SHAUN CONNOLLY: A union of equals as Seanad hosts historic visit

It had certainly been a long time coming.

Some 126 years after William Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill, Ulster Unionists spoke in the Dublin parliament.

In the heart of the republican citadel for a session of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, the very presence of the DUP and UUP representatives made history.

The crystal chandeliers of Leinster House had probably not twinkled down upon so many lords and ladies since the Earl of Kildare used the space now occupied by the Seanad as his ballroom.

A smattering of baronesses and a viscount also rubbed shoulders with a rake of (House of) Commoners as the parliamentarians took residence in the upper chamber.

Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill prompted Conservative strategist Lord Randolph Churchill to seize upon its opportunity for division as a means to re-energise his party with the comment: “The Orange card is the one to play” — but the only hand being played by the Northern unionists yesterday was one of friendship.

Lord Churchill further fanned the flames of separation with the battle cry: “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right!” which thundered down the decades to eventual partition in 1921, but yesterday, Ulster, in the guise of the DUP, sat on the right of the Seanad and appeared merely to delight in the sights of the ornate Georgian setting.

A small moment in history that would have been applauded by Kevin O’Higgins who once used the Dáil chamber along the corridor to lament the impact of the Civil War on the aim of building a new state worthy of attracting and absorbing the North: “We preferred to burn our own houses, blow up our own bridges, rob our own banks, saddle ourselves with millions of debt for the maintenance of an army. Generally we preferred to practice upon ourselves worse indignities than the British had practiced upon us since Cromwell. And now we wonder why the Orangemen are not hopping like so many fleas across the border in their anxiety to come within our fold and jurisdiction?”

But now our new friends from the North were with us — at least as guests — and were handed a guide to the Oireachtas, whose cover was emblazoned with a stirring picture of a meeting of the revolutionary Republican Dáil in August 1921 just after the truce was declared. A large portrait of Michael Collins in his military pomp adorned an inside page, and who can say if the unionists remembered that Collins had banked on a boundary commission ceding the Catholic majorities in Fermanagh and Tyrone into the Free State — thus making the British north-eastern Ulster entity unviable.

But instead the early Free State government spinelessly abandoned the commission and sold it out in return for the cancellation of some debts to Britain in 1925, and in the process trapping so many nationalists in an apartheid statelet against their will — just as loyalists had feared being trapped with the South.

Now, in a darkly ironic twist, the lights in Leinster House are partly kept going thanks to an emergency €8.4bn bailout loan from Her Majesty’s Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer — and heir to the baronetcy of Ballentaylor, Co Tipperary, and descendent of absentee landlords — George Osborne.

So, it’s probably just as well we are all trying to get along as best we can under the chandeliers.

As Robert Kee once said: “History is indeed a difficult prison to escape from and the history of Ireland is as difficult as any.”


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