Talk of Irish reunification has been rife since Britain voted to leave the EU but does the Republic see it as inevitable or even more likely than previously? Donnacha Ó Beacháin, author of a new book on Brexit and Ireland, offers his insight
Former taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern and Donnacha Ó Beacháin at the recent launch of Dr Ó Beacháin’s book From Brexit To Partition
WHILE a substantial majority of the Republic’s electorate has consistently favoured a united Ireland, it has been for most people, most of the time, considered a long-term objective – a low-intensity aspiration that had little relevance for day-to-day life.
In this sense, attachment to a united Ireland has resembled affection for the Irish language, which has also remained consistently high despite the unwillingness of the population to use it. Statements favouring a united Ireland, or the restoration of Irish, have been as much a reflection of national identity as an indicator of daily action or political priorities.
Genuflections affirming their importance became standard fare over the years, traditionally obliging little remedial action and, unlike unfulfilled promises to increase employment and salaries, costing little in terms of votes.
The Irish government’s composition remained remarkably stable for most of the 20th century, with Fianna Fáil predominating for eight decades and a Fine Gael-led coalition, which always included Labour, usually constituting the only alternative. The revolutionary generation was extraordinary, not only for its longevity but also for its dynastic successions, all the more peculiar for being effected by a political elite that had cast off British rule for a republic.
Following the 1923 election, for example, William Cosgrave headed the government, assisted by Minister for External Affairs Desmond FitzGerald and Attorney-General John A Costello. Fifty years later, following the 1973 election, Liam Cosgrave, son of William, became taoiseach and was flanked by Foreign Minister Garret FitzGerald, son of Desmond, and Attorney-General Declan Costello, son of John A.
Their political challenges remained much the same as their fathers’ a half-century earlier; both administrations had to contend with a state under siege and the north in turmoil.
Before the Troubles, pressure on the government to ‘do something’ peaked in the late 1940s, following Westminster’s retaliatory passing of the Ireland Act, and again in the mid-1950s during the initial phase of the IRA’s border campaign. Highlighting the inequity of partition was one thing, providing realistic strategies to combat it quite another. As the Irish ambassador to Britain reflected in 1951: “Partition was so wrong morally that it was hard for people in Ireland to think of it as a political problem which had to be approached tactically.”
Attempts by northern nationalist MPs to secure access to the Oireachtas – either in the form of actual representation or a mere right of audience – were consistently rebuffed by successive Irish governments. Party leaderships also rejected suggestions they extend their organisations to Northern Ireland, a topic that has remerged in recent times.
During critical periods, however, political parties – particularly Fianna Fáil – diverted popular emotion away from militant agitation by providing an outlet where spontaneous outrage could be harnessed and given a political platform. Moreover, as ordinary activists were more committed on core policy issues than the wider public, party leaders frequently used Northern Ireland as an issue to animate the grassroots.
Fluctuations in popular sentiment occasionally dictated Dublin’s reactions to particular events. In 1969 and 1972, public opinion compelled the government to embark on international tours, including half-hearted initiatives at the United Nations, to highlight the injustices associated with unionist misrule and British army atrocities.
Demands for action, however imprecise or ill-defined, occurred when there was a vacuum in Anglo-Irish relations and no effective mechanism for communicating and addressing Dublin’s concerns. Once an Anglo-Irish inter-governmental process became entrenched, ‘leaving it to the government’ became a viable option for citizens who might otherwise have been inclined towards protest.
In recent decades, opinion polls have confirmed popular sentiment for a united Ireland but these are very much influenced by the wording of the questions asked and the political environment in which the propositions are put. For example, support for unification has tended to be far less solid when linked to the proposition that additional taxes might be necessary to fund it.
The complexities involved, combined with an appreciation that the electorate’s approach to the issue is fragmented, have given Irish governments considerable leeway when it comes to negotiating agreements with the British. Voters have consistently demonstrated that they are willing to accept solutions that fall far short of unity if persuaded that they guarantee peace, and do not explicitly exclude unity as a possible eventual outcome.
Brexit has now polarised relations by fuelling debates about identity and sovereignty that common EU membership had de-emphasised over the years. Many believe it makes a border poll more likely. It has certainly reframed and transformed the significance of Northern Ireland’s constitutional choice.
:: Dr Donnacha Ó Beacháin is associate professor of politics at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. His book From Brexit To Partition: The Irish Government and Northern Ireland is published by Manchester University Press and is available now.
With many thanks to: The Irish News for the original story
This week saw the launch of a remarkable book. And some of the stories contained in it will go a long way towards increasing our understanding of what became known as, “the Troubles’.
‘Reporting the Troubles’ was the brainchild of Deric Anderson Jnr (og), a young man whose veteran news reporter dad Deric Snr walked every step of the way through 50 years of this defining period in our history.
Deric Jnr (og), suggested the time was now right for his father to lean on his many friends and colleagues in the world of journalism with a view to getting their Troubles-related stories on paper.
The result is ‘Reporting the Troubles’ – Journalists tell their stories of the North of Ireland conflict’ (pictured above) and I was privileged to be asked to contribute to it. Like his close friends Ivan McMichael and Raymond Managh, Deric Henderson cut his teeth as a young reporter on the Tyrone Constitution in his native Omagh. Deric, Raymond and Ivan changed journalism in the city. Their general high standards, commitment to detail and willingness to go the extra mile to produce good stories was obvious from the beginning.
And therefore when the calamity of the Troubles eventually exploded on the streets, the Tyrone trio were capable of reporting these dreadful events honestly and accurately.
It is widely known, but Raymond Managh is the man who in 1966 broke the shocking story of the Malvern Street shottings, which resulted in the death of a young Catholic barman called Peter Ward.
Malvern Street signalled the arrival of the mordern-day UVF on the streets.
The story was flashed around the globe on the BBC World Service. And in Reporting the Troubles, Raymond recalls how that happened. After leaving the busy Belfast Telegraph newsroom, Ivan McMichael- whizz-kid shorthand writer went on to become the doyen of court reporters, covering all major cases.
In this book, Ivan recounts the trial of a ruthless gang of loyalist paramilitaries convicted for murdering members of the hugely popular Miami Show band.
Deric Henderson headed-up the Belfast Desk of the Press Association for many years. He was the coalface throughout the Troubles and he has a mountain of good stories to tell. But in this book he has chosen to reveal a moving story relating to members of his own family. And he also recounts the day he managed to manipulate the daily news coverage at the end of the trial of the infamous Shankill Buthers.
Wendy Austin revisits the PIRA firebomb atrocity at the La Mon House Hotel. And Fermanagh reporter Denzil McDaniel delivers a moving account of the IRA Poppy Day bombing of Enniskillen, while Ivan Little – a co-editor of this book along with Deric – recounts the Sean Graham’s bookies shop shootings on Belfast’s Ormeau Road.
Some of the best Troubles coverage was done by reporters who had previous understanding of the problems which led to the outbreak of civic strife in the North of Ireland. And yet a number of them quickly grasped the nettle and were able to deliver incisive reports for Republic of Ireland, the UK as well as worldwide audiences.
In this regard, Kate Adie, Alex Thompson and Miriam O’Callahan all made notable contributions. And in this book also, Belfast Telegraph political editor Suzanne Green reaffirms her reputation as a superb recorder of the history of the Troubles. My old Sunday World colleagues Jim McDowell and Sam Smyth are also represented.
Sam provides a light-hearted break from the bleakness by recalling the amazing secret life of UDA leader Sammy Duddy, who at the height of the Troubles doubled as a cabaret drag artiste.
For my part, I documented the previously untold story of Short Strand woman Marie O’Hara. A mum of five daughters, Marie lost two husbands – both entirely innocent men – to UVF violence. It is a remarkable account of how resilient the human spirit can be when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds and I was honoured to write it in Reporting the Troubles.
With many thanks to: Hugh Jordan and The Sunday World for the original story.
Follow this links to find out more: https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/sammy-duddy-26326357.html
Northern Heist, the latest work from the pen of Richard O’Rawe, will be launched in Dublin later this month.
With many thanks to: Anthony McIntyre and The Pensive Quill for the original posting.