and the Left have usually analysed the British state's
presence in Ireland (so-called "British Imperialism")
in terms of selfish economic, political or strategic
interests. However, this analysis rests on shaky ground.
First, the British state does not benefit economically
from its presence in the North of Ireland. It is in
fact a net financial loss. The second argument is
that the British state remains in Ireland because
withdrawal would mean the beginning of the break-up
of the United Kingdom.
argument can be criticised on the grounds that the
British government sees the province as a place apart
and different from the rest of the United Kingdom,
conceding even that it would agree to Irish reunification
if a majority of the population in the North wished
so. In the age of inter-ballistic missiles, the strategic
importance of the six counties is very limited, especially
after the end of the cold war. In ideological terms,
the province is of no significance to the British
identity, there is no "Jerusalem" in the
North. So the British state is telling the truth when
it says that it "has no selfish economic, political
or strategic interests in the North".
does that mean that the British state is effectively
"neutral" or even "benevolent",
that because it has no economic, political or strategic
interests in the North it could join the ranks of
the "persuaders" for Irish unity? How should
we analyse the role of the British state in Ireland?
the days of Home Rule, the "Irish Question"
has been source of troubles for the British state.
Thus since 1921, the political class has avoided as
much as possible to get involved in the affairs of
affairs are source of problems and troubles, so the
imperative is to avoid as much and as long as possible
any direct involvement in the affairs of the province.
It is thus not surprising for example that between
1921 and 1968 Westminster politicians have only spent
a day in the province. The six counties were not worth
any trouble from Westminster's point of view, as the
place represented no significant economic, political
or strategic interest.
there been petrol in the North or had the six counties
had a major strategic value things would have been
different, and the British state would have played
a much more active role.
also, if the place did not benefit the United Kingdom
enough for the British state to stay there forever,
the six counties are not costly enough to justify
immediate or medium term withdrawal. (Remember that
the cost of running the province in 2000 in less than
that of the British nuclear programme). The North
is not "bad" enough to justify an active
policy of withdrawal. So it is very important to have
in mind that the place is not important enough to
have an active policy of either withdrawal or maintaining
the status quo. This explains why British policy tends
to be reactive rather than proactive.
factors account for a certain confusion and indecision
in the British state's policy towards the North. If
the North had not had this marginal importance for
the British state, British policy would have been
more coherent and decisive. The only consensus about
the North in British political circles is that minimum
action or inaction is preferable to any significant
involvement, there is no solution to the problems
of the North, there is only good or bad crisis management.
It is only because it had been forced to intervene,
at the point of crisis in 1969, that the British state
has had to form policies about the North. The imperative
is to avoid getting stuck in the Irish "quagmire".
consequence of this is that there is no political
will to confront the Unionists. And the perverse effect
of this is the more the confusion and indecisiveness
of British policy, the greater Unionist intransigence
will tend to be. In 1969, some British politician
said, "the Unionists are the majority, and we
cannot afford to alienate them". In theory, the
British state might be "neutral" on whether
the North should be part of the UK, but in practice
it will be objectively pro-Unionist as it operates
on the existing balance of forces in the North, because
if it has to choose between confronting the stronger
element (the Unionists majority) or the weakest (the
Nationalist minority), it will always choose to ignore
the weaker element - better displease the minority
than the majority. This explains why the British state
will de facto uphold the Unionist veto and confront
the Republican challenge.
was something the SDLP commentator Brian Feeney recently
noted in an incisive and insightful article:
default position of the British administration here
is the status quo. Put another way, that means when
faced with any opposition or even controversy about
a policy issue, their proconsul chooses the way
of least resistance. In short, he does nothing.
... Doing nothing in this place means preserving
the status quo which is unionist in every respect.
("Ambling Idly along the path of least resistance",
The Irish News, 3 March 2004)
good illustration of the above argument is the British
state's likely response to last November's elections,
which saw a push for anti- agreement elements. "The
British government is set to resume its actively pro-unionist
approach to the Good Friday Agreement. This will involve
demanding further concessions from nationalists, and
refusing to implement any parts of the accord to which
unionists object. The Irish government, in its weakest
position for many years, looks likely to continue
to behave as if a junior partner in the peace process,
allowing British officials to set the agenda while
it concentrates on the EU presidency.
there are indications that the British see the DUP's
eclipsing of the UUP as an opportunity to push for
the IRA to disband." (Sean Mac Cartaigh, "British
will dance to DUP tune", Sunday Business Post,
30 November 2003) Tony Blair may not personally like
the Unionists, but he has suspended the institutions,
postponed elections and refused to implement many
aspects of the Good Friday Agreement precisely because
he "cannot afford to alienate the majority".
this is a fact which seriously worries the likes of
Feeney and Sinn Fein:
no policy paper which advises British proconsuls
not to promote any change unless compelled to do
so. On the contrary, they would claim to be even-handed.
The facts suggest the opposite. That makes it especially
important now to point out that not only have Mandelson,
Reid and Murphy failed to drive change with all
deliberate speed, they have deliberately gone slow
when they weren't being obstructive. Why is it important
now? Because the review of the Good Friday Agreement
is going to fail. The only question is when. Some
say it'll be lucky to stagger on until Easter. Others
think St Patrick's Day is optimistic. For however
short a period it continues, our proconsul will
do nothing in case it alienates the DUP. The real
problem is that when it collapses he will continue
to do nothing in case it prevents the DUP sitting
round a table again after the European elections.
It seems we're back to the position of 10 years
or more ago when unionists refused to talk unless
meetings of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council
were suspended. The reason unionists oppose change
now is not because of a campaign of violence but
ostensibly because any change is 'a sop to republicans',
code for 'concessions to Fenians'. Our proconsul's
refusal to expedite change therefore places him
entirely in the unionist camp, indeed in the anti-agreement
unionist camp. The only issue over which unionists
have a veto is constitutional change. They have
always managed to twist this position into having
a veto on any change whatsoever and the British
administration has always connived at that. It needs
to be remembered that it is the duty of the British
administration here to implement the Good Friday
Agreement, not as 'a sop to republicans', but because
it is right to do so, because the British government
committed itself to do so but most importantly because
the people of Ireland north and south voted for
it. To date the record is poor." ("Ambling
Idly along the path of least resistance", The
Irish News, 3 March 2004)
about the British government's poor record of implementing
the Belfast Agreement fail to understand that the
British state is fundamentally committed to a "realist"
approach to the six counties (in the sense of the
"realist" school of international relations),
not to 'human rights', 'postnationalism', 'peace'
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