Wednesday 18 September 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Brexit, housing, health - there are choppy waters ahead for Ireland and we must trim our sails, ready to take advantage when we have favourable wind'

'If we cannot house our citizens and give them timely healthcare we are failing them socially. Clearly, progress is unacceptably slow.' Stock photo
'If we cannot house our citizens and give them timely healthcare we are failing them socially. Clearly, progress is unacceptably slow.' Stock photo
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

As any sailor will confirm, there isn't one among us with the power to change the wind's direction. But we can trim our sails to take advantage of the way in which the breeze is blowing, or make preparations during still periods to be ready for favourable gusts.

It's important to remember this as 2018 gives way to 2019, a year set to have a momentous impact on our dealings with Britain - painstakingly fostered good relations unravelling as Brexit tugs at the complex tapestry that binds our two islands. More squalls must be expected, further stretches of choppy water remain to be negotiated.

The coming 12 months will be peppered with centenaries. Among them are milestones that redefined the interaction between Ireland and Britain, from the inaugural Dáil Éireann meeting on January 21, 1919, to the first shots fired in the War of Independence in Tipperary on the same date.

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History repeats itself. This we know. However, lessons absorbed over the past 100 years can help to mitigate the strains that will continue to be placed on Anglo-Irish relations as Britain prepares to depart from the European Union on March 29.

Here are two lessons we can draw from events of earlier years. Number one, political abstentionism doesn't work and is a disservice to voters, as Éamon de Valera discovered during the 1920s when he led a Sinn Féin party refusing to enter the Dáil because of the oath of allegiance to a foreign power. Indeed, later in life, de Valera is reported to have admitted it was a lost opportunity.

And number two, the common travel area between Ireland and Britain must be maintained. Despite independence for three-quarters of the island, both Irish and British politicians successfully maintained that open-door policy. They managed it because they knew it to be vital economically, socially and politically.

A century ago, give or take a fortnight, an epoch-defining general election was held - the first and only all-­Ireland election to the Dáil.

Sinn Féin fought it on a secession premise, pledging to set up an alternative assembly, and voters gave the party a landslide victory. After centuries of colonisation, Ireland took important constitutional steps towards regaining autonomy.

Yet this election also underscored fault lines between the two parts of the island, a fissure that endures to the present day - its result showing a strong unionist presence in the North, bent on maintaining the link with Britain that nationalism wanted to sever. Today, unionism is caught in an existential crisis because its very being prevents Britain's hoped-for clean break from the European Union. Brexit has acted as a reminder of the North's unfinished business status.

Both milestones in Irish-British history - Brexit and Dáil Éireann's formation - occurred as a result of plebiscites. Both milestones in the name of democracy led to unforeseen difficulties. In the case of Dáil Éireann and the subsequent war, six Northern counties were hived off into a small state with a disproportionately large parliament building at Stormont, the Northern Ireland state legislated into existence in 1920.

Regarding Brexit, as we know, citizens in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales voted in 2016 on whether to leave or remain with the European Union, the group decision to go causing friction in Ireland and Britain's relationship because of the Irish Border.

Let's pause to consider that election of December 14, 1918. It was the first in more than eight years because World War I intervened. It was also the first in which electoral reforms meant a great many more people were eligible to vote, partly in acknowledgement of wartime sacrifices.

In Ireland, the electorate ballooned almost threefold. Men aged 21 and over were eligible without restriction, along with women aged 30 plus who were university graduates, property owners or the wives of such.

The election led to Countess Markievicz becoming a TD rather than an MP. At the time, she was locked up in London's Holloway Prison, but won a seat as a Sinn Féin candidate for St Patrick's Ward in Dublin city. "Save Ireland by voting as Ms Pearse will vote" urged Sinn Féin, courting the female ballot and pledging "the womenfolk of the Gael" would hold high position "in the council of a freed Gaelic nation". (A false promise, as women would soon discover. Not that Cumann na nGaedheal were any more enlightened.)

So it was that women were submerged in the aftermath of 1918, their contributions airbrushed from history. Nevertheless, they continued to fight battles, along with men, for civil liberties denied to them. 2018 saw a decisive battle won when a grassroots, female-led revolution occurred, pushing for repeal of the Eighth Amendment banning abortion in virtually every set of circumstances.

That social revolution is the stand-out happening of this past year, delivered by the heirs to the revolutionary women who contributed to the formation of the Irish State. While the campaign was supported by numerous men, there is no doubt it was driven by women. The legislation was signed into law by the President just before Christmas and abortions will become legal from January.

What else lies ahead this year? Aside from Brexit, an international issue affecting us nationally, Ireland is under the shadow of two overhanging domestic problems: homelessness and health.

We may be managing economically but if we cannot house our citizens and give them timely healthcare we are failing them socially. Clearly, progress on alleviating these matters is unacceptably slow, with families including children living in emergency accommodation and patients languishing on hospital trolleys.

Cash-strapped Irish governments of the 1940s were able to build public housing - how is it our cash-rich Exchequer cannot match that programme?

Bearing down the track in May are local and European elections, and support or otherwise for Government policies will be apparent then.

A century ago, the international scene was shifting and volatile, with empires toppling and new nation-states being formed amid discussion about secession and self-determination for countries previously ruled by powerful neighbours.

Ireland was part of that dynamic. A similar notion of "taking back control" - in this case from the EU - is music to some British ears, highlighting how little has changed in the dynamics of nationalism.

Coincidentally, January 21 is expected to be the last possible day when British parliamentarians can vote on an exit deal. It also happens to be the date when the first Dáil met in Dublin.

Martina Devlin's latest book is 'Truth & Dare: Short Stories about Women Who Shaped Ireland'

Irish Independent

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