Brexit poses a serious constitutional problem

The issue of partition poisoned Irish politics for decades as Ireland sought to withdraw from the UK. Now it’s posing a constitutional problem for Britain, writes Ryle Dwyer

Brexit poses a serious constitutional problem

The issue of partition poisoned Irish politics for decades as Ireland sought to withdraw from the UK. Now it’s posing a constitutional problem for Britain, writes Ryle Dwyer

FOR decades the partition issue poisoned Irish politics. When this country sought to withdraw from the United Kingdom, the British resisted, and we ended up with the island partitioned. But now in his new book, Diarmaid Ferriter demonstrates that it is posing a serious constitutional problem for the British.

Partition was at the heart of the greatest distortion of Irish history in the 20th century. For the first 40 years, our schools generally avoided the 20th century in Irish history. When I finished secondary school in 1963, we had never got beyond the Parnell era, but the Christian Brothers repeatedly denounced partition as primarily responsible for the country’s ills.

Éamon de Valera never tired of denouncing partition, even though he was probably the first person in the Dáil to warn that if we did not recognise the rights of unionists in the Six Counties, we would be making the same mistake with them that the British had made with the rest of the island.

“The minority in Ulster had a right to have their sentiments considered to the utmost limit,” he told the Dáil on August 22, 1921. “If the Republic were recognised he would be in favour of giving each county power to vote itself out of the Republic if it so wished.”

On meeting prime minister David Lloyd George for the discussions that led to the Anglo-Irish negotiations in 1921, de Valera asked the British to stand aside and allow the Irish to settle the partition problem peacefully between themselves.

“We agree with you,” he assured the prime minister, “‘that no common action can be secured by force’.”

The 1921 Treaty, signed by Arthur Griffith, Michael Collins and their colleagues, proposed the establishment of Irish Free State, consisting of all 32 counties. The unionists of Northern Ireland promptly denounced this as a gross betrayal, despite a provision stipulating that they could withdraw from the Irish Free State within a month of the Treaty’s ratification. In that case, however, a Boundary Commission would redraw the border in line with the wishes of the inhabitants.

Michael Collins with Arthur Griffith
Michael Collins with Arthur Griffith

When Collins challenged de Valera to produce his alternative to the Treaty, the long fellow proposed what became known as Document No 2. It contained the Treaty’s partition clauses verbatim. Partition was not an issue between them.

Ferriter contends that there was a “broad belief that the Boundary Commission would ‘deliver’ for the South”. This explains why the partition issue was not a real factor in the Treaty split, which, Ferriter notes, was essentially “over the oath of allegiance to the British Crown to be taken by Irish parliamentarians”. Seán MacEntee, who was a Belfast Catholic and a senior member of each of de Valera’s cabinets from 1932 onwards, wrote a strong letter to de Valera in 1938 disapproving of Fianna Fáil’s attitude toward the northern question.

“In regard to partition,” he wrote, “we have never had a policy.”

MacEntee insisted that the Dublin government never even tried to win over Northern Protestants. Some of their Fianna Fáil colleagues had been “subordinating reason to prejudice”, he complained. “With our connivance, every bigot and killjoy, ecclesiastical and lay, is doing his damnedest here to keep them out.” Did Irish politicians really want the North?

TK Whitaker, who was largely responsible for this country’s economic revolution in the 1950s, was born in Rostrevor, Co Down. He understood Northern Ireland and became a trusted adviser to both Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch. Whitaker realised this country could not afford a united Ireland, as Britain had been paying around £100m annually in subsidising the North.

Taoiseach Jack Lynch signing Ireland up to the EEC
Taoiseach Jack Lynch signing Ireland up to the EEC

“We can’t take over Britain’s financial contributions,” Whitaker insisted, “nor do we want the terrifying task of keeping sectarianism and anarchical mobs in order.” Privately, Jack Lynch was every bit as forceful.

In 1972, British ambassador John Peck reported that when he asked Lynch how important the reunification issue was to the republic’s electorate, the Taoiseach’s “answer amounted to saying they could not care less”. As far as Lynch was concerned, he wanted “peace and justice in the North, and close friendship and co-operation with us”, Peck reported.

Following the outbreak of the Troubles in the late 1960s, people were appalled at the events in which 3,700 people lost their lives. Particularly horrifying were such incidents as the Dublin/Monaghan bombings of 1974, the murder of the Miami Showband in 1975, and the Enniskillen bombing of 1987.

John Hume was the force of Northern rationalism. “The solution will be found, not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and partnership between both,” Hume insisted. “The real division is not a line drawn on the map but in the minds and hearts of the people.” Ferriter reminds us that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was bitterly opposed the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The agreement “vindicates the moderates — SDLP and Ulster Unionists — but in the long run the so-called ‘extremes’ of the DUP and Sinn Féin were the winners,” he notes.

“If it had not been for the significant funds that have come from Europe,” Peter Robinson warned after he replaced Ian Paisley as first minister in 2008, Northern Ireland would have been a “very much worse place.” Now, however, the DUP seems to be anxious to throw all this away again.

Monumental changes have taken place on both sides of the border in recent years. “The Republic became increasingly secularised and socially liberal,” Ferriter notes. Laws banning contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and abortion have been removed.

Of course, some of the old laws were not being rigorously enforced anyway. Frank Crummey of the Fertility Guidance Clinic recalled being stopped one day in Balbriggan by gardaí doing an arms check. “I had 40,000 French letters in the station wagon and insisted they were all for my own personal use,” he recalled. “Ah, go way,” was the garda’s response.

In the North the DUP initially opposed the Good Friday Agreement most vehemently. The big issue today revolves around Brexit. When the British voted for Brexit, most people probably did not realise it could cause constitutional problems for Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement stipulated that the status of Northern Ireland cannot be changed without the consent of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland. The agreement was confirmed in a referendum in Northern Ireland, with the support of 71% of the electorate.

Although a majority of voters in Britain endorsed Brexit, a majority of 55.8% voted against it in Northern Ireland, so if Britain withdraws from the EU, the North must remain, because the change has not been approved by the majority in Northern Ireland.

David Cameron called the Brexit referendum without insisting that its various implications be explained. As a result, many of those voting probably did not understand what they were supporting.

Many believe the vote would go the other way now, as people have a better understanding of the implications. But the holding of another referendum is being depicted as an affront to both democracy and the will of the British people. How are they going to overcome the problem of Northern Ireland remaining in the EU, while the rest of the UK withdraws?

One way of resolving this dilemma would be to hold another vote on the Brexit issue. Of course, if they hold another referendum in Northern Ireland, there would be no reason why they should not be able to do the same throughout the United Kingdom, especially now that people have a better understanding of all the issues involved.

Diarmaid Ferriter’s book The Border: The legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics, is published by Profile Books at £12.99.

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