Saturday 20 July 2019

Love-in with British shuns vile history

Edmund Burke's ghost hovered over Westminster during President Higgins' landmark speech, writes John-Paul McCarthy

Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photo: Tony Gavin
Conor Cruise O’Brien. Photo: Tony Gavin

John-Paul McCarthy

President Higgins' dazzling state visit to the UK involved a trade-off. In exchange for the British accepting us as equals, we would formally embrace an idea first articulated at the nadir of Anglo-Irish relations in 1989 by Roy Foster in his transformational book, Modern Ireland.

"We are in water-colour," Professor Foster suggested, "what they are in fresco." Even though this exchange was well and nobly executed by the President and his wife, it had a distorting effect all the same if only because it gave the impression that ours has always been a story of Irish egalitarianism versus British prejudice.

Two other strands in the modern Anglo-Irish relationship were not mentioned, namely that vibrant tradition of Irish condescension towards the British, and the equally potent tradition of British romanticism as regards the more delinquent aspects of Irish patriotism.

One thinks here of the sustained shudder in Garret FitzGerald's Towards a New Ireland (1972) when he contemplated Roy Jenkins' great reforming tenure at the UK Home Office. Surely, FitzGerald pleaded, Ian Paisley would do better in a united Ireland than in Jenkins' Gomorrah?

The Dictionary of Irish Biography also evenly informs us that Justice Brian Walsh used to speak in French at international legal conferences so as to avoid "undue identification with British delegates".

Philip Johnston wrote a powerful piece in last Tuesday's Daily Telegraph about the corrupting effects of British romanticism as applied to operators like Martin McGuinness.

No matter what the Provisional IRA did, there has always been a determined element in Westminster that looked on them as candidates for sustained political therapy.

As Johnson explained, this airy approach to "Ireland" culminated in the power-sharing deal that effectively destroyed the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists.

Many people professed themselves aghast last week when Lord Tebbit mused disobligingly about the prospect of McGuinness being shot by dissident republicans.

But Tebbit remembers what the Grand Hotel in Brighton looked like from the inside after the IRA bombed it in 1984, and he also remembers the agonies of his paralysed wife.

He did no more than rework the theme of Garret FitzGerald's distraught eulogy for the murdered British ambassador in 1976, namely his determination to defeat the IRA's "conspiracy against freedom and against life which in Northern Ireland has already wrought such universal tragedy".

Those who would have had Tebbit bite his tongue would do well to recall the failure to notice the ghost at the Guildhall banquet.

The greatest Irishman ever to sit in the British House of Commons, Edmund Burke, insisted that those who try to stifle natural emotions end up corrupting themselves "by not expressing the detestation and horror that naturally belong to horrible and detestable proceedings".

But President Higgins inexplicably forgot Burke in his Westminster speech.

Perhaps Burke was vetoed because of the fury of his critique of British colonial delinquency?

Burke accused successive British ministries of complicity in genocide, expropriation and mass famine in India.

Queen Elizabeth's mother was the last Empress of India, and someone much given in private to wailing about the way African racists like PW Botha and Ian Smith were misunderstood.

Maybe someone told our President that any sustained meditation on Burke would be seen as the equivalent of a lecture by Elizabeth in Dublin on what Tom Garvin once called that "deep ambivalence at both popular and elite level about the entire nationalist project in Ireland"?

The Burkean omission and the Tebbit intervention had the joint effect of bringing Conor Cruise O'Brien to mind, O'Brien being a distinguished member of the Tebbit-style debating tradition and our most important Burke scholar.

Few intellectuals contributed more to the creation of a more relaxed Anglo-Irish relationship than O'Brien, yet few proponents of peaceful reconciliation did more damage to the cause of British monarchy and empire than he did.

Had he been in President Higgins' place, he probably would have needed Special Branch protection to get out of the Guildhall after his speech.

O'Brien saw the more depraved and racist legacy of British foreign policy up close in the Belgian Congo in 1960, the theme of his great expose of imperial megalomania in his book, To Katanga and Back.

President Higgins coped so well with the blandishments of monarchy partly because he learned his politics criticising Reagan-era atrocities in Latin America.

O'Brien, by contrast, caused so many problems for British ministers in Katanga that he provoked Harold Macmillan's furious aside: "Who is Conor O'Brien?"

At a minimum, we know that Conor O'Brien was someone who would not have left a Guildhall banquet without reminding his audience that Harold Wilson once tried to dump the Northern Ireland nightmare on the Republic in 1975.

But Burke, O'Brien and Wilson have no place in the new "totality of relationships".

We are now citizens of what Gladstone called a blessed oblivion of the past.

And we must love one another there or die.

Sunday Independent

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