News Eoghan Harris

Saturday 23 August 2014

God and history can now make our closest neighbours our good friends

This generation should give thanks that hatred has lost its hold and we can acknowledge our common heritage.

Eoghan Harris

Published 13/04/2014 | 02:30

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Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina being farewelled by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle
Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina being farewelled by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle

WARRINGTON was the watershed. In 1993, for the first time in 30 years of atrocity, tens of thousands of Irish people took to the streets to protest at an IRA bombing in Britain. After that, it was easier for Irish people to admit their affection for England.

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This was some small relief to "West Brits" like myself who had come out of the closet many years before. But I really had no choice. From boyhood, I have been besotted by an imagined Ireland and an imagined England.

My parents fed these fevers with different potions. My father, a Cork city republican Jacobin, nurtured my Irish identity. My mother, a rural Roscommon Jacobite, nourished my English identity. She loved England as the home of Shakespeare's plays and the poems of Palgrave's Golden Treasury which supplemented her national school education.

Born on 30 acres of bogland, beneath the sturdy estate walls of the now extinct Catholic landlords, the O Connor Dons, my mother had no direct experience of oppression by England. But she was eloquent about exploitation by local landlords and strong farmers who had made fortunes from the Napoleonic Wars, and later defended their fields with shotguns against the starving spalpeens during the Great Hunger.

My mother's pragmatic grasp of social realities is partly responsible for my "revisionism". Which really means someone who does not subscribe to Sinn Fein's victim version of Irish history. Especially the black propaganda that the Great Famine was a deliberate act of racial genocide.

For my father, Irish history was about ideology and political intent. For my mother, it was about class and human contingency. My father saw the British Army as ideological instruments of British Imperialism. My mother saw them as poor devils, half mad from the Western front, trying to make a few bob, and behaving badly from fear rather than sadism.

She could even empathise with Black and Tans. Possibly her benign view was formed by her father, Owen Beirne, recalling how, following a few whiskeys at a fair, he had challenged a Black and Tan patrol lounging on a Boyle bridge to a fist-fight. As onlookers sought shelter, the Tans suddenly burst out laughing and dunked him in a stream to sober him up.

My mother also cultivated my sense of empathy with Imperial England by reciting Henry Newbolt's stirring poem Vitai Lampada:

"The river of death has brimmed its banks/ And England's far, and honour's a name/ But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks/ Play up! Play up! And play the game!"

As she stood against the rainy window, reciting, I saw behind her, not our small suburban garden in Cork, but a blazing desert sun, a boyish subaltern with drawn sword, and the defiant square of redcoats dying hard. In spite of my father's polemics, tears would prick my eyes, for that brave English boy, for honour and heroism.

To further complicate matters, I found out that my Fianna Fail father, like his IRB father before him, and like Frank O'Connor, were addicted as boys to magazines like the Boys' Own Paper, Magnet and Gem which extolled the public school values of duty and service to Britain's ever expanding Empire.

Nationalist academics claim these public school stories were simply ideological texts to bolster up the British empire. But from them, my grandfather's generation learned the stoic, self-sacrificing and chivalrous code of conduct which they adapted to serve the republican cause in the War of Independence 1919-1921.

The best of the IRA and the best of the British Army shared the same Victorian code of honour, during the War of Independence. That was why General Sean MacEoin, bound up the wounds of captured Auxiliaries and sent them safely back to barracks. And without some such self-sacrificing code, a society will sink into barbarism.

Alas, with independence, we lost that stoic Victorian spirit and settled for a vapid victimhood. Sean Lemass said that if the Irish people had a fault, it was a tendency to feel sorry for themselves. A profound insight into the Irish psyche. Because Irish nationalism is a narcissistic mix of self-pity and holy hate.

The self-pity part disgusted Fenians like John O'Leary who refused to cry for Ireland.

The holy hate part was largely the legacy of two men, with profoundly disturbed personalities, who came from outside the constitutional O'Connellite tradition: the Calvinist John Mitchel and the half-English Patrick Pearse.

Now I am not saying that nothing nasty happened in the Irish historical woodshed.

But the bad parts were not all the work of England. Our own gombeens got away with murder too. And a glance at the history of Europe makes it clear we could have had worse neighbours than England.

To admit this does not absolve Britain of blame. But the blame should be brought up to date. For most of the last century, the two main British political parties could be charged with chronic indifference to the problems of the nationalists in Northern Ireland – just as the Republic could be charged with not respecting the wishes of Northern Protestants.

By and large, the Tories did not listen to the right people in Ireland – to constitutional Irish nationalists – until it was too late. Conversely, the British Labour Party listened to the wrong people in Ireland – to Irish republican socialists. But the left did a lot more lasting damage than the Tories.

That's because the left pandered to both nationalist self-pity and the IRA's insistence that Unionists were suffering from "false consciousness", the delusion that deep down, the Unionists really wanted Irish unity. From which, with lunatic logic, it followed that if you shot enough of them, they would realise they were really republicans.

Let me finish with a word of warning and a word of hope. The warning is that Irish nationalist bigotry is no longer found among rural rednecks, but among the educated elite who peddle their tribal wares in third-level colleges, under various headings.

But ideological Irishness, like ideological feminism, or ideological ethnicity, degrades and diminishes, petrifies and makes partial, the full complexity of what it is to be Irish, or a woman or black. Ideas should rule, not ideologies.

My word of hope concerns myth. We cannot manage without myths. What matters is whether they are malign myths or benign myths.

The Good Friday Agreement is a benign myth, the most benign in Irish history. As I told the annual conference of the Ulster Unionist Party in 1999, it is an "amazing grace". But it is a grace we must nourish and nurture.

The late Nelson Mandela showed us how to love England. Rejecting colonial cringe, he proudly proclaimed: "I have not discarded the influence which Britain and British history and culture exercised on us."

Given Mandela's good example, who in Ireland or England would be arrogant enough to exclude even the smallest part of our common heritage and history, in the name of a noxious Irish or British nationalism ?

This generation should give thanks. Hatred has lost its hold. God and geography made England and Ireland neighbours. God and history can make us friends. Forever.

This is an edited version of an essay which appeared in 'Britain and Ireland, Lives Entwined', published by the British Council, Ireland, 2005.

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