Diarmaid Ferriter: Wilful disregard for Ireland at Westminster is nothing new
‘Breathtaking ignorance’ of Brexiteers on Border has deep roots in past affairs
Nigel Farage ‘cheerfully’ admitted he never gave the North a moment’s thought in the Brexit referendum campaign. Photograph: Alastair Grant
This month 97 years ago, British prime minister David Lloyd George was in boastful form about the Irish question that had dogged his coalition governments. The day before the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, a panicked Arthur Griffith, who led the Irish delegation, pleaded with the prime minister to obtain “a conditional recognition, however shadowy, of Irish national unity” in return for the acceptance of allegiance to the empire by an Irish Free State.
But the desperate plea was in vain; instead, a boundary commission proposal was incorporated into article 12 of the treaty; it stipulated that if Northern Ireland opted to remain separate from the new Free State, as was its right under the treaty, the boundary commission would determine the Border “in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions”.
The impression created of such a commission during the talks, as recorded by Tom Jones, Lloyd George’s secretary, was that it would involve “so cutting down Ulster that she would be forced in from economic necessity”. Job done, Lloyd George boasted, “we’ve got rid” of the Irish question while maintaining in relation to Ulster “we have emancipated her”.
Neither assertion was true; nor was the claim made by renowned historian AJP Taylor in 1965 in his influential book English History 1914-45, that Lloyd George had “conjured the Irish question” out of existence. Just ask Theresa May. Or Tony Blair. Or John Major; or indeed the ghosts of Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, or James Callaghan, who had been advised to avoid “getting sucked into the Irish bog”.
None of those prime ministers were able to avoid that because Lloyd-George had not solved the Irish dilemma; he had just kicked it down the road, or down a long, 300-mile Border, and the impression created about the boundary commission was just that; a ruse to get the British government out of an awkward corner. But it would come back to haunt some of Lloyd-George’s successors.
Another thing that was revealing about the Anglo-Irish negotiations of almost a century ago was the extent of contempt and ignorance about Ireland, as also revealed by the diaries of Tom Jones. Senior Conservative Andrew Bonar Law told Jones he had come to the conclusion “that the Irish were an inferior race”. Jones suggested euphemistically “there was an incapacity to see Ireland clearly” but also deluded himself that “all this changed in 1921”.
Labour's opposition to partition was only steadfast until the Border was a reality
Lloyd George had made the revealing private comment during the treaty negotiations that “The Britisher would pay a good deal for a quiet life”; the overriding imperative was to get the Irish question away from Downing Street.
The Labour Party was of the same mind; while its opinion on Ireland a few years previously had been broadly anti-partitionist – its 1918 conference had advocated “self-determination in all exclusively Irish affairs” – that policy oscillated and moved by 1921 to acceptance of the treaty. Its opposition to partition was only steadfast until the Border was a reality.
Labour shared the sigh of relief, it seemed, that the treaty generated in the Conservative Party. Such an attitude was cemented by power, which Labour achieved in January 1924.
George Lansbury, future Labour Party leader, declared in 1925 that Ireland is “a question which is practically settled today”. Historian George Boyce has suggested Labour’s pragmatic tepidity over time meant “it had no Irish past to live down or live up to”.
A moment’s thought
There have been revealing admissions in recent days of the endurance of self-serving pragmatism and wilful disregard for Ireland by both parties.
Former prime minister John Major spoke in Longford of the “breathtaking ignorance” of the Brexiteers and their DUP cheerleaders about the Border. Some Conservative MPs apologised to Irish radio listeners about their party’s incompetence.
In Dublin, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan suggested the lack of understanding of Irish issues among the British government “beggars belief” but his Labour Party’s disorientation is just as pathetic. Westminster’s inhabitants have learnt nothing, it seems, from the mistakes of the referendum campaign in 2016.
Last month, the Sunday Times asked former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage if he had ever considered Northern Ireland during that referendum campaign. Farage “cheerfully” admitted he never gave it a moment’s thought: “No, no, no . . . what’s the problem? There is no problem.”
In September, Belfast-born actor Stephen Rea narrated a short film by Clare Dwyer Hogg, Brexit: A Cry from the Irish Border, in which he spoke of the Border progress of the last 20 years: “Roads that start here and end there, somehow allowing a wound to heal . . . a gentleness in the mundanity . . . daily travel across political lines; work, school, grocery shops, back again . . . there, but not there; a line of imagination that needed imagination to make it exist while unseen . . . we live here and we’re holding our breath again.’
As they hold their breath, Westminster continues to deny and elide.