Perhaps Robert Peston has a point about Ireland undermining the UK
Some of Theresa May’s problems stem from her relationship with the DUP
I’m sure TV presenter Robert Peston didn’t intend to cause offence on Sunday, yet that’s what he did do; a torrent of it. In a discussion with Jacob Rees-Mogg – who wouldn’t care if he caused offence every Sunday – Peston said: “Ireland has undermined, the issue of Ireland in so many different ways has undermined, British governments, you know, going back well over 100 years now.”
The response from social media was furious, summed up by this tweet: “Ireland has undermined England? For wanting to preserve peace within our own country? What about the invasion, degradation and violence inflicted on Ireland by the British for hundreds of years? Please read up on your Anglo-Irish history before coming out with such rubbish.”
Peston discovered what many others have discovered when Irish politics and history is mentioned. The past is always in front of us.
On Tuesday he tweeted a clarification: “Some of you think I said that Ireland has a history of undermining Britain. I did not say that. I would never say that. What I said was there is a history of British governments being torn apart by policy towards Ireland – and Brexit may do that again.”
Actually, where Peston did get it wrong – and he hasn’t withdrawn it – was his use of the word “undermined”. There have clearly been attempts by the Irish to overturn a long-standing policy that denied independence to Ireland – sometimes by extraparliamentary means, sometimes manipulating parliamentary arithmetic; and the occasional revolution. From the mid-1880s to 1914 – when Irish nationalists were in a position to support the Liberals in return for Home Rule legislation – they offered that support. It’s what any smaller party would do. It’s what the DUP is doing right now.
The 1916 Rising was an attempt to undermine the British government. But so, too, were Bonar Law’s comments in 1912: “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster can go in which I should not be prepared to support it.” It’s one of the great “what ifs” of British history: what would have happened in 1914 had there been no world war to distract attention from the passing of the Third Home Rule Bill? Would the Conservatives have supported armed insurrection against it? Would Bonar Law have stood by his comments of 1912 and supported a UVF campaign against British armed forces? Would the Conservative parliamentary party have endorsed the deliberate undermining of parliamentary sovereignty by something akin to a civil war?
The most interesting aspect of Peston’s comments and the hostile reaction is the light they throw on the nature of the relationship between the two countries. The reaction from the Irish suggest that they regarded his views – and more particularly, Rees-Mogg’s – as the views of hand-me-down imperialists. Ironically, that view is given substance by the fact that there was little response from Peston’s “English” viewers; who, it seems, didn’t care enough to disagree – or kept quiet because they did agree. Not so much a case of being anti-Irish and more a case of Ireland – North and South – usually being an afterthought.
During the Brexit debate, Ireland/ Northern Ireland barely rated a mention by the Leave or Remain campaigns. Partly because both sides never thought Leave would win. But, more importantly, because neither side (and I include the DUP) gave any particular thought to the potential impact of Leave on the Republic, on Northern Ireland or on the relationship between London and Dublin. A few weeks before the vote in June 2016, I asked a DUP politician what would happen if Leave won: “The South would be petrified and they’d be wanting out of the EU as quickly as possible. They know which side their bread is buttered.” The same question to Ukip and pro-Brexit Conservatives resulted in almost identical answers.
That view – that the Irish always need to cling to the UK’s economic coattails – is nothing new in some Conservative circles. It’s almost the mirror image of the Sinn Féin view that the English Tories (and it’s always the “English Tories”) will forever prop up unionism and deny the Irish their inalienable right to freedom. Yet the relationship between both governments was excellent up until June 2016. They worked together in common cause. The Irish question wasn’t settled in 1998, but an agreement was reached that allowed a majority on both sides of the Border, along with the two governments, to believe that unity was finally a matter for the Irish people alone.
Yet Theresa May’s reliance on the DUP means her hands are tied on resolving the current political impasse in Northern Ireland and reaching a UK/EU solution to the Border crisis. Ironically, the danger to her government doesn’t come from the Irish: it comes from the DUP and the squabbles within her own party. The union faces an existential challenge and some of May’s problems stem from her relationship with and reliance on the DUP.
Brexit changed the nature of the relationship between London and Dublin. Leo Varadkar is not trying to undermine or tear apart the British government – anyway, the Conservative rebels, opposition parties and Lords are doing that themselves. He is simply trying to protect Irish interests, safeguard Ireland’s responsibilities as co-guarantor of the Good Friday agreement, ensure stability in Northern Ireland and maintain a London/Dublin relationship that has delivered so much of benefit to both sides.
If the British and Irish don’t solve this crisis – and it is a potentially epic crisis – it’s not just British policy and government that could be undermined: it is the union itself. Peston understands that point – even if he made it clumsily. Rees-Mogg, as is often the case on Ireland/Northern Ireland issues, understands nothing; nothing at all.
Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party