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Britain and Borders – A Bloody Legacy

Those who lead the clamour for Britain to leave the EU sometimes utter the strangest of remarks, betraying their complete lack of knowledge or understanding of their own nation’s history. One such recently came from Lord Lilley in an interview on BBC Television. When expressing his incomprehension at the length of time taken to negotiate the terms of the withdrawal agreement he opined that it didn’t take that long to negotiate Indian independence. The remark set me thinking about Britain’s complicity in drawing up borders that have either been the cause of, or have failed to end, a great deal of bloodshed, Indian independence being a case in point.

The movement for independence in India spanned 90 years, so hardly happened overnight as Lord Lilley seemed to be suggesting.

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Lord Curzon was the man behind the Partition of Bengal in 1905 that gave modern Bangladesh its political boundaries. Image from Wikipedia

Britain’s response, in 1905, was to establish a border separating Bengal from the rest of the sub-continent, a move that served to increase the clamour for independence for all India. Despite this, India and its people played a vital role in support of Britain during World War I and were rewarded by the Government of India Act in 1919, but it would be almost 30 years before India finally gained independence.

 

It is true that the final settlement achieved in a couple of months in the summer of 1947 between drafting of a Bill and the implementation of independence. But it came at the end of a long period during which numerous options were tried without success and was accompanied by another arbitrary drawing of borders that created a Pakistan that consisted of two areas separated by almost 1,000 miles of Indian territory. Violent clashes between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs followed, with up to 2 million deaths attributable to them. Parts of the border, notably the portion that defines Kashmir, remain in dispute to this day, 70 years after Indian and Pakistani independence. In the meantime East Pakistan saw a bloody civil war that ended with the creation of Bangladesh. Famine, widespread poverty and a series of military coups followed.

I could continue with a litany of similar examples, such as in the Middle East, where war over borders drawn by the victorious allies of both World Wars, of which Britain was a leading member, continue to this day, or in parts of Africa and in Cyprus. But the one that matters in the context of Brexit is that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Established in 1921 by the United Kingdom to create an enclave for the minority of Irish people who had no wish to leave the UK, in no sense is this “the Irish border”.

Irish independence came at the end of a century and more of campaigning which began the moment Ireland was annexed to the UK in 1800. The final years of that campaign were a bloody war of independence. The creation of the border as a condition of independence for the rest of the island led to a mercifully short, but bloody, civil war in Ireland

and to years of unofficial conflict involving paramilitary organisations on both sides. But the fact is that from the outset there was freedom of trade and travel between Ireland and the UK, across the Irish Sea as well as the land border, except during the years of greatest paramilitary activity and occupation by the British army in Northern Ireland.

 

Despite claims that there is no intention on the part of the UK to see a “hard border on the island of Ireland”, the fact is that the primary rationale of Brexit is to “take back control of our borders”.

Not only does the phraseology imply there will be a hard border at points of entry on mainland Britain, the airports and seaports, it is hard to see how this can not include the only land border between the UK and the EU.

Unless, that is, it is accepted that a different regulatory regime pertains in Northern Ireland to that in the rest of the UK. In truth, there is nothing strange about such a concept. The province has always had greater autonomy than any other part of the UK, as, indeed, did the whole of Ireland before 1922. Northern Ireland, for example, remains the only part of the UK where same sex marriage is forbidden. It is the only part of the UK where politics is defined by religious extremism.

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A Double Irish Rebellion

The spring and summer of 1848 saw failed rebellions in England and Ireland, both led by Irish men. And the Irish tricoleur, a symbol of peace, made its first appearance. In May, 170 years ago this month, the leaders of the Irish rebellion were sentenced to transportation.

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Daniel O’Connell monument at the southern end of O’Connell Street, Dublin. Image from Statues-Hither & Thither (permission sought)

One of Daniel O’Connell’s proteges*, Cork land-owner and lawyer Feargus O’Connor, was elected MP for Cork in 1832. Shortly afterwards he fell out with O’Connell and in 1835 lost his seat in Parliament. He then embarked on a campaign for political reform in England. Founding a newspaper, The Northern Star, he was joined by William Lovett and others.

Their People’s Charter was published – in May 1838 – as a draft parliamentary bill. It contained six points: manhood suffrage; the ballot; abolition of property qualifications for MPs; payment of MPs; equal electoral districts; and annual elections. Thousands of working people had rallied together on the basis of this charter, and hundreds of them had gone to prison for their beliefs.

In the 1847 general election O’Connor was elected MP for Nottingham. By the spring of 1848, inspired by events elsewhere in Europe, the movement was ready to make it’s mark. A petition had been raised, signed, it was claimed, by over 5 million people. A meeting was arranged for April 10th on Kennington Common just across the Thames from Parliament.

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Daguerreotype of the Chartist meeting at Kennington Common, British Library

The government were well prepared with 170,000 citizens signed up as special constabulary and army units stationed at the entrance to each of the bridges and protecting ministries and ministers’ homes. Despite an expected turn-out of 200,000, a mere 20,000 congregated.

When it began to rain heavily, most quickly disbursed. O’Connor and his henchmen crossed Westminster Bridge in horse drawn carriages and presented his petition which was found to contain only 2 million names, many of them forged, invented and duplicated. The name of no less a figure than the Duke of Wellington appeared 17 times.

Meanwhile, 1848 was a year of turmoil across Europe, with revolutions taking place in France, Germany, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands. In February the last vestige of the French Royal family fled France never to return. Inspired by this, a Young Ireland delegation led by William Smith O’Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher, went, in April, to Paris to meet with representatives of the new French Republic.

Symbol of Peace

Whilst there, they were given a flag modeled on the French Tricoleur on which the three colours that were represented were green, the colour of Catholic nationalism, orange, the colour of Protestant unionism, separated by white to signify the desire for peace between the two traditions. Since 1922 this has been the national flag of the Irish Republic.

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For leaders of the Confederation, the fact that the 1848 French revolution had been relatively bloodless was an inspiration and they hoped to be able to mobilise people from all strata of Irish society in a bid to return government of the Irish to Ireland. One of the ways they set out to achieve this was via a newspaper called The Nation. However, the authorities quickly took action to nip the Confederation’s activities in the bud.

The attempted English revolution descended into farce, but the authorities were alerted to the possibility of something similar occurring in Ireland. Three of the leaders of the Irish Confederation were arrested and charged with treason. In May, having been found guilty, they were sentenced to 14 years transportation. Before this punishment could be put into effect, its imposition provided the impetus for a recruitment campaign leading to a potential rebellion.

On 29th July O’Brien led the siege of a cottage in Ballingarry, County Tipperary, in which some members of the constabulary had taken refuge. One of his men was killed by a random shot fired from within the cottage and O’Brien led his men away. He was arrested shortly afterwards at Thurles railway station.

One of the men who had accompanied O’Brien to Paris in April, Richard O’Gorman, was organiser for the rebellion in Limerick. A few days after the Ballngarry incident, a group of about 200 men, supposedly acting on behalf of O’Gorman, held up the Limerick-Tralee mail coach at Abbeyfeale. They confiscated the arms and official dispatches it contained but returned private mail to the postmaster. They considered mounting a siege of the town but, when they heard the news from Tipperary decided to call a halt.

O’Gorman disappeared. Two different speculative accounts of his escape from arrest, include the possibility that he traveled via Kilrush. Indeed, two men were arrested and accused of transporting him aboard a steamer bound for the town. A less likely tale has him aboard another Kilrush bound steamer disguised as a woman.

Whatever the fate of O’Gorman and the other conspirators, there can be no doubt that the rebellion, if not quite as farcical as that in England, nevertheless fizzled out for lack of support. It did nothing to help relieve the suffering of those who had neither food nor the means to acquire it except by sacrificing what few possessions they had. On the contrary, it served to harden public opinion in England where the Irish were already being viewed as ungrateful.

This post contains extracts from chapters 11 and 12 of A Purgatory of Misery.

*For those who may be unfamiliar with the man who gave his name to Ireland’s central thoroughfare and whose statue stands at its southern end, Daniel O’Connell was the leader of a movement seeking repeal of the Act of Union which bound Ireland to the United Kingdom.

The Politics of Place Names

I suppose that by now everyone is familiar with the way the names of the Indian cities of Mumbai/Bombay and Kolkata/Calcutta, or Beijing/Pekin in China, have been returned to their local designations.

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The city of Mumbai – image via http://media2.intoday.in

Many African cities, and even whole nations, are now similarly referred to by their African names in preference to those conferred upon them by the colonial powers.

And in the former Soviet Union the names of places have changed as political upheavals evolved.

People outside of the British Isles might be less aware of the political minefield that surrounds the use of certain place names and geographical terms in Ireland.

One reader of A Purgatory of Misery recently took me to task over my use of some of the place names and geographical terms in that book.

I’ll begin with the one I just used. To me, and to many people, including the compilers of the Wikipedia entry for the term, “The British Isles” simply means the group of islands on the western edge of Europe that includes Britain and Ireland. However, in Ireland the use of the term is anathema because of the fraught relationship between the two largest members of the archipelago as documented in my book. So is any reference to the larger island as “the mainland”.

In the book’s description on Amazon I mistakenly referred to the 1845-52 famine as “the worst man-made disaster to afflict Great Britain”, forgetting that Ireland is not, and never was, a part of Great Britain. The full designation of the kingdom is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Between 1800 and 1922 it would have been “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”.

But my biggest mistake – and it is one I ought never to have made – was in referring to the city of Derry as Londonderry.

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The Peace Bridge over the River Foyle in Derry, N.I. Image via startacus.net

I will not go into the history of the dispute over that name, rather I will refer you to this Wikipedia entry, this report of a Judicial Review, and this news report about a debate in the city that took place as recently as 2015.

These will give you a flavour of the problem, as will this quotation from a Unionist Politician during a debate in the British Parliament in 1984: “Until the 1960s there was a happy use of both Londonderry and Derry. I am a member of an organisation known as the Apprentice Boys of Derry, and it is proud to have that name. The Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists who come from that area are happy to call themselves Derrymen. It was a matter that did not provoke excitement and it certainly was not taken as being an offensive remark to say that one was from Derry.”

No wonder the question of the border between the two parts of the island is a deal breaking issue in the negotiations over Brexit.

And the book? I’ve made the requested changes, and added a note at the beginning:

The use of the term “British Isles” throughout this book is intended as a shorthand description of the group of islands that lies at the Western edge of Europe. For reasons that will quickly become apparent to the reader, many Irish people have a deep resentment for any use of the word “British” in connection with their homeland. No offence is intended. This book is aimed at an international readership and we trust the term will be acceptable to the majority of such readers.

The same applies to the use of the expression “mainland” to distinguish the largest member of the group, including England, Scotland and Wales, from the island of Ireland.

I’m pleased to be able to report that the book continues to garner five star reviews. Even my harshest critic, in his private communication, said it was “[a] well written and extremely intelligent . . . short, succinct guide to the Famine”, and said it deserved to succeed.

There may be more good news about it early in 2018 – stay tuned!

An Apology to Everyone Who Voted ‘Leave’ on June 23rd

If I have given the impression via my several comments on the outcome of the referendum that I think you are ignorant, or stupid, or racist, or xenophobic, I apologise unreservedly. I have no wish to insult your intelligence. I do believe that one or more of those epithets can fairly be leveled at some of those who led the campaign. I also believe that it is they who are guilty of insulting your intelligence.

I watched a woman on Question Time last night saying that she had listed the pros and cons and made a carefully considered decision on the basis of that list. I would have loved to have seen the contents of that list. I can’t help wondering how many of the ‘cons’ were based on the myths and misunderstandings that the campaign leaders and the media perpetuate about the nature of the EU.

In the same audience was a man who stated quite firmly that ‘we don’t want their socialist ideas’. And yet it is well documented that many who support Labour, and Jeremy Corbyn’s particular version of Socialism, voted to leave. You should not be surprised if I see something of an inconsistency there.

Others have stated that the EU exists to feather the nests of bankers and big business. The opposite of ‘socialist ideas.’ I wonder which of these diametrically opposed ‘cons’ appeared on that woman’s list?

The EU has been characterised as undemocratic, yet its governance is probably more democratic, with more checks and balances, than that of any member state. There is a parliament elected by a system of proportional representation. There is a Council of Ministers in which each member state has equal representation.

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It has been described as overly bureaucratic, yet employs fewer officials than Birmingham city council. (See panel. There’s more detail here)

Of course it has its faults. The idea of the parliament having to meet in two different places, is wasteful, since the location of the parliament has no bearing on the decisions it makes. The location does, however, gain some economic benefit from its presence, and the practice is a mistaken homage to the principle of ‘sharing’ where only two of the 28 members are able to reap the almost negligible benefit.

Getting 28 different nation states to agree on anything is difficult and demands a degree of compromise that is often frustrating. But it is worth noting that Britain has ‘got its way’ more often than not in key decisions. The article to which I have linked shows that UK MEPs were on the ‘winning side’ in fewer votes than those of any other member nation. Even so, they were on the losing side in less than 30% of all votes. Most decisions have a high degree of support across the board.

What I am saying here, is that much of the rhetoric of those who have opposed Britain’s membership of the EU since the beginning is based, if not on downright lies, certainly on distortions of the truth.

I understand that many people did not know which set of ‘facts’ to believe. When I say [some] people did not know what they were voting for, it is because of the disparity in beliefs between those who, like the man in last night’s Wakefield audience object to ‘the Socialist ideas’ they believe the EU stand for on the one hand, and those, on the other, who object to the austerity measures the EU has imposed on Greece. You surely have to admit they cannot both be right.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Thanks to Stevie over at https://steviet3.wordpress.com/ for nominating me for the ‘Three Quotes for Three Days’ challenge.

The rules of the challenge are:

  1. Three quotes for three days.
  2. Three nominees each day (no repetition).
  3. Thank the person who nominated you.
  4. Inform the nominees.

For my third and final quote I am going to take another from George Bernard Shaw:

Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it. George Bernard Shaw.

I have been unable to find the context for this quotation, but he had this to say on the subject in Misalliance: You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.

I have no way of knowing what my father believed he was fighting for when he flew nightly bombing raids on German cities, because he never made it back from one of them. I choose to believe it was for a better world rather than merely ‘King and Country’.

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Lancaster bombers like the one of which my father was a crew member Picture from cbc.ca. My father’s aircraft was captained by a Canadian.

England, before World War Two and my birth, was a place I could not have loved in the unquestioning way of a true patriot. Bigotry, homophobia and misanthropy were the order of the day. Sexual harassment was condoned as were capital and corporal punishment, including the judicial use of the latter. The inbred sense of entitlement and superiority felt by the proprietors of the largest empire the world has ever known made Britain, on reflection, not a lot better than the enemy she was fighting.

True, Hitler took the whole notion of the ‘Fatherland’, and the superiority of the fictional race to which he claimed to belong, to its most obscene conclusion. But the seeds for such beliefs are there in the idea that any one country, any one religion, any one ethnicity, is superior to all others.

A better world

We did begin building a better world after the war in which I was born and my father died. The post-war government in Britain created a health service free at the point of use. Internationally the United Nations, NATO and the European Union brought the promise of lasting peace. I hope Frank senior would have approved of my embracing of centre-left politics in the 1980s, and my active involvement in, first, the UK Liberal Party, and then the Liberal Democrats. I was proud to be a member of two local authorities that argued for, and, to the extent they were allowed to, implemented, progressive policies on Education and other council run services.

Under successive governments Britain decriminalised homosexuality and eventually made gay marriage acceptable. Capital and corporal punishment were outlawed, along with sexual harassment and other forms of bullying in schools and workplaces. Women were empowered to follow careers that proved them to be the equals of men – though their pay still lags behind. The established Church allowed women priests and, quite recently female bishops. As I entered my twilight years I really thought we had achieved a lot on the road to that better world.

There was certainly a lot still to do. There were people who saw some or all of these changes as unwelcome. Resistance to measures designed to counter the harmful effects of parallel technological developments remained strong, but our rivers and the air in our cities is much cleaner than it was in my youth. There has even been, in the last year, an international agreement to cut carbon pollution, signed up to by 192 nations.

Symptoms of hate

What has all this to do with patriotism? Quite simply that it makes me proud to be a citizen of a country that has played a key role in all these reforms, sometimes reluctantly, but always making steady progress in what I deem to be the right direction.

Until June 2016.

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Anti-Polish immigrant graffiti in London in 2016.(Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Suddenly a new Britain has appeared over the horizon. A Britain that echoes all those symptoms of hate that characterised prewar Britain. Overt racism, homophobia, bullying, a belief that Britons are superior to their fellow Europeans who have no business even being here. An indifference to the plight of refugees seeking a better life than they could avail of in poverty stricken and war-torn countries.

I console myself that only 36.4% of the electorate voted to leave the EU and that not all of them did so out of motives of xenophobia. But I am deeply saddened by the attitude of the popular presses whose headlines make me ashamed to be British. If patriotism is the belief that the country of my birth is superior to the rest, it is impossible for me to be a patriot in the circumstance Britain now finds itself in. When I look at Britain, as reflected in its media in the second half of 2016, I truly feel like Robert Heinlein’s ‘stranger in a strange land’.

I nominate:

Rosalien Bachus http://rosalienebacchus.wordpress.com

Asha Seth https://knisha.wordpress.com

Inkyfire https://prabhatks.wordpress.com