, if that.


  4. Excellent piece Séamus,
    I disagree that the demographics are unimportant because I think they are the engine that creates the space for negotiation but nevertheless I do think that economics are the crucial motivators for change. As a nationalist I think the time has come to start making a solid case for a border poll based upon the economic imperatives mentioned above. As we may see from the current Scottish debate, it is MICRO economic arguments that shift votes


    • Agree totally. The demographics are driving change in the political landscape. The same phenomena were observable in the decade before the 1916 Revolution. A growing Catholic/Nationalist middle-class with greater socio-economic mobility and aspirations which found itself constrained by a colonial or discriminatory system. The pressure cooker could not bubble forever without exploding.


  5. john cronin

    All of the above is true enough, but ignores the fairly obvious point that very few people in the Republic want the bloody place either. General consensus is that they’re all a bunch of lunatics and thank Christ its the Brits who have custody of em and not us. Not sure how a basically bankrupt southern Irish state would be able to afford their dole money.


    • 2012 Irish Times poll on support for reunited Ireland in 26 Counties:

      64% support a reunited Ireland
      8% oppose a reunited Ireland
      28% don’t know

      Asked to define the nation of Ireland:
      56% believed that the nation of Ireland is the island of Ireland
      27% believed that the nation of Ireland is the 26 Counties
      17% don’t know


      • john cronin

        OK, but how many of em were in favour of sending the Garda to police the Shankill and Sandy Row?


      • Are unionist bigots really part of the Irish nation?


        • As much as ethnic Russians are part of the Latvian nation!


          • Some of those Russians identify themselves with Russia not Latvia.
            They display flags of Russia openly, support Putin’s foreign policy (his war against Ukraine and so on), celebrate “Victory day” on 9th of May (most Latvians view it as a day when Soviets reoccupied our country and do not celebrate it), express hatred against ethnic Latvians and so on. (Some of them even want to join Russia – but they’re a minority – most of them just want to make Latvia similar to Ireland and Belarus – mostly Russian speaking country which is not part of Russia.)

            We don’t consider them part of Latvian nation and neither do they – they view themselves as part of Russian nation.

            I see similar things in the north too.

            There are people there who display UK flags openly, say that they are British, participate in the Orange Order marches, express hatred against the Irish, burn bonfires with Irish flags on them and so on.

            And I don’t think that they’d stop doing that after the reunification of Ireland.


            • But ethnic Russians (as defined by languaage, culture and in some cases dual-citizenship) do live in Latvia and in significant numbers. So they are part of the Latvian nation, albeit a restless or uncomfortable one.

              Likewise in Ireland we need to accommodate those who insist on their “British” identity, especially in the context of a reunited Ireland. I have no problem with the benign aspects of British ethnicity/language/culture amongst the Unionist minority in that sense. My objections are to the more stereotypical colonial-style racist and sectarian attitudes that we witness throughout a lot of Unionist politics. That must be tackled head-on.

              That said we have our own Nationalist house to set in order too.


              • Russians are not a single monolithic mass.
                Some of them consider themselves to be part of the Latvian nation – some do not – and they have every right to do so.

                I live in Ireland, but I do not consider myself to be part of the Irish nation – just like most immigrants and people from the north.

                My objections are to the more stereotypical colonial-style racist and sectarian attitudes that we witness throughout a lot of Unionist politics.
                That all is too damn familiar. Some Russians even think of us as some kind of primitive tribe that should be grateful that Soviets liberated us, brought culture and civilised us – primitive savages.


              • But if you made your permanent home here in Ireland, settled here, would you not then become part of the Irish nation? Or would you always regard yourself as Latvian and not Irish, even if just in terms of citizenship?


              • In that case I probably would.
                Some other people however might not count me as part of the Irish nation.


  6. john cronin

    The other point here is this: a Catholic majority does not necessarily mean a majority in favour of joining the Republic. The Catholic middle class: basically the SDLP voters – might not like the Unionist Party or the Orange Order very much, but are clever enough to know what side their bread is buttered. If there was a poll tomorrow:do you wish to join the Irish Republic or remain within the UK? 90% of the Prods would vote in favour of remaining within the UK, 5% would vote to join the Republic and 5% would say “I don’t know”

    Among the Catholics, a third of them would vote to stay within the UK.


  7. ar an sliabh

    It all comes down to one city: Belfast. If it wasn’t for that and the oil in the water, they would have packed it in a while ago. Occupational forces rarely care about probable voting results.


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