Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Irish Question

For one day a year, the minds of much of the world turns to Irish politics, and to all things Irish, especially to the Irish Question-namely, whether there should be one united Ireland free of any political connection with Great Britain, or whether the six counties of Northern Ireland partitioned in 1921 as a result of the Government of Ireland Act should continue to remain a part of the United Kingdom.

To those of us outside of the sphere of Irish political life, it appears to us to be a simple matter of whether someone favors a united Ireland or whether they do not. The religious stereotype, of course, is that Catholics support Irish unity while Protestants support unionism, and that the conflict is an entirely religious one. While it is statistically true that a super-majority of Catholics in the North of Ireland are nationalists, and the overwhelming majority of Protestants identify with Loyalism or Unionism, the notion that the conflict is only religious in tone ignores the critical reality that while the six-county state may have been a creation of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and even physically divided Ulster itself, four generations of people have grown up living in a society that went from repression, to unease, to war, and now to peace. Further, Northern Ireland has been its own entity, for better and (often) for worse since 1921, while the 26-county Irish Republic has developed separately since that time, and has slowly but methodically been able to move on from its conflict with both Britain and the Unionists in the North.

I never believed that I would see a workable peace in Northern Ireland in my lifetime, some government there which all sides regard as acceptable and legitimate. I never believed that would see the IRA agree to lay its arms down and accept sitting in government with unrepentant Unionists, nor that I would see any of the Unionists agree to sit in a parliament with Sinn Fein as one of the two governing parties, which does contain within its ranks those who engaged in terrorist activities against not only the British or the Unionist authorities, but against everyday civilians. The Unionist parties and political groups have within their numbers those who aided and abetted discrimination, thuggery, and even terror against Catholics and nationalists.

Yet, both sides have agreed to sit in Government, and both sides now believe they have the upper hand. Unionists believe that they have won because as a concession for shared power, nationalists have had to accept the principle of consent, the idea that there can never be a united Ireland without the consent of the majority of people in the six counties of Northern Ireland. Republicans, they say, have indirectly accepted the Union. Conversely, Unionists have had to accept that nationalists have a right to full political representation and are forced to concede that a united Ireland could happen at some point in the future, and that if it were ratified in a free vote of the people of the North of Ireland, they would be obliged to accept that.

There is no easy answer to 500 years of strife and over 30 years of war. Perhaps the next generation can find the best way to solve the Irish Question.





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