Shifting sands of British-Irish relations analysed


Worldview:The wish might be father to the thought, but the thought was truly there - Anthony Trollope

A two-volume history of British-Irish relations in the first 30 years of this century published in 2060 affords us an interesting perspective on current events. By Peter Bew, an impressive young historian whose grandfather Paul Bew was a distinguished political scientist who ended his career in the House of Lords, they cover what was one of the most momentous periods in the history of these islands.

Why that was so can be seen in the apt titles of the two volumes. The first one is called Stabilising Ireland and Unstable Britain 2000-2015.

Its first half deals with the emergence of peace and prosperity following the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and the tediously long run-in to the restoration of powersharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin in 2007. Once established, the new Executive led by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness went from strength to strength in the following four years, bolstered by a flow of US investment stimulated from their very successful trip to New York and Washington in late 2007.

Paisley surprised everyone by the vigour and commitment with which he led the Executive, before he retired after the 2012 elections renewed its mandate so strongly. During that time there was a definite improvement in inter-communal relations, initiated from the top down. This tended to justify the designers of the powersharing model in their belief that such a deeply-divided society required coercive co-operation before community reconciliation could happen. Nevertheless, historians still debate whether that owed more to the remarkable personal chemistry between McGuinness and Paisley than to the system itself.

The alternative civic integration model, drawing on the force of moderate unionists and nationalists co-operating against the extremes, lost credibility as the SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party atrophied.

This book also focuses credibly on another impetus - the way changes in the then United Kingdom and the enlarging European Union affected the North by transforming its disputes over state sovereignty.

The strike wave affecting both parts of the country, Britain and Europe during the 2008-9 recession also played a part in bringing workers together.

Paisley's invocation of the Scots-Irish tradition in the US prompted renewed contacts within the Irish diaspora and something of a cultural reconciliation among the 40 million or so Americans who claimed an Irish heritage in censuses from the 1980s on - half of them Protestants.

The Dublin Government had strenuously resisted creating the kind of institutions used so successfully by central and eastern Europeans to harness their diasporas, whether by extending voting rights or giving them parliamentary or other kinds of representative entitlements.

It was only when they saw how effective the Northerners were in attracting US attention during Hillary Clinton's presidency that it was agreed to set up the Irish Abroad Forum which still plugs so effectively into the federal Irish parliament.

In concentrating so much on the North, Bew devotes too little attention in these chapters to the remarkable transformation of the Republic during the Celtic Tiger years and how that created space for the Northern experiment to bear fruit. His grandfather's synoptic history of Ireland, published in 2007, still bears reading on that subject. It helped, too, that the Labour government led by Gordon Brown decided in 2009 to allow the Northern Executive reduce its rate of corporation tax to 12.5 per cent, the same as the Republic's.

Bew shows clearly how this decision was determined largely by Brown's efforts to undercut Alex Salmond's political appeal in Scotland. Elected on a minority ticket in 2007, Salmond was just as successful as Paisley and McGuinness. His prolonged baiting of Brown following the latter's disastrous assumption of office that year paid off as he secured concession after concession from London, ahead of the 2010 elections. Brown barely managed to scrape a majority in them, thanks to DUP and SNP support. His subsequent 2010-15 administration was continually dogged by the struggle to assert unitary British values in response to the SNP's hegemony in Scotland,.

This growing instability of Britain dominates the second half of the book. Under David Cameron the Conservatives adopted a contradictory approach, affirming unionist values on the one hand and insisting on English rights on the other. Thus over the following years he stoked the "ugly stain of separatism" and the narrow coarse English nationalism he deplored in an Edinburgh speech in December 2007. These values were to result in the Tory victory of 2015 which set the stage for the referendum on Scottish independence won by Salmond's party in 2017.

Bew correctly identifies Brown's decision not to attend the group signing of the new EU treaty in Lisbon on December 13th, 2007, as an enduring symbol of Britain's retreat from Europe before the recession.

In contrast, Scotland and Ireland were more drawn to it after the close referendum on the treaty in 2008 frightened the political establishment in the South. Britain was hit hard because of London's exposure to the world financial crisis.

The fascinating dialectic between the DUP and SNP and their leaders was prefigured by a reply Paisley gave to the official unionist David Burnside that same week about their good relationship. Paisley told him: "Scotland has a right to decide for itself, and whatever it decides is not our business."

The growing effect of a less stable Britain on Ireland is examined in Bew's second volume, The Break-up of Britain and the Reunification of Ireland 2016-2030. It will be reviewed next week.