Thursday, 20 July 2017

What Have the British Ever Done for Us? (Quite a lot actually)

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the Irish Post on February 5, 2011)

There is a scene in Monty Python's - Life of Brian where a group of Jewish rebels are holding a meeting to discuss their opposition to Roman rule. The leader of the group played by John Cleese asks the question "What have the Romans ever done for us?" Cleese's character takes it as a given that the Romans have done nothing for the Jews so he is somewhat taken aback when his comrades give him a litany of advantages that Rome rule has brought them.

This scene often comes to mind when I encounter a fellow Irish citizen who nurtures eight hundred years of grievances against Britain. That is not to say that I don't recognise that Ireland's relationship with Britain has at times been to its disadvantage and nor am I denying that genuine injustices occurred under British rule. However, we also shouldn't forget that a lot of progressive legislation such as the land reforms of the late nineteenth century that improved the lives of the poorest people in Ireland came from the House of Commons.  Also, if we are going to acknowledge the crimes of the British state then an honest analysis requires Irish nationalists not to forget the injustices carried out by Irish Republican paramilitaries from nineteen sixteen right up to the present day against innocent civilians and members of the security services in Britain and Ireland. However, conflict is just one aspect of the shared history between these islands and viewing the complex history of our islands through one dimension limits our ability to see the totality of our relationship clearly.

The arrival of the Anglo-Normans from Britain in the twelfth century brought with it beneficial changes that have lasted to this day. The  Anglo-Normans were the first people in Ireland to have brought a centralised form of political administration and the roots of our current legal system can be traced back to them. The first parliaments in Ireland were convened by the Normans which introduced the Gaelic Irish to the concept of political representation.

The proliferation and growth of towns and cities across Ireland as places of settlement results from Anglo-Norman influence. In many areas, the Normans brought peace and order, for a limited time, in that before their arrival the native Gaelic tribes were involved in almost perpetual conflict with each other. These early Norman settlers eventually went on to assimilate in to Gaelic life and culture becoming more Irish than the Irish. If you visit Galway city the flags that flutter in Eyre Square are of the founding families of the city who were predominantly Anglo-Norman in origin. Indeed, many common Irish surnames like Fitzgerald, Fitzpatrick, Burke, Roche, Fleming, to name just a handful are all Anglo-Norman.

One of the most notorious historical enemies of  the Gaelic Catholic Irish was Oliver Cromwell. However, in one of histories greatest ironies, the Presbyterian descendants of Cromwell's plantations in Ireland played a prominent role in the birth of Irish Republicanism. The Anglo-Irish barrister Wolfe Tone's Society of United Irishmen, which was influenced by the writings of the English radical Thomas Paine, had a large Presbyterian contingent in that they too suffered from discriminatory laws on account of not being part of the established Anglican Church. In his book Dissent into Treason, the writer Fergus Whelan acknowledges the role these settlers played in influencing the birth of Irish Republicanism:

"These Protestant dissenters who came to Dublin as part of the Cromwellian settlement were always radical, and remained radical, with freedom of conscience as their core belief....They had basic republican and democratic structures in their religious observance, but also advocated those structures in civil society as well. Their belief in religious liberty is the very essence of what the United Irishmen were about - and that came from the Cromwellian tradition of English Protestant dissent."

If the United Irishmen's vision of a pluralistic and non sectarian state had come to pass, the history of Ireland and its partition based on religious difference might not have occurred. Instead, what emerged was a pseudo Republic dominated by the influence of an obscurantist church which was a cold house for Protestants and a northern statelet which was discriminatory towards Nationalists until after direct rule was implemented in the nineteen seventies. Although I don't think Ireland should be ruled from London I do acknowledge the merits that it might have been better if the whole island had remained unified within the United Kingdom with some form of devolved goverment. Instead, we got the worst of two possible outcomes.

In 2007, former Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern addressed the joint Houses of Parliament in a speech that recognised the shared cultural strands between Ireland and Britain:

"The people of these islands have woven a rich tapestry of culture over the centuries. This has given rise to a partnership of culture...One of the most creative moments in human history was the meeting between the English language and the Irish people."

There is also the fact that many of Ireland's most celebrated writers hailed from Anglo-Irish stock; Wilde, Shaw, Beckett and Yeats to name but a few. Although now celebrated in Ireland, during most of the twentieth century many of Ireland's most creative and thought provoking writers such as James Joyce, Edna O'Brien and John McGahern had their work banned in Ireland because of the stranglehold the Catholic church had on the cultural life of the so called Republic. For much of the  twentieth century the nearest place that you could get your hands on the works of many an Irish writer was in Britain.

Any analysis of the totality of relationships between these islands must also reflect on the role of the Irish in shaping modern Britain. In Tim Pat Coogan's book, Wherever Green is Worn , he cites research from the Irish Diaspora Unit at Bradford University which revealed that one in four British people have some Irish ancestry. Indeed, this can be seen in the frequency of British people with Irish surnames, many of whom are unaware of at just what point in time the Irish strand of their heritage emerged as the Irish have been migrating to Britain in large droves since the beginning of the industrial revolution. In fact, if we go even further back in time we see that Scotland's gaelic culture can be traced back to waves of Irish settlers arriving there that supplanted the Pict culture between the seventh and eleventh centuries. It could be said that the Irish colonised northern Britain many years before the Anglo-Normans arrived in Ireland.

However, many more Britons' Irish ancestry can be traced to more recent times as we can see with the increasing demand for Irish passports by British people with Irish parents or grandparents. The influence of Britons of Irish descent and also more recent Irish arrivals to Britain can be seen across the political, social and cultural spheres where Irish surnames and even accents are common; Bob Geldof, the late Terry Wogan, Morrissey of the Smiths, Liam and Noel Gallagher, Paul O'Grady, Dermot Murnahan, Des Lynam, Wayne Rooney, Steve Coogan etc. etc
. And let's not forget two of the most influential Prime Ministers of the last hundred years had Irish roots. Tony Blair's mother was from Donegal and Margaret Thatcher's great grandmother came from Kerry.

For too long any analysis of the relationship between these islands and its people has been seen through the prism of conflict or through the myopic constraints of either an insular Irish nationalism that is steeped in victimhood or belligerent Ulster unionism.  It would serve the long term interest of peace and reconciliation and a shared future on the entire island of Ireland if more people would acknowledge the shared strands in the fabric of the identities of the inhabitants of these islands. In conclusion I will leave you with the words of Bertie Ahern when he addressed the joint Houses of Parliament in 2007:

"No two nations and no two peoples have closer ties of  history and geography and of family and friendship."

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