The fact that the West’s European civilisation is ending need not prevent us from thinking constructively about problems that have concerned us and that linger on. Nothing more useful is left for us to do.
The Northern Ireland problem is an instance. It became a problem when Irish nationalism and the Irish State opposed a partitioned Ireland and insisted on a “united Ireland”. By that they meant what Wolfe Tone had called for: an Irish nation that would “abolish the memory of all past dissensions and substitute the common name of Irishman in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter”.
The trouble with that formally generous intention was twofold: the misuse of the word “Irishman” to mean someone who lives in Ireland; second, the ignoring of the fact that Ulster and later Northern Ireland, besides being a collection of individuals adhering to those religions, was more importantly a combination of two nationalities; one Irish, the other British. So the idea that those Britishers would agree to become members of an all-Ireland state and accept the national description “Irish” was fantasy, It could be brought about only by force and compulsion – as the Provisional IRA, inspired by Wolfe Tone, attempted to do.
In August 1969 when, as we say, the North exploded, I was living in South Connemara and engaged with others in launching the “Gaeltacht revolution” of the following years. We had realised that the first prerequisite for changing a defective socio-political situation for the better is to observe and recognise its existing features realistically. So as the bombs began exploding in the North I wrote an article for The Irish Times called ‘A Plea for Realism’. It began:
“The first basic fact that needs to be recognised is that Northern Ireland contains two historic peoples, or rather one such people, the Ulster Protestants, and part of another. Only the accident that both of them speak English obscures the fact that they are peoples as real and distinct as, say, the Austrians and the Czechs. But for an accident of history they would differ in language as do the Flemings and Walloons in Belgium”.
I knew, because he had proclaimed it editorially, that the Editor, Douglas Gageby, a Protesant, was a Wolfe Tone republican, so I wondered how he would take my article. He told me to go on writing on the North and before the end of the month he had published two more articles by me on the subject. He was that kind of man.
In the early 1970s in my column in the Sunday Press I pushed for settling the Northern problem by means of a British-Irish condominium of Northern Ireland. The new Northern nationalist party, the SDLP, in the persons of Ivan Cooper and John Hume, got in touch with me and in the Ostán Gaoth Dobhair in County Donegal they told me they would propose condominium as the solution for the North while making it more widely intelligible as a “British-Irish joint sovereignty”. Shortly after, at a press conference in Dublin, they did so.
This initiative, although brushed aside at the time as the war in the North rumbled on, ensured that never again would efforts at a Northern settlement treat Northern Ireland as a collection of people differing only or mainly in religion.
Through the 1970s into the 1990s Sunningdale, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and finally the Good Friday Agreement were sovereign Irish-British affairs which treated Northern Ireland as a matter of two opposed communities, Irish nationalist and British unionist, and provided for institutional input from Dublin and London, with the latter remaining sovereign.
The Good Friday Agreement came into effect in December 1999. It provided, among other things the right of “the people of Northern Ireland” to “identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both” as well as their right to hold “either or both British and/or Irish citizenship”. The Agreement also provided that if referendums showed majorities in Northern Ireland and the Republic in favour of a united Ireland, the British and Irish governments would collaborate to bring that about.
It seems then that a united Ireland is within reach. It requires only a majority popular vote in its favour, North and South, to set in motion the British and Irish steps needed to accomplish it. It would probably take the form, at least initially, of the transfer from London to Dublin of sovereignty over Northern Ireland while the Assembly and Executive there remain in place.
Dr Desmond Fennel’s autobiography, ‘About Being Normal: My Life in Abnormal Circumstances’, was published this year.