Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Finn McRedmond: Why should we expect Britain to mark the centenary of the Treaty?

Irish outcry over Westminster’s apathy towards the anniversary is myopic

The centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty's signing flew past in London without even a whimper, let alone a bang. For a nation whose diplomatic interests are currently shackled by the quirks of Northern Ireland, might this strike us as a little odd? It was, of course, the treaty that established this unique – and oftentimes hairy – constitutional arrangement.

The UK comes under frequent criticism for its disinterest in Ireland's history and domestic politics. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum there was no shortage of voices in Dublin and Belfast pointing out the difficulties the Border might cause as Britain negotiated its exit from the EU. Westminster's refusal to heed those warnings from across the Irish Sea became totemic of this indifference.

And although the indifference might be casual in intention, it is enormously consequential in reality. The stickiness of Northern Ireland’s status has far-reaching impacts on the machinery of British politics. The current British administration must know that better than anyone as it works its way through the nigh-impossible task of leaving the single market while maintaining an open Border on the island of Ireland and avoiding a border in the Irish Sea.

We might say the key to unlocking all the difficulties and peculiarities of this arrangement lies first with understanding the Anglo-Irish Treaty: an exercise in investigating the cause, rather than the symptoms, of the problem. We learn history to come to fuller understandings of the present, after all.


Irish reaction

The anniversary's absence from public discourse in Britain certainly hasn't gone unnoticed in Ireland. Just another example of Westminster's navel-gazing dismissals of the Anglo-Irish relationship! Is it arrogance or foolishness that motivates the apathy the treaty's centenary generated in London? Do the British people not even know how the United Kingdom came to be reconstituted?

Maybe all of this is fair. But it strikes me as an intellectual misfire. It emerges from a place that massively overstates the importance of anniversaries. It prioritises commemoration over practical policy design. It seems far more concerned with a needy desire for attention than it is with forward thinking and problem solving. And it suffers from a myopia we are so quick to accuse the British establishment of exhibiting.

For a start, countries are not often in the business of celebrating their failures. The treaty saw the break-up of the UK and laid the groundwork for the fully independent Republic of Ireland. Its impacts have reverberated through history, establishing a state that was long at war, only recently at peace, and still awaiting true reconciliation. This is not exactly one to write home about, and it ought not surprise us that the Conservative Party are not extolling the successes of the arrangement.

And although the treaty is of huge importance for its impacts on contemporary politics, its anniversary of course means nothing in and of itself. Because what is a centenary other than a round number? The timing might be ironic, as the UK ponders triggering article 16 and is still locked in near-diplomatic-war over the precise post-Brexit trading arrangements with the EU. But this is a mere coincidence of history nonetheless.

So attaching too much importance to the commemoration of the centenary risks eliding two problems. Acknowledging the events of 100 years ago is one thing. But doing so will have no tangible impact on the far more pressing concern: requiring Westminster to pay attention to the complications of the Irish Border, and designing practical and workable policies to solve otherwise intractable problems.

Understanding how to establish a trading arrangement that protects peace in Northern Ireland matters, a few words from Boris Johnson on the signing of the document that led us here 100 years ago does not.

Foundational problem

And here is the foundational problem. Ireland’s tendency to decry Westminster’s consistent failure to pay heed to its politics is often fair. But it can get ahead of itself. And we can forget the obvious fact that Britain has its own domestic politics and history to reckon with. Although Ireland is central to the technicalities of Brexit, the decision to leave the EU was about something totally different. We must resist the creeping temptation to demand all of Britain’s political considerations be viewed through the prism of Anglo-Irish relations.

And simply because Johnson is not pontificating about the anniversary in the Commons, it does not mean no acknowledgement was made. In October I went to an exhibition – The Treaty, 1921: Records from the Archives – held by the Irish Embassy in London in collaboration with the National Archives of Ireland, the National Archives of the UK, and the British Academy.

Addressing the attendees, Irish Ambassador to the UK Adrian O’Neill spoke of the importance of accurate and respectful commemoration for this period of profound consequence for Ireland and the UK. These quiet gestures matter as poignant reminders of what remains between these two islands.

And they provide us with encouragement that we can find resolution to the apparent impasse the two islands find themselves in, as the relationship is at a nadir. But it is practical solutions that ultimately matter: we should be careful not to get lost in the noise.