Friday, 20 May 2011

Differences Dissolved

Although he is still away with the neoconservative theory of "the English-speaking peoples", Daniel Hannan writes:

“I suppose your work must take you abroad a good deal, Mr Hannan,” remarked an upper-middle-class lady when I was at a wedding in Dublin recently.

“Well, I’m abroad now, if you think about it.”

“Goodness me: yes, I suppose you are”.

How easily our differences are forgotten. Very few British people think of the Irish as properly foreign. We are aware, of course, that there are two states in the British Isles, but we don’t place the Irish in the same mental category as we do the Italians, Finns or Poles. It is perhaps this proximity of outlook and habit, of blood and speech, that once made our quarrels so venomous: civil wars have a peculiar nastiness.

Politically and institutionally, the two states drifted apart after 1921. Ireland passed from autonomy to formal independence, breaking its links with the Crown and, in due course, withdrawing from the Commonwealth. Yet this sundering of states never implied a sundering of peoples.

While Eamon de Valera pursued his quixotic schemes to cut Eire’s economic ties with the United Kingdom, replace the English language with Gaelic and ally with any cause, however vile, provided it was sufficiently Anglophobic, the two islands continued their habits of intermixture and intermarriage. They followed the same football teams, watched the same television stations, shopped at the same chains.

The clearest examplars of this difference between government and citizens were Ireland’s Second World War volunteers. While Dublin was notionally neutral, de Valera made little secret of his sympathies. His decision to close the Treaty Ports to the Royal Navy caused needless casualties among our merchant seamen. He described the presence of US troops in Ulster as “an army of occupation”, but made no protest when the Luftwaffe bombed Belfast. His censors banned the word “Nazi” and even insisted on excising a film clip of old ladies in England carrying gas masks, lest it evoke sympathy for the victims of the Blitz. He made a point of offering his condolences on Hitler’s death.

Yet, for all Dev’s bigotry, most Irishmen wanted the English-speaking peoples to triumph. Southern Catholics passed in their thousands through the recruiting offices of Ulster, and went on to win 780 decorations, including seven Victoria Crosses. An eighth was won by the Belfast Catholic, James Magennis, for nationalists north of the border were – with a few sour exceptions – equally ready to take up arms in defence of democracy.

My late father, whose family roots were Ulster Catholic, saw action in Italy with the North Irish Horse. I asked him once whether he could remember any sectarian differences among his fellow soldiers. The only thing he could think of was that, on one occasion, some of the men had taken it in turns to sing rebel and loyalist songs. Faced with a properly foreign enemy, their differences had dissolved.

Where governments divide, organic ties of family, commerce and civic society unite. For the better part of a century, politics and politicians pushed Ireland and the United Kingdom apart; but their peoples are closer than at any point since 1916. Only now are the governments following.

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