UK politicians went to great lengths to keep Ireland out of their party politics but Brexit has changed that, writes Dr Ivan Gibbons
Looking at the almost daily coverage of how Ireland’s border undoubtedly has the propensity to wreck any agreement between the departing UK and the rest of the European Union, I am struck by the accuracy of Albert Reynolds words as his coalition government collapsed in 1994. “It’s the little things that trip you up”
Reynolds is reported to have observed as he was forced to resign as Taoiseach. To the British the Irish border is insignificant or at least it was until the European referendum in June 2016. After all, hadn’t the Welsh Wizard Lloyd George conjured the Irish question out of existence and “solved” the Irish problem back in the mists of time nearly a century previously?
The Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 had set up two parliaments in Ireland with a border separating their respective jurisdictions.
In time, a boundary commission would determine a more equitable frontier and through a Council of Ireland all Irish people could come back together if they so chose at some future date. What could be more eminently reasonable in satisfying competing political claims in Ireland while at the same time permanently preventing the pesky Irish question from eternally gumming up British politics in the future?
Lloyd George had through the crude but necessary device of partition brilliantly extricated his country from the irrational, emotive and unpredictable morass that was Irish politics. And so it has seemed for nearly the past hundred years.
Throughout the tortuous relationship between Britain and Ireland over the course of the twentieth century; the tensions of the second world war; the IRA Border campaign of the 50s and even thirty years of the Northern Ireland Troubles, the Irish Border never impinged on the British consciousness.
It is this permanent insensitivity to the never-ending sensitivity that the Irish border continues to cause in Ireland that has landed Britain in its current mess.
When a couple of years ago I was writing my recently published British Labour Party and the Establishment of the Irish Free State 1918-1924 I believed I was writing a history that, apart from a future Border Poll changing everything, resided firmly in the past.
It now turns out that what I was writing was a highly topical aide -memoire helping to understand the current crisis – a lesson from history that could help explain why the Irish border had resurfaced again in British politics. I now realise that nearly half of the book was concerned with how the Labour Party dealt with the partition of Ireland in 1921 and how and why the progress (or more correctly the lack of progress) of the Irish Boundary Commission took up such an inordinate amount of time of the first Labour government during its ten months in office in 1924.
Furthermore, I now understand more clearly why the Labour Party in Britain despite its professed sympathy towards Irish nationalism was, in reality, as desperate as all the other British political parties to ensure that Ireland’s perceived baleful influence, once it was removed, was no longer allowed to return to the heart of British politics.
In the febrile post-war three party British political landscape of the early 1920s in which the infant Labour party began to seriously challenge the Liberals as the main electoral challenger to the Conservatives all three parties wanted shot of Ireland. The Labour Party despite its protestations against the proposed partition of Ireland before the event accepted it with alacrity as a full and fair settlement when it became a reality in 1921.
Even the Conservative “die-hards” were prepared to reluctantly and somewhat grudgingly accept the departure of Ireland from the Union as long as “loyal Ulster” was not coerced into joining it. And it was the Liberal Lloyd George who was the architect of the whole edifice including the establishment of the Border.
In truth, all political parties in the new post-war era wanted to divest the country of what they interpreted as the curse of Irish politics continuing to dominate and frustrate British political life as it had since the days of Gladstone forty years previously.
Therefore Labour acquiesced in partition, the Conservatives accepted the (limited) independence of the Irish Free State, both accepted (the Tories enthusiastically) the establishment of Northern Ireland and after the controversy of the Boundary Commission in 1925 there was all-party agreement in Britain that the line drawn as a temporary proposal five years earlier should become a permanent international frontier.
The alternative was too horrendous to contemplate for any British politician – that if the accommodation between Great Britain, the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland began to be unpicked then in the horrified words of Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet under four British Prime Ministers, Lloyd George, Bonar Law, Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin “Ireland shall be back in our politics”. And so it came to pass.
For nearly a century the Irish Border has been out of sight and out of mind – at least in in its relevance to British politics. But now Thomas Jones’ fears have finally been realised – Ireland and its border are most definitely back in British politics.
To understand why this should be so now we only have to understand the circumstances of how Britain hurriedly washed its hands of its Irish responsibilities nearly a hundred years ago.