The tragedy of Ireland, suddenly in the news last week, illustrates two important political principles. The first is that blunder can be worse than malice. The second is that hostility between two peoples is inversely proportional to the differences between them: the smaller the differences, the greater the hatred. 

The greatest hatred in the Middle East today is between Sunni and Shiite Islam, based on an obscure question of succession to Muhammad dating from the seventh century. In South Africa, the greatest hatred is not between blacks and whites but between whites and whites (witness the Boer War) and between blacks and blacks (witness King Shaka’s Mfecane and the hatred South African blacks feel towards blacks from the rest of Africa, who seem identical to white people). In Northern Ireland, an outsider would need an electron microscope to detect the difference between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, who hate each other, or – and this is really the point of this article – can be easily encouraged to hate each other.

By far the most important result in the British elections last week was the fact that Sinn Fein won most seats in the Northern Ireland assembly. Sinn Fein is an Irish nationalist party (meaning it wants a united Ireland and rejects British rule) and is closely associated with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which has a long and bloody history of terrorist acts against British rule. Is there now a good possibility that the island of Ireland will be united and have nothing to do with Britain? Not necessarily. Nothing in Ireland is as simple as that.

The ancient history of Ireland gives a good introduction to the confusion that followed. The Scots were an Irish tribe. Dublin was founded by Vikings. It was the Irish who brought Christianity to England. I suppose you could say that modern Irish history began in 1171 when King Henry II of England invaded. The ironies of his invasion set the pattern for the next eight centuries. Henry was not a bad man; on the contrary he was in my opinion England’s greatest monarch after Alfred. He couldn’t speak a word of English but by practical measures laid the foundation of the English common law, which changed the world for the better. His invasion of Ireland was sanctioned by the Pope (Alexander III) and helped to set up English Catholic settlers in Ireland, loyal to the Pope and the English King. (Remember that in view of later history!) It was part of a complicated deal between Irish and English noblemen to make sure they were all loyal to Henry. It was a muddled half-measure, taking a part of Ireland but not conquering the whole, causing trouble and resentment but not occupation. So it went on for centuries.

Ireland was by far England’s least successful colony and revealed for centuries English incompetence, arrogance and bungling. England never knew what she wanted from Ireland and so never did anything consistent and decisive but did plenty to stir up malcontent and to fragment and impoverish Ireland. Sometimes she tried outright force but never in a sustained way. Sometimes, in slow fits of absent-mindedness, she just neglected Ireland without freeing her, so that things fell apart beyond Irish control. She wouldn’t rule Ireland properly but would not allow the Irish to rule themselves. In the 14th Century she tried apartheid, defining the Irish as an inferior race; the 1366 Statutes of Kilkenny decreed that the Irish could not marry the English or do business with them or sell them horses. English racism towards the Irish was probably their one consistent attitude. Cromwell, otherwise a principled man, was an outright racist when it came to the Irish.

When the Europeans, following Columbus, invaded the Americas, they annihilated the native people with guns and germs, but they themselves established the richest country in history. When the English colonised African countries, they seldom gained much themselves but did leave the Africans with many things they loved, such as writing, Christianity, the English language, modern technology and soccer. In 800 years of colonising Ireland, the English never gained anything themselves nor improved Ireland in any way. On the contrary, they impoverished her and visited upon her slaughter (such as Drogheda in 1649) and starvation (such as the terrible potato famine of 1845). For long periods the English lost interest in Ireland. But they never lost enough interest to do the one and obvious thing that would save Ireland: get out altogether and leave her alone.

English dithering and inconsistency brought in great confusion and uncertain loyalties in Irish affairs, especially when England and Scotland moved large numbers of Protestants to the north of Ireland. All was made worse by the English Civil War of the 1640s when Cromwell overthrew King Charles I. Religion played a major part in revolution but an exceedingly complicated part; it was never a simple matter of Catholics against Protestants. In 1649, Cromwell invaded Ireland with the express purpose of preventing any royalist insurrection against his republic in Ireland. He used shock and awe to terrorise the Irish into submission. But by that time there were Anglo Irish Catholics loyal to the English monarchy. If you were a progressive of that time, did you support the revolutionary Cromwell who had overthrown a reactionary monarch? Or did you support brave Irishmen resisting an English conqueror? Cromwell laid siege to the fortress of Drogheda, broke down its walls and ordered the slaughter of every man, woman and child within. But far from being a simple matter of the English warlord butchering innocent Irishmen, some historian (Irish, I seem to remember) said it was two groups of Englishmen fighting each other. The man defending Drogheda was Sir Arthur Aston, who doesn’t sound very Irish to me.

Eventually, after many horrors and even more complications, the English, after the Easter Uprising of 1916, decided to let Ireland go, but by then it was too late for the whole of Ireland to become an independent country. The north of Ireland now had a majority Protestant population, who disliked the Catholics in the south and, calling themselves Unionists, wanted to remain part of Britain. Ireland was split in two. The Catholic south, after a messy civil war, eventually gained a messy independence and became the Republic of Ireland. Ever since, the Ulster Unionists (Ulster is the traditional name for the northern province) have ruled the north and paraded their Protestantism, their desire to be part of Britain, their hatred of the Papacy and their suspicions of anything Catholic, while Catholic Irish Nationalists, including the IRA, have shown their hatred of Britain and of the Irish traitors who want to be part of her. The key figures on the IRA side were Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, both almost certainly guilty of brutal terrorist acts. On the Unionist side it was the Reverend Ian Paisley, who looks like a big thug, with his hair combed back, with a voice like a foghorn, perhaps the greatest mob orator of modern times, thundering abuse at the Pope and the Republic of Ireland from his pulpit and his political platforms.

What makes Ireland different from other troubled, divided countries is a beguiling wit, irony and self-deprecating eloquence. It is said that England’s greatest art is her literature and greatest talent her way with words. But the Irish are far more talented in that way. Almost any Irishman makes an Englishman seem tongue-tied. The legend of the silver-tongued Irishman has much truth. This makes the Irish troubles all the more confusing for the English. They can understand Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley; they can’t understand Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and William Yeats. Strange words and phrases come out of Ireland. I understand Beyond the Pale but Whigs and Tories? These names of the two political parties that dominated English politics for centuries are certainly of Irish origin but nobody can tell me where from. Two gangs of Irish cattle thieves? I have spent a total of one weekend in Belfast, in 2003, and loved it. I saw irony everywhere. In a pub there was a huge chess board, where the white chess pieces were IRA gunmen with masks and battle fatigues, and the black pieces Ulster Unionists with dark suits and bowler hats. The white queen was Gerry Adams, the black queen Ian Paisley. A friend living there told me that at her children’s schools, the pupils, Protestant and Catholic, all joked about the troubles.

In Belfast I could not tell the difference between Protestant and Catholic. They sounded exactly the same, and they sounded completely different from the Irish in the Republic. While I was working at a mill in Lancashire, a foreman, born in Belfast but then living in England, told me he had gone to visit relatives in a part of Belfast he didn’t know. That night at the hotel, he went down to speak to the receptionist, who kept looking at her books while they were talking to each other. He asked the way to the nearest pub. She then looked up at him and said, “For you, go out of that door, turn left, and….” He did so and, sure enough, found the pub full of people of his religion. (I forget which it was). I doubt if anyone outside Belfast could have told whether he was Catholic or Protestant. Few people in Northern Ireland even know the theological differences between Catholics and Protestants, and even fewer care. But these tiny differences are deliberately stoked into delicious hatreds by the extremists of both sides, giving meaning to their lives, often using the long and unreliable memories of Irishmen of historical triumphs and injuries, real and imaginary, of centuries ago.

Various moves by the British government to bring peace to Ulster have met with a fair degree of success. Tony Blair’s greatest success (only success?) as Prime Minister was the Good Friday Agreement, leading eventually in 2007 to a joint government in Northern Ireland, with Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the First Minister and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein as his deputy. This was because the DUP then had most votes. I thought it was a wonderful moment, with two big bullies making peace with each other for the common good (and a bit of glory and prestige for themselves). Both are dead.

Last week Sinn Fein got more votes than the DUP and is the single biggest party in Northern Ireland. Part of the Good Friday Agreement was that Northern Ireland would remain part of Britain for so long as the people voted that way in a referendum – known as a Border Poll. Up to now each border poll has shown a majority wanted to stay in Britain. This is because Protestants outnumbered the Catholics, but Catholics seem to be overtaking them. What would a border poll show if it was taken next year? Is Sinn Fein secretly worried that it would still show Ulster wanted to remain British? There were encouraging signs of growth in non-partisan parties, signs that maybe the people are simply losing interest in partisan hatred. But if Ulster did vote to leave Britain what would happen? This complicated question has become even more complicated with Brexit, with Britain leaving the EU. Indeed the Irish question and the land border between Northern Ireland, no longer part of the EU, and the Republic, still part of the EU was the biggest problem of Brexit. There is now also a “sea border” between the British mainland and Ireland.

I have no doubt that the people of England would be delighted to get rid of Northern Ireland. I have little doubt that the Republic of Ireland would be horrified to have Northern Ireland joining her. I can’t feel that the IRA and Sinn Fein in the north, with their Marxist background, would have much in common with the once priest-ridden Catholics of the south. All rather baffling – just like the previous 800 years.

[Photo: Getty Images]


Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.