Friday 30 September 2016

The crazy knot that binds us to Britain

Published 17/04/2005 | 00:11

ARECENT survey by the British Council shows that, by a big margin, we in Ireland feel closer to Britain than to any other country. Sometimes fraught, sometimes fond, the relationship between our two countries is always full of feeling.

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ARECENT survey by the British Council shows that, by a big margin, we in Ireland feel closer to Britain than to any other country. Sometimes fraught, sometimes fond, the relationship between our two countries is always full of feeling. Some of the complex flavours of that British-Irish stew can be tasted in the following short extracts from a book of specially commissioned essays Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined, commissioned by the British Council and with joint prefaces by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair.

An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern

THE relationship between two neighbours will never be completely free of tension, but it is gratifying to know that so many people on the island have put behind them a lot of antagonism that has hadso negative an influence in the past.

Prime Minister, Tony Blair

THE blurring and redrawing of boundaries - physical, political and cultural - between our two countries has taken place many times over the centuries. Frequently these shifts have produced tension, division and hardship.

That a unique bond exists between Britain and Ireland is perhaps a result of - not in spite of - our turbulent shared history.

Maurice Hayes

I WAS lucky enough to grow up in a small town in a mixed area in County Down where people generally got on well together. The three main streets, English Street, Irish Street and Scotch Street, met in the centre of the Townhall corner (a local poet remarked that the Welsh, having St Patrick, needed no street). This confluence always symbolised the origins of our differences, the strength that each gave to the whole and the possibility of convergence.

Today one would have to add a Chinese strand, an Estonian, Latvian, Polish and Bulgarian route, as new people come in to enrich the mix with their own energy, initiative and cultural heritage.

John Hewitt, in typifying the mix of bloodlines, identities and traditions in the North of Ireland, in his poem called Ulsterman, invokes the metaphor of a knotted ball of twine: "Celt, Briton, Saxon, Norman, Dane and Scot / Time and this island ties a crazy knot." The way to unloose a knot is not to pull it tighter, but to ease the tension so that it may be unravelled, the single strands teased out and disentangled until all breaks free. After which, of course, the threads are not lost, but can be rewoven and reassembled into a more complete and coherent pattern.

Maurice Hayes, a former Northern Ireland Ombudsman, is a non-executive director of Irish News and Media and writes a weekly column of political analysis and comment in the 'IrishIndependent'

Garret FitzGerald

EVEN though on many specific EU issues the Irish and British Governments have found themselves on opposite sides, the positive impact of the involvement of the two states in the European Union system upon the quality of Anglo-Irish intergovernmental relationships at thepersonal level must not be underestimated.

Behind all this lies a huge paradox that has yet to be recognised by public opinion in either country. The unique and seminal achievement of the IRA has been to bring Ireland and Britain, particularly their governments, closer together than had ever seemed possible in the past, in a common search for a solution that would end IRA and reactive loyalist violence, and give peace and stability to Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom until and unless its people decide otherwise.

Northern Ireland, which throughout the entire history of Irish independence had bedevilled the relationship between the two neighbouring states, thus became in the end the catalyst for a positive transformation of the Irish-British relationship - history sometimes develops very surprising turns and twists.

Dr Garret FitzGerald, a former Taoiseach, is Chancellor of the National University of Ireland

Eoghan Harris

SEAN LEMASS said that if the Irish people had a fault it was a tendency to feel sorry for themselves. This is a profound insight into the Irish psyche. Multiply that by a million and you have the mind-set of Irish nationalism.

By and large, I believe Irish nationalism is a narcissistic exercise in self pity; that most dogmas of Irish victimhood are ideological implants, inserted into the Irish body politic in the late 19th and early 20th century by a band of brilliant propagandists; that the feverish note of holy hate is largely the legacy of two men with profoundly disturbed personalities, one an Irish Protestant and the other half-English: John Mitchel and Patrick Pearse.

Above all, most Irish nationalists entertain the fiction of Irish exceptionalism, the false conviction that Ireland suffered more under British colonialism than any other comparable people. Let me be clear. I am not saying something nasty did not happen in the historical woodshed. What I am saying is that what happened was neither as nasty as we believe, nor did it last as long as we believe, nor was it all the work ofsome beastly British soldier passing by.

In fact, much of our nationalist memory comes under the heading of false memory syndrome. It has been "recovered" for us by Irish nationalist ideologues.

Eoghan Harris is a political columnist with the 'Sunday Independent'

Piaras MacEinri

I GOT to know a little more about English life when close friends of mine settled in a small English town outside London. They christened their two neighbours 'Pete the car' and 'Pete the house', so-called for their obsessive weekend car washing and DIY dedication. To me, this was part of a series of peculiarly English rituals such as wine-making and a concern with self-sufficiency. Personally, I prefer to leave wine-making to the professionals. But I do empathise with the resilience and self-reliance of a generation of many English people, tending their own allotments and holding their own against all comers.

Unfortunately, this spirit of independence can also deteriorate into self-caricature;the UK independence party's farrago of Euroscepticismis as unattractive as it isxenophobic.

Piaras MacEinri is Director of the Irish Centre for Migration Studies at UCC

Edna Longley

AS a child, I knew Belfast only as the place to where you took a train to catch the Scottish boat. The North was literally a corridor then. My husband, born in Belfast to parents who had migrated from London, entered the corridor at the other end. His mother was half-Jewish. Given our children's genealogical mix, I like the fact that Belfast, up to a point, lets you live in three places at once: Northern Ireland, Britain, the Republic.

As local and Irish-British media intermingle you can move, mentally at least, to another public domain when a particular set of voices becomes too annoying. This is what it means to inhabit a European borderland, even if not every citizen reads every newspaper or has the inclination or freedom to culture-surf. The downside is that you can be politically depressed in three places at once.

Edna Longley is Emeritus Professor in the School of English at QUB

Trevor Ringland

I WENT on to play rugby for Irish Universities which - if I needed convincing - finally persuaded me that it is possible to work together for mutual benefit, even in the face of political differences. This is an insight neatly enshrined for me in the words of one Irish captain, who turned to his team before they ran out to play against England at Twickenham and said: "Lads, when you get out on to the pitch I want you to spread out but stick together."

My own friendships from that time included a student involved in the GAA club who often extended an invitation to me to attend the All-Ireland Final. I said I could do this only when Rule 21, which prohibited the RUC and others in the security forces from playing Gaelic sports, was abolished. When the ban was finally removed in 2001 he rang me the next day to renew the invitation. After negotiating transport, a meal and as much as I could drink, I graciously accepted. That day when Armagh beat Kerry was a good day for friendship, as I knew it would be. Moreover, being a unionist in a bar near Croke Park, I wasn't required to put my hand in my pocket, which undoubtedly appealed to the Scottish side of my ancestry. As I write, the Gaelic Athletic Association is about to debate a change to Rule 42 which would allow rugby and soccer to be played in the home of Gaelic sports - another example of the incremental changes that are slowly but surely transforming our society.

Trevor Ringland is a non-executive director of Independent News & Media (NI) and played rugby for QUB, Ballymena, Ulster, Ireland and the British Lions

Mary J Hickman

MY own conclusions are far from definitive, but there are a number of them. Irishness, however defined, is not as visible or important to the British/English as Englishness/Britishness is to the Irish. Historical attitudes about the relationships between Britain and Ireland still persist in both countries. There are many Britains and even many Englands, not simply the contrast between London and the rest.

A central trope for many English people is the disappearance or challenging of old certainties regarding Britain and the wider world.

All of the above notwithstanding, I think there is accumulating evidence of an increasing acceptance that Ireland is a nation state in its own right, and that it is different in various way from Britain. That said, these two nation states and their "narratives of differentiation", as well as the drama of their historical relationship, frame the identities and positionings of the second-generation Irish population in England in constraining ways.

Mary J Hickman is Professor of Irish Studies and Sociology at London Metropolitan University

Patricia Palmer

THE English commitment to transparency, though it can lead to stupefying regulations and conformity, is also the keystone of civil society, a concept that Ireland flits with only fitfully. Public discourse in Ireland eschews literalism and transparency. Whether in the 'cute-hoor' obscurantism of some of our leaders or Sinn Fein's accomplished detachment of language from meaning, direct dealing - truth-telling - is not the currency of Irish public life.

Regulations give expression to our highest aspirations; the sanctioned breaching of them saves us from having to live to our ideal selves. Planning laws forbid building between the road and the sea, but an inexorable palisade of joined-up 'once-off' houses is turning our sea views into one long bungaloid Sea View.

We rebrand the Emerald Isle as green and environmentally friendly by banning plastic bags, but we drive roads through wetlands and national monuments: there are no more ragged plastic bags flapping from our ditches, but that's because there are so few ditches left. The landscape which - we had lost the skill to read - is now being read in a new way, as a privatised terrain of "plots" and planning-permission signs. The lost language is being replaced by the dialects of prosperity. The Dart-accented speech of AA-Roadwatch threatens to become the new vernacular.

Irishwoman Patricia Palmer is the author of 'Language and Conquest in Early Modern Ireland' and teaches at the University of York.

Copies of 'Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined' can be ordered from the British Council Ireland at Newmount House, 22-24, Lower Mount St, Dublin or ordered online at

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