I fear we are living through evil times: climate catastrophe coming down the road; facing into a second winter surge of the Corona virus; the insanity of Brexit yet to hit home, and ultra-nationalist ‘strong men’ in charge of most of the world’s great nations – the USA, Russia, China, Brazil and India. Now Boris Johnson’s British government have decided that the rule of international law doesn’t apply to them any more, and they can casually announce they are going to break the solemn Withdrawal Treaty they entered into with the EU less than nine months ago. A final irony is that it was the anonymous Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, who will go down as a footnote in history as the man who made the announcement in the House of Commons.
The condemnations have come thick and fast, nationally and internationally, notably from the US – with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warning that there will be no trade deal with the UK if the Johnson government’s Internal Market Bill becomes law. Every living prime minister condemned the Bill. In the words of John Major and Tony Blair’s joint article in the Sunday Times: “It raises questions that go far beyond the impact on Ireland, the peace process and negotiations for a trade deal – crucial though they are. It questions the very integrity of our nation…As the world looks on aghast at the UK – the word of which was once accepted as inviolable – this government’s action is shaming itself and embarrassing our nation.”
Last week I heard the brilliant Queen’s University Belfast sociologist and Brexit expert, Professor Katy Hayward, calling the Bill a “full frontal assault on devolution” and “the greatest threat to the Union in recent memory”. She particularly referenced the Bill’s extraordinary line that “certain provisions will have effect not notwithstanding inconsistency and incompatibility with international or other domestic law”. This, she said, went far beyond the constitutional question in Northern Ireland and pointed the way toward the breakdown of the rule of law in the UK as a whole.
She compared the direction 21st century Britain is taking under Johnson to the Republic of Siena in the 14th century, a time of constant strife and warfare between Italian city states. She referred to ‘The Allegory of Good and Bad Government’, the famous series of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti adorning the walls of Siena’s council chamber , where the nine elected governing magistrates sat.
In this the virtues of good government are represented by six crowned female figures: Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice. The accompanying text reads: “Justice, where she rules, induces to unity the many souls [of citizens], and they, gathered together for such a purpose, make the Common Good their Lord; and he [the leader], in order to govern the state, chooses never to turn his eyes from the resplendent faces of the Virtues who sit around him.”
In a second fresco the effects of bad government are starkly outlined. Below a devilish figure representing Tyranny, Justice lies captive and bound, while the figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division and War flank her, and above float Avarice, Pride and Vainglory. A third fresco shows a city in ruin, deserted streets, homes and businesses demolished, while outside in the countryside two armies advance towards each other. The probable break-up of the United Kingdom and the contempt for law, justice, prudence and expertise shown by what Fintan O’Toole calls the ‘toxic troika’ – Johnson, his seemingly all-powerful advisor, Dominic Cummings, and Michael Gove – are the contemporary bad government parallels which spring to mind.
On the other side, of course, are those great upholders of the rule of law: Sinn Fein. In early July the excellent Belfast News Letter journalist Sam McBride pointed to at least 10 breaches of the NI Executive’s Covid-19 regulations and guidelines during the Sinn Fein-organised funeral (and glorification) of the ‘terrifying’ former IRA Belfast commander Bobby Storey (I prefer writer Malachi O’Doherty’s description rather than the anodyne ‘veteran republican’ used by the Southern media).¹ And that’s not even to begin to mention the Provisional IRA’s thousandfold violation of the most fundamental divine law: “thou shalt not kill”.
I recently came across an old-fashioned word which describes Sinn Fein well. A letter-writer to the Irish Times, writing in the aftermath of John Hume’s death to complain that any rethinking of nationalism in the South is only superficial, talked about the “revanchist tone” of so many republican and extreme nationalist contributions to the debate on Irish unity.
I had to go to the dictionary to look up ‘revanchism.’ According to Wikipedia, revanchism is “the political manifestation of the will to reverse territorial losses incurred by a country.” It originated in France in the 1870s in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war among nationalists who wanted to avenge France’s defeat and reclaim the lost territory of Alsace-Lorraine; it engendered “a deep sense of bitterness, hatred and demand for revenge against Germany.” Revanchism mobilises “deep-rooted sentiments of ethnic nationalism, claiming territories outside the state where members of the ethnic group live, while using heavy-handed nationalism to mobilise support for their aims.” Sound familiar – the Northern Ireland conflict being about reclaiming the unjustly partitioned fourth green field?
This is a far cry from John Hume’s vision of uniting people rather than territory: “Ireland is not a romantic dream, it is not a flag, it is not just a piece of earth. It is four and a half million people divided into two powerful traditions and its problems can only be solved, if the solution is to be lasting and permanent, not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and partnership between both. The real division in Ireland is not a line on a map but is in the minds and hearts of its people.”
It is also fuelled by hatred. People in the South under-emphasise the strength of continuing inter-communal hatreds in the North at their peril. Sometimes the now politically respectable Sinn Fein mask shifts and the hatred underneath it is revealed. This happened last month when the Derry MLA (and former IRA bomber) Martina Anderson was forced to apologise after she tweeted that a government compensation scheme for Troubles victims (whose implementation had been delayed by Sinn Fein ministers in the Executive because it excluded IRA combatants) was mainly for those who took part in what she described as “Britain’s dirty war in Ireland,” and would go mostly to those involved in collusion and to British soldiers. One of those who had mounted a legal challenge against the delay was a woman who had lost both legs in a 1972 IRA bomb.
In the border region during the Troubles, the hatred was particularly virulent. Unionists in Fermanagh recall IRA men cheering and firing their guns in the air as they left murder scenes and local republican youths blocking mourners at the funeral of a UDR man. Some republicans are good haters.
Mind you, when it comes to sectarian hatred, some loyalists are world champions. The wave of sectarian assassinations in Belfast between the 1970s and the 1990s was truly horrific. The historian Marianne Elliott recalls a Catholic man telling a journalist that his daughter’s house ‘on the frontline’ in White City in north Belfast had been attacked 56 times by loyalists in one year (and that was after the Good Friday Agreement!).² Anybody who has walked up the loyalist Shankill Road and seen the numerous monuments commemorating IRA victims and anti-IRA/Sinn Fein wall murals will recognise the deep hatred that continues to exist.
Sinn Fein will be delighting in the British government’s current perfidies and follies, alongside the Irish government’s multiple problems of tackling Covid, negotiating Brexit and building an unlikely coalition. They must believe that all they have to do is wait while history plays into their hands. But they should be careful what they wish for. We are quite capable of creating chaos – bloody chaos – on this island without the British.
My fear is that in these evil and divisive times an Irish unity delivered by a tiny margin in a Border Poll, with Sinn Fein the leading beneficiary, will not be a victory. It will be another nightmare. Readers can dismiss that as the doom-laden ranting of an old man, or they can allow that this older man – a liberal Northern Protestant and moderate nationalist who has spent a significant part of his life wrestling with the conundrum of how to bring peace and reconciliation to Northern Ireland – might have gained a little wisdom in the process.
¹ Belfast News Letter, 4 July 2020
² Hearthlands: A memoir of the White City housing estate in Belfast, p. 178