Brexit wounds. Covid failures. Equity in withdrawal. Nationalism on the march. It is difficult to find reasons to be happy about the future of this country as a successful state in the modern world. However, in the west there is a ray of hope. To see the kind of politics the UK needs to learn from in these troubled times, look no further than Ireland.
To many, this will seem counterintuitive. The suggestion that Britain can learn from Ireland runs counter to the former’s long-standing self-image of dismissive superiority to “the other island of John Bull.” It turns around the centuries when British governments saw Ireland as a problem to dominate and control, not as an island offering solutions, knowledge or lessons.
This is precisely why learning from Ireland is important. The lessons cover habits of thought and habits of action. The two are umbilically linked. The habit of mind is one that Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins raised here last week when he wrote about the post-sectarian “ethical recall” in which modern Ireland is reflecting on the centenary of the birth of the state between 1916 and 1922. The habit of the practice is the constant search for political compromises in 21st century relations within these islands. These are currently exemplified by the dispute over Northern Ireland’s Brexit protocol, but there are many others.
Neither of these habits is a magic wand for overcoming complex and irregular problems. In the end, what matters most is trying to learn and apply the art of recognizing different perspectives and honestly trying to accommodate them. This is what the late John Hume and others embarked on in a deeply divided Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Today it is the same approach that British politicians must reinvent if multiple national, political and political divisions are to be overcome. cultural in 21st century Britain and make them a constructive and shared effect.
This honest struggle with different approaches and interests has borne fruit in many aspects of Irish life, North and South, in recent decades. The consequence is an Irish nation which, to this occasional visitor at least, often seems far more at ease with itself as a modern state than the UK or any of its constituents can claim to be. Given Ireland’s history, that’s an achievement to envy and study.
These habits of mind and practices were not arbitrarily conferred upon Ireland by some charitable deity of good government. They had to be hard won in the crucible of experience, through trial and error, amid the passage of time and at the cost of much blood, much of it innocent. An extraordinary new book, The dead of the Irish revolution, lists names, dates and details of each of the 2,849 violent deaths that occurred between 1916 and the end of 1921. A similar volume, long out of print, called Lost lives, try something similar for the riots, during which more than 3,500 died.
These deaths form a powerful reminder that Ireland and Britain were once places of harsher identities and loyalties than they are today. Some of these still endure and should not be denied. Others have become what Higgins called “post-sectarian possibilities for the future.” Yet modern Britain remains a reluctant pupil. He’s too obsessed with his own supposed greatness. Higgins is correct that until the UK is more openly committed to its own imperial past, little is likely to change. Britain urgently needs a broader and more pluralistic view of its history if it also wants to be a nation at ease with itself.
And yet the UK shares the same experience as both parts of Ireland in multiple ways. A century ago, this spring, Britain divided the island in two. The result was a violent civil war in the south and decades of sectarian rule in the north, ending in 30 years of trouble. Well into life, Ireland, and sometimes the United Kingdom, lived with the often lethal consequences. However, the centenary of partition, like the years of the Irish revolt that preceded 1921, is not being considered much in Britain.
At last, in the 1980s, a search for better ways began on both sides of the border, and in Britain as well. The result, in 1998, was compromise, change, and peace. It is an approach to policy that the British government today urgently needs to reaffirm, as do Northern Ireland’s own leaders.
The Northern Ireland protocol is a compromise in the 1998 tradition. It guarantees the smooth Irish land border that helped end the unrest, in exchange for post-Brexit port controls on various products, mainly food, traveling between Britain and Northern Ireland. It has been in place for less than two months and faces increasing threats from disgruntled unionists. The protocol is indisputably complicated. But, in its imperfect form, it can still work. Neither the British government nor the European Union have an impeccable record in its implementation. But both reiterated this week that they are now committed to reducing tensions.
This has to be the correct approach. That does not mean it will be successful. Brexit has unleashed a bull inside the delicate china shop of post-1998 power-sharing. But the deliberately overlapping ambiguity of the protocol is more valuable than dangerous. It represents one step further from the zero-sum approach. This is not an isolated example or something that only applies to the supposedly special conditions in Ireland. It is a form of political thought and action that Ireland has learned from bitter experience and which, if learned and applied here, may be the key to the future of the UK as well.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism