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Saturday Sound-off: The Will of the People #2

I am getting more than a little tired of people who want to remain in the EU but say “The people have voted and we must accept that.” Why do such people lack the courage to stand up for what they believe in? Why are they content to stand by and watch the country being destroyed, however reluctantly they do so?

I have explained previously how the vote on 23rd June 2016 did not represent the will of (all of ) the people. But there is something even more significant about the #Brexit referendum and it is most easily explained by comparison with the recent referendum here in Ireland.

Apart from the size of the majority, much more clear cut at almost 2/3rds in favour, the Irish referendum did not impose anything upon the losers. On the contrary, it removed an imposition.

The repeal of the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution does not mean that anybody will, in future, have to have an abortion. Those who object on moral or any other grounds to the ending of a pregnancy can still allow their own pregnancy to go to full term whatever the circumstances of conception or the existence of serious risk to the health of the mother or the foetus. But for those facing such a difficult choice there will now be the opportunity to end the pregnancy under certain fairly narrow circumstances yet to be defined by the Irish Parliament.

#Brexit, on the other hand is being imposed on the rest of the population of Britain by the minority who positively supported it two years ago.

What does that mean? Never mind the claim that “Brexit means Brexit”, the reality is that, for businesses that trade with the European Union and for people who like to travel between Britain and the European Union, those activities will, in future, be less easy than they presently are.

Despite all the talk about “frictionless borders”, one thing that everyone who voted to leave the EU has stated repeatedly is that they believe the current arrangements for controlling the borders between Britain and the EU are inadequate and that tougher controls need to be put in place.

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Photo credit: Telegraph Newspapers

That must, inevitably, mean more customs officials, more passport checks, more queues at the ports. It’s not just about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or between Gibraltar and Spain, for that matter. It’s about every point of entry into and exit from the UK.

It means more lorry parks at Dover and places like Lowestoft, Immingham and Hull. It means more frequent bag and passport checks for people arriving home to the UK from European holidays or business trips.

And if you wonder why the cabinet is so divided, it is because of the impossibility of squaring the circle between securing greater control of Britain’s borders on the one hand, and maintaining frictionless trade and travel between the UK and the EU on the other. And all this because for 40 years people have been fed myths and half-truths about the EU’s influence in the lives of ordinary Britons.

Make no mistake, it’s those ordinary Britons who will be worse off in so many ways because of Brexit. The rich, tax avoiding, corporations and oligarchs will be the only beneficiaries. Shame on those politicians who purport to defend “the many not the few” for their abject failure to do just that.

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!