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The steeples of Essex and Tyrone: Irish historians and Brexit

One of the glib accusations levelled against Irish history is that it never changes–that its fundamental themes are immutable. Equally, one of the common accusations against Irish historians is that (despite decades of learned endeavour) they have utterly failed to shift popular readings of the island’s past. Yes, the Good Friday Agreement and its St Andrews successor have brought shared institutions and some eye-catching ecumenical gestures; but these (so the argument goes) scarcely conceal recidivist political attitudes and behaviour. The wealth of–especially “revisionist”–historical writing (it is also alleged) has scarcely impacted upon the immutable historical sympathies of the Irish people.

And yet the recent centenary commemorations of Irish Home Rule, the First World War, the 1916 Rising and Irish independence have all encouraged a wider and deeper reflection on the making of modern Ireland which in turn has produced some startling results. Historians, through their writings and other forms of public engagement, have been central to these conversations and their outcomes. The First World War, for most of the 20th century a cultural frontier between unionism and nationalism in Ireland, has become a focus for shared commemoration and reflection — thanks in large part to a huge body of work on the all-Ireland nature of popular recruitment, engagement and sacrifice. In terms of the centenary of Home Rule, the importance of the Irish unionist leader of 1912-14, Sir Edward Carson, is now increasingly recognised throughout Ireland: though his London home was denied an iconic blue plaque by English Heritage, his Dublin birthplace was successfully defended by An Taisce (the Irish National Trust), and has latterly received a “brown plaque” from the city authorities. Absent from the recent political iconography of Britain and Northern Ireland, Carson (and his rival, John Redmond) feature on a 60 cent stamp issued by An Post, the Irish state’s postal service.

Above all, the 1916 Rising has been anatomised with precision by historians, and has been publicly approached in ways which would have been virtually unimaginable in the recent past. In 1966, at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the rising, commemoration focused upon the survivors of the rising, upon military display, and (in terms of its leaders) upon the role and teachings of Patrick Pearse. By way of contrast the commemoration of 1916 in 2016 has emphasised the contribution of women to the rising, and the role of the great labour leader, James Connolly: it has looked, not just to the martyrs who died for Ireland’s freedom, but to the casualties among the crown forces and those – often children – who were caught in the murderous crossfire of Easter week.

Where does Brexit now leave Ireland in this decade of commemoration? Given the continuing fluidity and opaqueness of debate, this is a tough question to answer – but (again) historians can supply context and illumination. The election as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach of Leo Varadkar, a gay man whose paternal heritage is Indian, is widely seen as underlining Irish openness and inclusivity in the context of a range of populist and nativist pressures across the rest of Europe and North America. Varadkar’s elevation would have been unimaginable as recently as the 1980s or even 1990s, when the shadow of Ireland’s (generally rather conservative) revolutionary generation remained largely in place. Historic national aspirations remain, however: Varadkar and the Irish department of foreign affairs have flirted with the idea that after Brexit the Irish sea (rather than the meandering and complex land border in Ireland) might come to function as a frontier for some economic and immigration purposes. While unionists have been outraged, there are certainly historic precedents for some denouement of this kind, essayed during and after the Second World War.

Image credit: Leo Varadkar. Photo by EU2016 SK (HANDSHAKE 2016-07-14). CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Will Brexit ultimately disappoint those unionists who offered support? Brexit will doubtless end CAP payments, and possibly (following the reported thinking within Michael Gove’s circle) spell the end of all forms of agricultural subsidy in the United Kingdom. It may well result in the supersession of Brussels red tape with that spooled out by London and Belfast. But these are outcomes which have evidently not been fully embraced by the many unionist farmers who, angered by heavy bureaucracy and light prices, repudiated Brussels. How, on the other hand, will the significant minority of unionist remainers react to the advent of a hard (or indeed any other form of unpalatable) Brexit? Will these unionists, whose historic arguments have focused not only upon identity, but upon economics and religious faith, now reconsider their relationship with a culturally more open, secularising and (certainly for the moment) prosperous Irish state?

These of course are still heterodox thoughts requiring some leap of imagination and counter-intuition. But the DUP’s effort to strike a deal with Theresa May’s minority Tory and Brexit government, while certainly refocusing attention on immovably illiberal elements within unionism, has also stimulated some serious historical reflection on how far it has travelled since the 1970s, and (despite its rhetoric) is travelling still. The DUP for long refused to sit in the same television studios as representatives from Sinn Féin (while simultaneously collaborating with the latter at local council level): the party has been in office with Sinn Féin since 2007, and in March 2017 Arlene Foster, its current leader, attended the funeral mass of Martin McGuinness, her former ministerial colleague and sometime senior officer of the Provisional IRA in Derry city. The DUP, which once (in 1977) sought to “save Ulster from sodomy,” is now openly divided over Gay Pride, with younger and more secular elements challenging the ebbing influence of an older and religiously more fundamentalist generation.

Churchill said in 1922, in a now well-worn quip, that “the whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again”. In recent years, the whole map of Europe, and of the United Kingdom, has changed again; and historians in both Ireland and Britain have a central part to play in deciphering and illuminating this fresh and continuing design. But the subsiding waters now reveal a very different architectural configuration in Fermanagh, Tyrone and the rest of Ireland than hitherto. And in some ways it is now the “steeples” of Brexit hotspots like Essex and Lincolnshire which are emerging from the deluge of nearly half a century of EU membership, with local apprehensions and aspirations and pride unscathed.

Featured image credit: The shell of the G.P.O. on Sackville Street (later O’Connell Street), Dublin in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising. Photo by Keogh Brothers Ltd. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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