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Brexit and the lessons of the Irish Civil War

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THE war between pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces in Britain today reminds us of the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. Can we avoid repeating history?

In their quest to leave the United Kingdom, Irish nationalists had fought a successful but not entirely conclusive campaign. Michael Collins, the guerilla leader, had been sent by the self-styled ‘president’ of Ireland, Eamon de Valera, to London to negotiate a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration on the future relationship with the Crown. It is a popular myth that Collins was set up to carry responsibility for the inevitably imperfect deal, or at least he was constrained by circumstances not to succeed completely.

The ‘deal’ Collins returned with was ‘Free State’ status. This was not proper independence as it involved membership of the Empire, total alignment in important areas such as foreign policy and for elected representatives to swear allegiance to the Crown. It also involved important rights for citizens such as free movement. The availability of cheap navvy labour was always important.

Readers with time on their hands might like to investigate further the similarities and differences between the May/Boris treaty and the Michael Collins Irish Free State deal. Since May started her negotiations some eurosceptics in Britain have predicted that the outcome would be a Free State relationship with the EU and not real Brexit.

Importantly, similar language is being used by the Collins faction of the Conservative Party today to justify the Boris compromise: that it is imperfect but a ‘stepping stone’ to independence. There is a real fear that since the pro-Union forces in Britain are stronger than in Ireland in 1920 the treaty accepting ‘Free State’ status will lead to a reversion to membership of the Union. It is what Farage says now. It is possible.

While no historical comparison can be exact, there is a certain inevitability in the conflict between the anti-treaty Brexit Party and pro-treaty Conservatives. An election compact seems unlikely. It is not helpful to call Collins a traitor, to pretend that Farage is any kind of Eamon de Valera or that the Brexit Party are Soldiers of Destiny, although some accused de Valera of being an opportunist.

Unionist opinion in Dublin in 1922 was probably not as strong as the pro-EU elements in the UK today, nor was it in charge of the state media. The Vote Leave campaign in the referendum was not as decisive even as Collins’s IRA, but a comparison still pertains.

What lessons can we draw?

The first is that the Right of British politics may now be divided for a century or more according to pro- or anti-treaty. The Brexit Party may come and go but politics in Britain will be defined as those satisfied with the UK-EU arrangement and those pushing for further Brexit (not to mention those trying to restore EU authority over their British province). The anti-treaty faction will, in the short term, be defeated by the pro-treaty with the aid of Union artillery but there will be an ultimate anti-treaty victory.

The second lesson is that victory: how the escape from Free State status eventually happened. De Valera made a comeback, yes, but is was not by Ireland’s efforts that true independence was attained (if still incompletely and only temporarily). Changes were happening in the British Empire. It was the change in status of the Dominions, the 1931 Statute of Westminster passed by the British parliament, that brought change. The dominions became independent, equal in the Commonwealth. It was the time for Ireland. The Free State was linked to Britain as will a Boris Brexit Britain be specially linked to the EU.

It is often said that no one ever gains independence from a healthy empire. (The one exception quoted is the USA, but even then . . . ) Rather independence is gained when the empire collapses. When Conservative Party campaigners talk of ‘reality’, the reality they may be talking of is Free State – until more virile nations such as Poland and Hungary break the power of the EU at some moment in the future.

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David Wilkinson
Founder member of UKIP and former editor of the international anti-EU magazine "These Tides".

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