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Take all, give nothing, remain hostile – Ireland’s perennial protocol towards the UK

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THE British government intends to introduce legislation that would require non-Irish EU citizens in the Republic of Ireland to apply for electronic travel authorisation (ETA) to cross the border into Northern Ireland and thence Great Britain. The same authorisation I needed before visiting Australia. 

Every nationalist party on the island of Ireland is loudly opposed to this mild British legislation.  The Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, the Fine Gael minister of anti-Brexit fame who declared he wants to see Northern Ireland wrested from the United Kingdom in his political lifetime, claims the electronic visa breaches the ‘peace process’ – a phrase that nowadays, alas, is nationalist code for what the minister hopes to see.   

These opposing parties have only one genuine concern: That the UK not effectuate its own border to the west, because this would hamper the long campaign to remove Northern Ireland from the UK and create a borderless island inside the EU.  

Even in the age of multiculturalism and globalism, Irish nationalism, more skilfully than Scotland’s, is a work in seemingly indeflectible progress.   

British shielding of the Republic from the consequences of its being an EU member – because in 1973 its economic dependency on the UK led it to follow the UK into the EU – would be the latest exemption granted Ireland.   

Coveney, in reference to the British proposal for the ETA, said: ‘Not for the first time we will be asking for special treatment.’   

In 1923, a year after the Irish guerrilla war of independence ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Common Travel Area was created, allowing the Irish Free State to be part of the UK for purposes of immigration law.   

This special treatment survived the Irish constitution of 1937 that claimed all of the island as its jurisdiction in principle. It survived the 1948 unilateral declaration of a full Irish Republic and withdrawal from the BritishCommonwealth.  

It survived the IRA terror campaigns of 1939, the 1950s and 1969 to 1998. It survived the anti-Britishness of the Republic’s politicians, public intellectuals and newspapers during Brexit.  

Indeed, rather than using it as a bargaining tool against the hardline pro-EU stance of the Irish, the British government reaffirmed the CTA jointly with the Irish government in 2019. The Irish signatory was Simon Coveney.  

Yet when the CTA was created to impute a shared past throughout the archipelago, the Irish state was forging a society as different as possible both from England – which it regarded as immoral and infidel – and from Northern Ireland, which Taoiseach Eamon de Valera regarded as an ‘alien garrison’, whose Titanic-building industrial prowess merely proved the alienness.   

Despite this attempt at difference, the years of the Catholic Church’s iron hegemony in the Republic were those of greatest emigration to Great Britain. Some 1.6million southern Irish crossed the water in the last century, more than twice as many as fled to the US to seek freedom, opportunity and wingspread.  By the late 1950s, nearly 60,000 Irish were arriving in Great Britain annually.  

The flow into Britain is steady as ever. A sixth of the Republic’s citizens live happily in the UK. For many decades, London has been the artistic, entertainment and professional capital of Ireland and has gained from remarkable Irish talent.  

Culturally, the Republic is a regional autonomy within an undeclared federation, like Quebec inside Canada.  For purposes of employment, enfranchisement and social welfare in the UK, the Irish and British are regarded as one people.  

And as Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has stressed: ‘Our commitment to the Common Travel Area is absolute, as seen throughout the pandemic.’   

Yet among the results of the CTA, a dilution of Irish nationalism has not been one of them.  Indeed, ignoring their dependency on the EU as well as UK, the Irish are embarking on a renewed decolonisation project.   

President Michael D Higgins, when he recently lambasted Britain for not publicly acknowledging its imperial sins, including those against Ireland, fired the starting gun.    

If it sheds the ‘Royal’ in the name of this or that organisation, renames places and removes other traces of Britishness, will the Republic, as the project would seem to require, cancel the CTA because its origin and one-sided impact proves its colonial origin? Fat chance.  

Nor will the claims for exemption abate, even when detrimental to the union of Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and to the very Union itself.  

Yet there will be no lasting peace on the island until Ireland confronts and resolves the paradox of its connection to Britain, its longstanding and unhealthy mix of anxiety and assertiveness, dependency and hostility.  

In 1945 George Orwell wondered why jingoism has to be tolerated when it comes from an Irishman. His answer was ‘England’s bad conscience … it is difficult to object to Irish nationalism without seeming to condone centuries of English tyranny and exploitation’.  

But Irish nationalism’s immunity from criticism, which has long outlived any English domination or exploitation, seems far from its expiry date.  

Northern Irish unionists are the casualties of this bad conscience.  The Northern Ireland Protocol, the price Great Britain was prepared to pay for Brexit, is helping to prise NI from the UK.  

The Republic wages diplomatic war to maintain it, with the appeal to the inviolability of international law as its own Birnam Wood cut down for camouflage by Malcolm in Macbeth.  (Remainers also support the Protocol, preferring the EU to the integrity of the Union). 

London has chosen not to be a champion of Northern Ireland, preferring neutrality. I am reminded of one commandment in the Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough’s The Latest Decalogue: ‘Thou shalt not kill, but need’st not strive / Officiously to keep alive.’   

The Irish government, meanwhile, pursues unchallenged its partisanship through its proactive support for northern separatism, even while its citizens enjoy in Britain the ripe civic fruits of the CTA. 

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John Wilson Foster
John Wilson Foster
Among John Wilson Foster's books are Pilgrims of the Air: The Passing of the Passenger Pigeons (Notting Hill Editions, 2014, New York Review Books, 2017) and The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland (co-ed, 2021).

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