By Robert Tolan
The centenary of Ireland’s independence from her nearest neighbour fast approaches; as I write our island on the periphery of Europe must re-evaluate its relationship with Great Britain. History is circular, somehow events repeat themselves and here we are, yet again, deciding how Anglo-Irish relations should progress.
Should we embrace our shared heritage cognisant yet at peace with past animosities or should we leave Great Britain out in the cold as she once did to the Irish Free State? Though much has changed since 1921, so much has remained the same, and painfully so: Britain has lost her empire yet its decisions affect the course world affairs take, Ireland has abandoned its Catholicism, the crux of Anglo-Irish relations for eight centuries, yet religiously clings to the idea that the Irish are profoundly and irrevocably different from the British. With Brexit on the horizon, a cleaving of Ireland in two may yet again occur as it did with the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Unlike that moment in 1921 when the Irish Free State was born, leadership is lacking on both sides and for this pitiful reason it must fall on the citizen, us, to do all we can do to prevent conflict returning to our isle. That is to say, the decision on Anglo-Irish relations lies with the people.
Should we embrace our shared heritage cognisant yet at peace with past animosities or should we leave Great Britain out in the cold as she once did to the Irish Free State?
The fate of Ulster’s six counties which comprise Northern Ireland is the valve upon which this decision will turn. Perhaps my lament at the absence of leadership in the current situation is misguided: there is no Ian Paisley to roar “Never! Never! Never!” at the thought of Irish unity, there is no nascent independence movement whose fickleness by nature of its youth could break into Pro and Anti-Treaty sides. The olive branch that was not outstretched between the followers of Collins and De Valera could now be offered by the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland’s Unionist community. But what form should this show of good faith take?
Now is not the time to speak of Irish unity, though this must come, as the fog descending over Europe resembles that which fell in London at the negotiation table and more concerning, that which fell at the Treaty of Versailles. A failure to account for the uncertainty tainting European relations runs the risk of our island returning to war. This must be avoided at all costs. Let Britain and Germany bicker over the fate of Europe as they did in 1919 but not the nationalist and unionist communities as they did approaching 1921. Peace in Ireland has come at too high a cost, thousands of innocent lives, over too long a time, eighty years, to break the truce the Good Friday Agreement forged. At this juncture, the responsibility falls on the Republic of Ireland as Great Britain looks set to remain paralysed for some time to come, to retrieve the branch she dropped upon becoming a republic. I speak of Commonwealth membership.
The Irish Free State left the British Commonwealth upon declaring itself the Republic of Ireland in 1949 and thus the last ligament connecting both halves of the British Isles was severed. The importance of this cannot be understated as this moment marks the steep descent to the outbreak of the troubles in 1966. As superficial as Commonwealth membership may seem, it certainly signifies a tangible link between each constituent member and the realities of the past. Hence, cutting such a link alienates that part of Ireland which sees itself as dually British and Irish-an identity held by the majority of Unionists and indeed some Nationalists. Alienation has, and always will, lead to some sort of conflict. In the same way the disenfranchisement of Catholics under the Penal Laws bred a resentment which culminated in the Irish independence movement, the identity crisis the island of Ireland faces today could spill yet more blood. Recent dissident Republican attacks could soon be reciprocated by the other side so there is nothing to do but for the rest of Ireland to relinquish its Republicanism in a meaningful attempt to turn its back on those of its ilk who seek war.
And this is the Rubicon. Words, as we know, are feeble in the face of nationalism; only action will suffice. The river Ireland must cross is that between its current state and Commonwealth membership. As bitter a pill this may be for some to swallow, it is better than the taste of lead. Now is the time to galvanise the reconciliation between north and south just as much as east and west lest we make the same mistakes that led to such a bloody past.
Originally published 28.11.19 in Vol. 3 No. 1.