Thursday 20 June 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'Ulster's 'dreary steeples' still casting long shadow over British politics'

'The jibe from Conservative grandee Ken Clarke that the DUP is a
'The jibe from Conservative grandee Ken Clarke that the DUP is a "sectarian Protestant party in Ireland" will have hurt.' Photo: Getty Images

Gerard O'Regan

"It says a great deal for the power which Ireland has, both Nationalist and Orange, to lay its hands upon the vital strings of British life and politics.''

Winston Churchill went on to say the Irish are able "to hold, dominate and convulse, year after year, generation after generation'' political life in Great Britain. Such sentiments were uttered in 1922, as discussions intensified over a proposed Irish Border.

In a seminal House of Commons debate, Churchill famously referred to the "dreary steeples'' of Fermanagh and Tyrone. His much-quoted metaphor suggested that the recent World War I had made little difference to the age-old quarrel between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland.

The ghost of Churchill, who had a perceptive understanding of the Irish psyche, must be watching the current Brexit drama with a deep sense of deja vu. History is repeating itself in a most remarkable way. A cataclysm of sorts is engulfing Europe.

Yet, on a certain level, the old nationalist and unionist Irish divide is dominating the agenda, by way of the endlessly diagnosed backstop.

Fixating on this issue suits hardline Tory Brexiteers, venomously opposed to any middle-of-the-road break from the EU. There is a huge chasm between these extremists and those of more moderate views.

An unfair focus has been put on the backstop. This has tended to cloak the central issue in the Brexit debacle. A majority of Tory MPs are convinced Britain simply cannot afford to completely depart. Some are in favour of leaving - but they still want to retain close links with the EU.

This is pivotal to the logjam in the process. The party is convulsed by a bare-knuckle internal battle for dominance. Yet neither grouping has the numbers to prevail, leaving Prime Minister Theresa May immobilised.

Brexit battles are an ongoing reminder of how Trump-style isolationism is gaining traction in Western liberal democracies.

Within the EU there are some ominous stirrings, notably in Poland and Hungary.

Meanwhile, it should not be forgotten that in Ireland, despite the hysteria of our times, the politics of the extreme have made little advance. A broad-based political consensus survives. No wonder the old catchcry - that there is hardly a scintilla of ideological difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - continues to hold true.

So we look on with some wonderment at our nearest neighbour. Can a clearly jaded prime minister, by force of will, achieve the nigh-impossible? Her primary problem is that she is swarmed by the sheer momentum of events outside her control.

In that sense the British ship of state is rudderless. It is sailing full steam ahead towards uncharted waters.

Yet, from an Irish perspective, there remains grounds for optimism that all will work in our favour in the end. The EU remains steadfast in its support. It is also surely inconceivable that an institution such as the House of Commons will allow a kind of national hara-kiri in the form of an extremist Brexit.

But when the dust settles things can never be quite the same again. The Irish Government has shipped a lot of criticism over its backstop stance; there is work to be done in bringing some warmth back into Anglo-Irish relations.

Meanwhile, some relationships within the Conservative fold must be irretrievably damaged. However, talks about a new party are over-speculative; it's pretty much impossible to break the electoral mould in Britain, given the first-past-the-post voting system.

All the while, soundings from Sinn Féin and the DUP remain dispiritingly tribal and predictable. For the latter, embracing the 'lunatic fringe' in the Tories with such fervour risks damaging interaction with mainstream British politicians. The jibe from Conservative grandee Ken Clarke that the DUP is a "sectarian Protestant party in Ireland" will have hurt.

Unionism may soon be forced to have a major rethink about future strategies, given the shifting sands of mainstream British politics. But as the ghost of Churchill reminds us, the "dreary steeples" will most likely still cast a long shadow.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss