doesn't the British government pull out of Northern
Ireland? The disadvantages of continuing British rule
are obvious. Among other things, it costs the British
treasury approximately 1,500 million pounds a year
in direct subvention. As well, bombs have periodically
exploded in British cities and Britain has often had
the embarrassment of being condemned by international
human rights organizations.
advantageous, if any, the British government receives
from ruling Northern Ireland are harder to identify.
Not surprisingly, unionists and nationalists have
radically different explanations for why the British
government persists in governing Northern Ireland.
often say that they are the real British presence
in Ireland. Apparently they believe that the British
government stays because they want it to. It would
be difficult to be more naive.
all the white Kenyans also believed they were British.
The fought and died for Britain in the war against
the Mau Mau. That didnt stop the British government
from pulling out and installing the Mau Mau leader
Jomo Kenyatta as the president of an independent Kenya
when they decided the time was right. More recently,
many Hong Kong Chinese might have wanted Britain to
stay. We dont know, because no one asked their
should unionists be any different? If the British
government decides to leave the North they will be
abandoned just as ruthlessly.
most plausible nationalist explanation has always
been that the North is of great strategic importance
to Britain. This rested in part on a quote from 1948
British cabinet papers saying that the North was so
important to the British military that they would
never consider leaving. Later there was the idea that
without Northern Ireland, Britain would be vulnerable
to Russian backfire bombers coming in off the Atlantic.
With the end of the Cold War, these explanations clearly
dont make sense any longer.
few years ago Martin McGuiness said in an interview
that the British government was in the North to protect
the profits of British corporations. But the entire
experience of neo-colonialism in the second half of
the 20th Century is that you can protect your investments
without the expense and difficulty that comes with
maintaining direct political rule.
companies flourish in the south of Ireland under the
firm protection of the Free State government. There
is far more British investment in the South than in
the North. It never even occurs to British capitalists
that they might need a British administration or British
military presence to safeguard their investments.
Its also much cheaper to let the Irish taxpayer
pay to protect them.
the North, unionist/loyalist opposition has made it
impossible for Britain to put together that kind of
stable neo-colonial regime. Loyalists and unionists
have repeatedly launched widespread disruption and
even violence when they were afraid that the British
government was abandoning its commitment to the Union.
They have effectively demonstrated that when the Protestant
community is solidly united in its opposition to British
policy, as they were at the time of the Sunningdale
Agreement, they can come very close to shutting Northern
Ireland down. This has made British policy makers
extremely reluctant to gamble on withdrawing from
They obviously fear leaving an unstable situation
behind which could threaten to destabilize the South
or even sections of Britain itself. The events around
Bloody Sunday, when there was a spontaneous general
strike in the South and the British Embassy in Dublin
was burned down, showed the potential for serious
unrest in the North to involve the South. From the
British government point of view, the Free State government
is an important economic and political partner which
shouldnt be jeapordised.
instability or violence in the North would also threaten
to spill over into Britain with its large Irish population.
Glasgow is bad enough when Celtic plays Rangers, never
mind if there was serious Nationalist-Unionist fighting
going on in the North.
doesn't mean that a British withdrawal would necessarily
bring sustained, serious violence between nationalists
and unionists. It is just that the British government
is not willing to take the chance when they can keep
the military, financial and above all political cost
of ruling the North at an acceptable level, something
the Good Friday Agreement has made far easier.
If this analysis is correct, there are important implications
for those who still want to pursue the goal of a united
Ireland. It will be virtually impossible for any resistance
limited almost exclusively to the Northern nationalist
community to force a British withdrawal. This leaves
a number of possible strategies.
blind militarists might want to try to bomb a million
Protestants into a united Ireland. Not only would
this fail completely, anyone who tried it would stop
being an Irish republican or even an Irish nationalist.
Going back to Wolfe Tone, the idea that everyone who
lives in Ireland is part of the Irish nation has been
at the core of Irish nationalism. You dont terrorise
your own people to force them to accept your preferred
more popular idea is that Catholics will breed themselves
into a united Ireland. Demographers differ widely
on when and if Catholics are likely to become a majority
in the North. Certainly the Catholic birth rate seems
to be declining to the point where it is coming closer
and closer to the Protestant birth rate.
even if Catholics became a majority tomorrow, the
dirty little secret is that large numbers of middle
class Catholics have no great desire to join the South
anytime soon. What they really want is to be able
to live in peace and prosper. The Good Friday Agreement
settlement is offering them every opportunity to do
might at some point be possible to convince the business
class in the North that it makes more sense to join
the South where they would have real power and influence
without having to look over their shoulders at London.
The real question isnt whether this is viable
but who would want to live in a society like that.
James Connollys famous words about painting
the postboxes green would have come back with a vengeance.
alternative would be to at least try to build a movement
that could build significant active support in the
South and win over at least some important segment
of the Protestant working class community in the North.
It is a strategy that might well fail. But at least
it would be a fight worth fighting.
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