Sunday 26 October 2014

Scotland’s independence poll makes you wonder again whether 1916 was worth it

Published 11/04/2014 | 02:30

Queen Elizabeth ll and President Michael D Higgins at Windsor Castle
Queen Elizabeth ll and President Michael D Higgins at Windsor Castle

Every country that wanted to gain its independence from Britain has gained that independence. Sometimes it was won only after a fight. Scotland might well vote for full independence later this year. No bloodshed needed.

Most countries when they gain their independence from Britain go through a period of intense anti-British feeling. In our case, it lasted for decades. Nothing good could be said about Britain until fairly recently.

If you gave the slightest indication that you believed Britain was not the sum of all evil, the cause of all Ireland's woes, you would be condemned as a ‘West Brit' or a ‘shoneen'.

Protestants were suspected of hankering after the days of British rule and were marginalised. They survived by developing more or less self-sufficient institutions.

When the Anglo-Irish trade agreement was signed in 1938, Sean T O'Kelly boasted to great nationalist acclaim that we had “whipped John Bull left, right and centre and with God's help we'll do the same when the opportunity arises”.

O'Kelly became our second president in 1945.

The scenes we witnessed in Britain this week as Michael D Higgins became the first |Irish President to make a State Visit to that country would have |been absolutely inconceivable back then.

Then again, the sight of Martin McGuinness in Windsor Castle would have been inconceivable until a few short years ago.

This is why several of the big English broadsheets had a picture of McGuinness at the banquet in Windsor Castle on their front pages on Wednesday.

They obviously believed that was the big, symbolic image quite apart from the fact that few of their readers would recognise Michael D Higgins.

It's both interesting and sobering to contemplate the fact that if McGuinness had not been there, Higgins could not have been there either.

Relations between Britain and Ireland simply could not be normalised until the IRA stopped fighting and a peace agreement was arrived at.

If the IRA had not taken up the gun again during the Troubles and had instead gone down the same peaceful path as the SDLP we might have been able to spare ourselves another blood-stained chapter in the history of these two islands and relations could possibly have been normalised years ago.

In fact, watching Scotland get ready for its referendum on whether it should remain part of the United Kingdom or not, you wonder again whether 1916 was worth it. Home Rule, which had been promised and was interrupted by World War I, would have come.

In time, if we wanted it, we could have got full independence. Peacefully. There would have been no War of Independence, probably no Civil War and violent republicanism might have spiked its guns much sooner than it did.

President Higgins's State Visit was a great event but the tragedy is that it couldn't happen far sooner.

That there was a gap of almost 100 years between the visit of reigning British monarchs to Ireland (the North aside) is actually mind boggling.

Consider the fact that Queen Elizabeth took the throne in her twenties and it wasn't until she was in her eighties that she could come to Ireland.

Consider the fact that Michael D Higgins is the ninth president of Ireland, and several of his predecessors served multiple terms, and yet he is the first to be able make a State Visit to Britain.

If we had opted for Home Rule initially, instead of a war, would this island be better or worse off, materially and psychologically than it is now?

As mentioned, there would have been no War of Independence.

Partition would have happened but it probably would have happened in a way that would have avoided a civil war south of the border.

There probably would not have been a debilitating trade war with Britain. Our economy would have been much stronger as a result.

Without the War of Independence, anti-British feeling would not have become as strong as it did.

When Queen Victoria came here in 1900, she received a huge welcome from the population of Dublin.

Edward VII and George V were also able to come here, in 1903 and 1911 respectively. They were able to come here despite all the terrible things Britain had done here down the centuries and within recent memory.

So, a hundred years ago anti-British feeling was not so strong here that it prevented a monarch setting foot in the country.

What made it so hard for a reigning monarch to come here for the next 100 years wasn't the previous history, therefore, it was the violent way in which we broke the link with Britain, followed by the Troubles.

If we had opted for Home Rule, bit by bit we would have been ceded more autonomy and probably we'd have gained full independence sometime after World War II. By then, Britain wouldn't have been in the mood to fight us.

Can we imagine any circumstances under which we could find ourselves in a union again with Britain? In a way we already are in one, of course. It's called the European Union and joining that economic union has inevitably meant joining a political union as well.

But if the euro were to collapse and if the EU were to fall to pieces and we found ourselves looking |for the nearest thing to a safe |haven in such a chaotic world, an economic union of some kind with Britain would become very imaginable. History is full of such strange and unexpected twists and turns.

Irish Independent

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