The SDLP leader, John Hume, didn’t much like being an MP in the House of Commons. He said he realised early on that his most useful political work would be done on other stages in the United States or even in the European Parliament. He said he used to see the bust of the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond outside The Strangers’ Bar at Westminster and vow that the House of Commons would not end up being his political graveyard, as it was for Redmond.
Redmond, whose death 100 years ago is marked this year, was not the most attractive of the Irish leaders at the House of Commons. He had none of Daniel O’Connell’s liberal mindset. Nor had he Parnell’s haughty glamour. His non-violence credentials are undermined by the fact that he supported a bloody, Imperialist war and encouraged thousands of young Irishmen to go out to die. And he never got the Home Rule that he was promised in return. And died 9 months before the 1918 election, in which Sinn Féin swept his party into history.
Redmond’s fate may be one of the reasons why Sinn Féin don’t want to take their seats in the House of Commons. You mightn’t agree with them – and I don’t – but it’s possible to see where they’re coming from. Redmond has been well described as an “Imperial Nationalist” by historian, Professor Alan Jackson of Edinburgh University. Like O’Connell, he was asking for Home Rule for Ireland within the Empire.
What if that had been granted? And there are many ifs, including the fierce resistance to it of Ulster Unionists. If the island of Ireland had remained within the United Kingdom, would we have avoided the two sectarian entities that emerged after Partition? A Protestant State for a Protestant people in the North and a Catholic State for a Catholic people in the Republic.
To take the what-ifs even further down the road of fancy: if the whole island of Ireland had been in the UK, wouldn’t we have swung the UK Brexit Referendum towards Remain rather than Leave? And whatever else you might think about Redmond, he did believe in the integrity of the island of Ireland. “Nothing in this world”, he said in a speech in Waterford in 1916, “would ever induce me to accept as a settlement of the Home Rule question any scheme providing for a permanent division of our ancient nation.”
The price paid for Partition is being brought home even more sharply today as the Irish government battles to stop an international border being installed between the North of Ireland and the Republic. And it’s a tough one. Because, for many Unionists, while they say they want a soft border, a hard border strengthens their place within the Union and is preferable to a border down the Irish Sea. And they will hold Theresa May’s government to that.
Sinn Féin will protest about the imposition of a hard border if it comes. But they know a hard border will send angry Nationalist voters in Northern Ireland even more firmly into Sinn Féin ranks. And they can sit it out until the population balance tips in favour of Nationalists, as it’s coming close to doing now and triggers a border pull.
In the meantime, we’ll have tensions. Fearful Unionists. Resentful Nationalists, conscious of their growing power. Perhaps armed police or soldiers at checkpoints on the border. British Brexiteers dismissing The Good Friday Agreement and the Irish government. And an Irish government which feels it has to be seen to talk tough to the British and has thereby gained in the polls.
There are dangers here. Senator George Mitchell has already warned of the increased sense of separateness and difference which is created by physical checkpoints and armed guards. Equally worrying is any dilution of the strong relationship between London and Dublin on which The Good Friday Agreement and the peace in Northern Ireland was built. That relationship is vital to the future of peace on this island and to reconciliation with those who share the island with us. It can’t be used as a political football in Irish electoral politics or in the EU Brexit talks.
Leo Varadkar does not want to be criticised, as Redmond was in The Irish Independent after his death, for not being more robust as leader and enforcing Ireland’s demands. But Redmond always refused to any agreement which would divide Ireland North and South. He knew the cost. Varadkar’s government should be equally careful not to create division between the different communities on these islands and between us and our nearest neighbour.
As originally broadcast on Drivetime with Mary Wilson, Tuesday, March 6th.
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