Current Affairs Politics

The Bloody Language Of Brexit

Some interesting thoughts from the newspaper columnist Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times on the radical Brexit movement in the United Kingdom and the political turbulence its rise has caused in London:

The British expect revolutions to be bloodless; the Irish don’t. But as with so much else, Brexit plays strange games with these perceptions. Objectively, by far the biggest danger of violence resulting from this half-cocked revolution is in Ireland. Thus, for example, a thousand English and Scottish police officers are currently being given special training to prepare them to be sent to Northern Ireland to keep order in the event of a no-deal Brexit. But in the rhetoric of the Brexiteers, this reality is reversed: the threat of political violence in Ireland is non-existent and anyone alluding to it is scaremongering. But they themselves are free to threaten political violence in England if Brexit is stopped. History is turned on its head: Northern Ireland is apparently so stable that there are no risks but England is a powder keg ready to explode.

…the dark irony of this moment in the history of these islands is that we could again see something like the great divide of 1688, a revolution that is bloodless in England but for which Ireland has to pay the violent price.

But, has Ireland not always paid the violent price for the territorial, political and economic ambitions of Britain? Or more accurately, of Greater England? In the year that we commemorate the centenary of the War of Independence it is worth remembering that it was the British and the West British minority who challenged the democratically expressed will of the Irish majority in 1918-21, resulting in years of bloody revolution. Just as our neighbours to the east and their colonial offshoots are once again challenging the democratic will of the majority on this island when it comes to deciding its own affairs. Creating yet another chapter in the long story of Ireland’s British Troubles.

21 comments on “The Bloody Language Of Brexit

  1. The Glorious Revolution bloodless in England? I would have to conclude that if they labeled it as such, that it must have been a matter of comparison to previous decades.

    That’s a far cry from what I was taught in history classes in the US. I remember having learned MOSTLY about the English Civil War and was taught by a HS teacher that Oliver Cromwell was a “17th century cross between The Ayatollah Khomeini and Stalin”. Didn’t the English Civil War kill by some estimates about 150,000 people (large compared to England at that time)? Even though my teachers and schoolbooks said little to nothing about Cromwell’s actions in Ireland, they portrayed his conduct in England is that of a fanatic on par with ISIS or The Taliban (although when I was in school it was more about Iran and Egypt) and an absolute blood thirsty tyrant who jailed and executed people for all reasons as random and petty as you might expect under Stalin, or Pinochet, or the Argentine “Dirty War”.

    I suppose this might be a little bit different in British curricula as well as Irish ones. But what I’ve found suggests it isn’t total bull to say the English Civil War or that Cromwell’s tyranny did not exempt the English from a reign of terror not unlike The East German Stasi (much as uncle/adoptive father of his great-grandpa Thomas Cromwell had done in cahoots with Henry VIII).

    It seems to me that in actuality England hasn’t had all that many Revolution of any kind- bloody, bloodless, minimal-use-of-force, or non-violent. That’s one factor in why they still have that Arcane Dinosaur known as The House of Lords, an unwritten Constitution, and much, much more!!!!

    Whereas many, many nations in this world who have history bloodshed whether it involves invasions by foreign powers, a civil war, genocides, a bloody revolution either internal or for independence, or some combination of the above, ALSO have at least one non-violent revolution in their histories.

    I’ve never been much of an absolutist on anything. That said, it’s probably a bad idea to typecast nations as always having bloody, or always having bloodless revolutions.

    Ireland’s independence from Britain may not have been Gandhian in nature. But the casualty numbers (1916-1924) were low compared to most other nations that sought Independence from Britain. Even when Ireland’s small population is considered, you arguably managed to pull it off with LESS bloodshed than India’s avowedly non-violent Revolution against the British-depending on which estimates one believes and whether you want to include The Partition of India in the tally or not.

    Ireland obviously suffered more UNDER Britain than finally managing to get out. Even The Irish Civil War while politically traumatic wasn’t all that bloody as civil wars go.

    It seems to me Ireland’s problem isn’t with England’s Revolutions, but rather their relative lack. Maybe if England did become a Republic (either by the gun or by non-violent revolution), Ireland would enjoy a very different relationship with its eastern neighbor.


    • I should have written “particularly bad history of bloodsheed” rather than just “history of bloodshed” above. The stupid computer always messes up my grammar and spelling!!!


    • Breandán Mac Séarraigh

      Grace, you’re mixing up the civil war in England (1642 to 1653 or so) with king Billy’s Dutch invasion in 1688 (which the English refer to as the glorious revolution). The wars of the 1640s killed around one man in ten in England and around a third of the entire population of Ireland). 1688 was fairly bloodless in England but was yet another catastrophe for the people of Ireland (following on from the regional catastrophes of the 1570s, 1580s, Kinsale in 1600/1601, the plantations of kings and queens counties, Munster and Ulster and the wars of the 1640s. It’s hard to keep track of all the disasters Ireland suffered in the longer 17th century.


      • No I’m not. I wrote at the beginning that if 1688 is remember as bloodless that would only be by comparison to previous decades.

        If 1688 wasn’t all that bad, than that would clearly be the exception and not the rule for 17th and also 16th century England.

        Also it strikes me as odd that it was even labeled a “Revolution” when it looks more like a Royal Coup.


    • That’s weird because just last night in context of reading about the invention of ‘total war’ (ascribed to Napoleon and admired/envied by Clausewitz), I was wondering whether the activities of Cromwell in Ireland didn’t precede the Napoleonic wars at least in terms of mobilisation and targeting of civilians and what the casualty figures were like.

      The English-Language Wikipedia has this to say about deaths due to the English Civil wars:

      “These estimates indicate that England suffered a 3.7% loss of population, Scotland a loss of 6%, while Ireland suffered a loss of 41% of its population. Putting these numbers into the context of other catastrophes helps to understand the devastation to Ireland in particular. The Great Hunger of 1845–1852 resulted in a loss of 16% of the population, while during the Second World War the population of the Soviet Union fell by 16%.”

      The source is:

      Carlton, Charles (1992), The Experience of the British Civil Wars, London: Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-10391-6

      Liked by 1 person

        • Those figures aren’t reliable at all unfortunately. Carlton based his figures on another work, which I forget unfortunately, and that has been mostly debunked by modern historians.


          • That’s what happens with history – it changes 🙂

            Where would one find more up-to-date figures?


            • The UK Archives places the fatalities at 3.6% of the population. But it doesn’t say what population. English, Scottish or Irish or all three combined for Ireland and Britain?


              • Well apparently there’s some debate either way. But I think a reasonable person can conclude that even if Ireland ultimately suffered more, it still was far from some trivial matter in England.


              • Very true. However it was one that was, if not quite buried, was certainly pushed well down into the English national consciousness. Perhaps because there was a lack of overwhelming ethnic, religious or class conflict in the broader struggle? At least, outside of Ireland or Irish-related matters? Perhaps that’s why the war was so ferocious in Ireland, the different ethnic/race factor at play?


              • As you seem to tell it Mr. Fox, it’s like “massive selective historical amnesia” is practically a cornerstone of The English Psyche.

                To me it’s beyond peculiar that a nation would “not quite bury but [push a civil war].. well down…into the national consciousness.” Civil Wars are notorious for being really terrible news…even as wars go.

                It’s certainly not Ireland’s MEMORY of these things that begs explanation!!!!

                Also you feel that the Normans robbed England of much of its pre- existing culture, yet they mostly don’t know it? Long before I had heard that Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell destroyed the vast majority of England’s existing art. I have a hard time, understanding why there’s not at least some element of regret about that.


            • The problem with history is the historians …
              I don’t remember the full ins and outs of it but i think that shocking 41% figure includes crazily high figures for ‘The Ulster Massacres’ for example. Carlton acknowledges that dodginess himself I think.
              ‘The Civil Wars: A Military History of England, Scotland and Ireland, 1638-60’, would summarise a lot of the more modern perspective on the period but some would say it’s too revisionist.


          • Hmmmm. I’m sure it’s hard to do accurate estimates for the 17th century. Of course, differing estimates and assumptions on these things are just so easy to turn into a political football aren’t they?


      • 41%? That is astonishing. Didn’t the US military come up with a percentage of fatalities in conflict after which irreparable psychological harm is inflicted on a civil population?


        • Maybe they did. But I’d tend to take those claims from military studies of that kind with a grain of salt. What was the motive? What were the assumptions? How long is this irreparable psychological harm said to last? As long as those who remember it still live? 200 years? 500 years? 1000 years? Do they reckon population by nation? By region? By ethnicity?

          I’m not out to ridicule you or cut you down to size. But one thing I learned from experience doing anti-war activism in America (both from experience and mentors) is not to make your argument rely too much on Pentagon Studies. Even if it sounds at first like it would support your cause……there often turns out to be a catch. Your opponents can find ways to use it against you. Or you find that he who did the study, had some other odious agenda.


          • Ah, that’s grand. Good to hear a different take on something. I will try and dig out the study. It must be around somewhere on the net! 😉


      • That’s also an interesting claim. I was always taught that WWI was the beginning of “Total War”. I was also taught in school that three conflicts were the key predecessors. One was The American Civil War particularly with Sherman’s March. The second was the Boer War of South Africa (Where Britain invented the concentration camp although many of the victims were Afrikaaners-a group that would get a bad rep later!!!). The third would be the Russo-Japanese War.

        As far as targeting civilians I wonder if Genghis Khan could be blamed for that one. I’m not sure there ever was a golden age where that just didn’t hapen.


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