Just after the start of the First World War in 1914, a group of Irish separatists took the decision to launch a rebellion before the war ended. Their key belief was the credo that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’.
In other words, the British state would be weaker when it was distracted by war.
The failed Easter Rising in Ireland began on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, and lasted for six days. With much greater numbers and heavier weapons, the British Army swiftly suppressed the Rising, taking around 3,500 people prisoner, many of whom had played no part in the Rising. 1,800 of them were sent to internment camps or prisons in Britain. Most of the leaders of the Rising were executed following courts-martial.
Almost 500 people were killed in the Easter Rising. About 54% were civilians, 30% were British military and police, and 16% were Irish rebels. More than 2,600 were wounded.
In the aftermath of the Rising, the poet W B Yeats was shocked by the events in Dublin as the city burned, telling a friend:
‘As yet one knows nothing of the future except that it must be very unlike the past.’
A terrible beauty is born
Four years later in his poem, Easter 1916, Yeats referred to the ‘terrible beauty’ of the Rising.
The following year, 1921, Ireland was partitioned into two distinct jurisdictions, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland.
From then until almost the end of the 20th century, Ireland, the UK and Europe were all scarred by the atrocities of the most recent troubles from 1969 to the IRA ceasefires of 1994 and 1996.
The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement signed on Good Friday 1998 marked the end of the most recent phase of the Irish troubles – and the deaths of over 3,000 people.
It is a period from Irish history that very few would like to see repeated.
Yet last Saturday European diplomats appeared to have adopted the maxim that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity when they asked leaders of the EU’s 27 post-Brexit member countries to endorse the idea that Northern Ireland would seamlessly rejoin Europe after Brexit in the event of a vote in Ireland for reunification.
A senior EU official said before the summit ‘the question of Ireland, that is a special case, so we have to show a maximum of flexibility and imagination and also to acknowledge the legal framework which is there in Ireland, including the Good Friday Agreement.’
This would also mean that Northern Ireland could follow the example of German reunification in 1990.
A letter from Donald Tusk, European Council president, sent to members of the European Council ahead of the summit made it clear that Ireland is one of the three EU priorities for the first phase of Brexit talks, along with citizen’s rights and the exit bill.
The letter had been specifically requested by Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, as a political acknowledgement of its Brexit concerns.
However, the decision as to whether to hold a United Ireland poll is the decision of the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, who said recently that the conditions for calling a united Ireland poll ‘are in no way met’. It is difficult to see that changing in the next five to ten years.
A majority in Northern Ireland (55.8%) voted in favour of remaining European, but this is not matched by a corresponding majority in favour of imminent reunification with the Republic of Ireland.
An Ipsos-Mori poll last year said that 63% of NI people questioned would vote to stay in the UK, while only 22% were committed to voting in favour of reunification.
And in the Republic of Ireland, voters are evenly divided on how they would vote for a united Ireland if it meant the Government paying €9bn a year, according to a new opinion poll.
The poll was conducted by Ireland Thinks between 27 February and 3 March this year, from a sample of 1,200 adults across the country.
Using estimates from recent British government budget accounts, Ireland Thinks used a rough estimate of €9bn per annum as the cost for reunification.
Asked how they would vote in a referendum if the cost of a united Ireland was €9bn a year 33.1% said they would vote in favour while 32.5% said they would vote against and 34.4% were undecided.
It started with a kiss
Last week’s working dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker may have started with a kiss, but for Theresa May, the evening ended in a knock back.
And the morning after the night before was worse for May, beginning with Juncker’s early morning phone call to Angela Merkel. May, he told Merkel, is living in another galaxy and totally deluding herself.
May dismissed this as ‘Brussels gossip’ –but she was later forced into a stiff formal denial of his words, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr, ‘I’m not in a different galaxy.’
It was the start of a bad week for the UK Prime Minister.
The Brussels run around
On Wednesday, as Europe and the UK clashed over the question of a 100bn-euro (£84bn) ‘divorce bill’ to leave the EU, Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier said there was no desire to punish the UK but “its accounts must be settled”.
Commenting on Barnier’s Brexit mandate, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said:
‘It is proceeding exactly as I was fearing it would. Mrs May is going to spend two years negotiating for the right to negotiate. And she will fail…They won’t grant her the right to negotiate. This is the Brussels run around. They send you from Mr Verhofstadt, to Mr Barnier, to Mr Juncker, to Mrs Merkel – and you really don’t know who to negotiate with.
‘Look, let’s face it, we have the worst of all possible worlds. We have a Brussels bureaucracy and a political establishment in Europe whose greatest nightmare is a mutually advantageous agreement with Britain because from the perspective of their own power base within Brussels, within Berlin, the worst thing that can happen to the signal to the rest of Europe that you can challenge the deep establishment of Europe and get away with it. So the result is they are going to be locked in to a mutually disadvantageous outcome. This is what happened with Greece, this is what is going to happen here.’
A declaration of hostilities
Varoufakis later commented on Michel Barnier’s words that it is an ‘illusion’ to think the process of Britain leaving the European Union will be quick or painless.
‘Brussels speech can cause you to lose the will to live. But through this forest of subterfuge there is the very clear message – and we must make no mistake about it – what M. Barnier just said, his message to London is this, we are going to enter a negotiation. You, London, must commit in advance to everything we want from you without us committing to giving you anything back. And once you have given us full commitment on everything we want, then, at some point, with the clock ticking probably beyond a two-year period, then we will think about what you want. This is precisely – effectively – it is a declaration of hostilities.’
In the ultimate irony, Sir Ivor Roberts, former UK Ambassador to the Republic of Ireland, this week disclosed he had formally become an Irish citizen so that he can have freedom of movement after Britain leaves the EU in 2019.
Applications from the UK for Irish passports were up 74 per cent in January, compared to the same time last year. There were more than 7,000 applications from people from Northern Ireland in January, up from 3,973 in the same month last year.
The retired diplomat spent 38 years working for the British Foreign office with postings in Lebanon, Serbia and Canberra before being appointed as the Head of Counter-Terrorism and then to Dublin as ambassador, immediately following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Applications for Irish passports are not the only thing to have gone up. According to the Police Service for Northern Ireland, there are over 3 race hate incidents notified to them here daily.
And this is at a time when uncertainty surrounds funding for many community and voluntary initiatives here. Last year, the Northern Ireland Commission for Ethnic Minorities lost its government funding and was forced to close.
This is compounded by the current political instability in Northern Ireland, where the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, who won one seat fewer in the election last month, have so far failed to reach agreement to form a power sharing NI Executive.
Which is to be master?
Humpty Dumpty told Alice in Through the Looking Glass
‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less. The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is’, replied Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’
It is a zero-sum game.
And in the new world order created by Trump and Brexit, Ireland could be ripped apart.
While that may not happen on the kind of murderous scale we saw during the thirty odd years of the Irish troubles, there remain both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups who engage in sporadic violence and who are only too willing to abide by the credo that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.
What worries those of us living in Northern Ireland is that the spectre of division and political violence should not be so casually or callously evoked by Eurocrats for the simple purpose of putting manners on the British.
We worry about the implications of Brexit
As Dan Mulhall, Irish Ambassador to the UK said last month:
‘It is an irony, just over 100 years from the events of Easter week 1916, and with the relationship between our two countries at an unprecedented peak of friendship, that the UK should be about to embark in a new and uncertain direction. This concerns us deeply. We worry about the implications of Brexit for British-Irish relations, for North-South links in Ireland and for Europe itself’.
‘I hope and trust’, he added, ‘that the particular circumstances that apply in Northern Ireland will be front and centre when it comes to the working out of the UK’s future relations with the EU.’
As Yeats said over a century ago, we know nothing of the future, but it must be very unlike the past.