Friday is the 100th anniversary of the Royal Assent to the UK Parliament’s Government of Ireland Act which partitioned the island of Ireland to provide two Parliaments, the Parliament of Southern Ireland and the Parliament of Northern Ireland.
It was an example of the great colonialist strategy of divide and rule. Well, 100 years later it is all coming unstuck. It is now a case of rule and divide.
Just as in 1920 (and again in 1947 in India) the poisonous fruit of political stupidity has a long gestation.
The Brexiteers will now get their Little England as the disunited kingdom crashes out of the European Union in two weeks’ time. And Ireland will get its long-desired unity.
If any good is to come of the madness of Brexit, it will be the unification of Ireland, and after 313 years the regaining of Scottish independence.
In Australia, the massive diaspora from the British Isles shakes its head in disbelief that their people – English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh – could have been so stupid as to vote to leave the EU in 2016.
It is like a 60 Minutes or 7.30 Report expose of a crooked financier who took innocent people’s money. Onlookers do not so much ask how could the financier be so wicked, but how could the duped people have been so stupid.
We expect the financier to be crooked. It goes with the territory. We expect Murdoch to be a self-interested propagandist. We expect Boris Johnson to be a duplicitous charlatan.
But we could not expect the stubborn, argumentative Yorkshiremen to fall for Brexit, nor a Cornishman or worse, when these regions were getting the largest subsidies and grants from the EU.
But in 2016 when the Scots and the Northern Irish were close to tears over the Brexit vote, they did not see that the heartless, brainless wicked thing to vote for Brexit would (as it will) ultimately lead to emancipation.
In a way, economics beats nearly everything. Even the most hard-bitten Protestant entrepreneur in Northern Ireland will prefer selling to the tariff- and regulation-free market in the island of Ireland and beyond to Europe than to selling to the rest of the newly independent UK fettered by an (ironic) array of regulation, tariffs and quotas.
In the 32 years since the Good Friday Agreement, violence has almost completely ended in Northern Ireland. The agreement contained several huge compromises. The Republic of Ireland relinquished its unconditional stance that the whole of the island of Ireland belonged to the Republic of Ireland. The UK agreed that people born in Northern Ireland (even if UK citizens) could apply for and hold Republic of Ireland passports and if, in the opinion of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, it looked as if there might be a majority in Northern Ireland for reunification, there would be a referendum on unity.
A poll published in The Belfast Telegraph in February put support in Northern Ireland for a united Ireland at 45.4% with 46.8% wanting to remain in the UK. Post-Brexit chaos will easily tip that balance.
And the passport rule is proving to be an unforeseen undermining of Brexit-inspired British nationalism. Now 700,000 out of Northern Ireland’s population of 1.9 million have Republic of Ireland passports – more than half the adult population.
And in Scotland, long the beneficiary of EU subsidies and grants, opinion polls are showing support for independence in the mid-50s.
The Scots obviously feel that, economically, their voice has been heard in Brussels and post-Brexit is being ignored in Westminster.
And that is just the economic argument. It is important because it will often defeat an emotional one. But when the two are in parallel they form an historic force.
My guess is that within five years Ireland will be united peacefully after a referendum held in conditions where the result will be well-anticipated (like Australia’s, and indeed Ireland’s, same-sex marriage referendums) and that Scotland will follow Northern Ireland out of the UK and into the EU in a similar timeframe – irrespective of Boris Johnson’s Panglossian populism.
Tory forces in 1886 defeated the Bill of centre-left Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone to give home rule to a united Ireland. They enacted partition 100 years ago this week. And they contrived Brexit against the best interests of the mass of the British people. They are now reaping the whirlwind: a no-deal Brexit; chaos on the borders; hoarding and shortages.
But do not expect any British stiff upper lip. Times have changed. Expect the lips to quiver.
A no-deal Brexit poses a choice for the British Government. It must either re-erect a hard land border in Ireland with the prospect of a return to sectarian violence, or it must avoid that hard border and instead allow Northern Ireland to remain within the EU regulatory realm and have the customs border in the Irish Sea.
The former is unacceptable (particularly with a Biden presidency). The later puts Northern Ireland de-facto in the EU. The de jure reunification with the south and membership of the EU cannot be far behind.
What a sorry episode. The British people were duped by Murdoch, the Russians, the mega-wealthy and the Tory ideologues into voting against their own best interests. In the next few weeks, they will pay the price. There is no going back to the good sense of the EU for Little England.
But the Scots and Northern Irish, who voted against Brexit by significant majorities, do not see themselves bound to that dismal, self-inflicted fate. Their economic future is with Europe and their emotional future is with self-identification. After the rank stupidity of the English to vote for Brexit, any residual emotional obligation to the United Kingdom has been forfeited, and rightly so.
When the British voted for Brexit they voted for Little England. On 1 January they will have put in place the inevitable steps to get it.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 19 December 2020.