Two years from now will mark the centenary since Ireland was divided in two, in a manner which was likened by the wife of Edward Carson’s private secretary to “cutting a live animal in half.” There were many problems which demanded resolution as Ireland’s withdrawal from the United Kingdom was negotiated over the course of the preceding decades, and ultimately, it was deemed a far better option to… kick the can down the road.
Chief among concerns was the threat of the outbreak of communal violence, or even full on civil war. In September 1912 a Covenant had been signed in blood, and the Ulster Volunteers had been formed, reigniting the revolutionary flame of Irish politics. They pledged to take up arms against the British government in order to maintain their British identity. Their protestations were a show of force against any notion that they could be show-horned into a Home Rule deal. A year later the Irish Volunteers were formed in response, and by 1916 militant separatism was well on the way to being restored as the mainstream force of Irish nationalism.
The next main concern with withdrawal from the UK was how the industrial economy of the north-eastern part of the country would fare if governed solely by the largely agrarian south. Postcards were circulated which depicted Belfast under Home Rule: dystopian images of a city gone to wreck-and-ruin, a crumbling City Hall with cattle grazing on the lawn, the Albert Clock torn down to make way for a statue to nationalist leader John Redmond.
Considering the weight of the issues at hand, it seemed necessary for a transitionary phase and so Ireland was separated into two states - the northern variant remaining in the UK- with the view that after a time they would reconcile, and from Britain’s point of view that ideally would be within the Commonwealth. People of 1921 would surely have been as incredulous watching Ireland be pulled apart into two separate states, as we would have in 2014 were the same to have happened to Scotland. Though divisions were obvious, the solution may have seemed drastic and heavy-handed to say the least.
It is ironic that the only part of the island with a majority that outright rejected Home Rule, is the only part of the island where it was successfully implemented. This would be a worthwhile consideration for the DUP in their dealings with the Conservative Party.
It was Stephen Dedalus, the protagonist of Joyce’s Ulysses, who said “history is a nightmare form which I’m trying to awake”. Pertinent, given the past few years of Northern Irish politics have seemed like some sort of recurring fever dream brought on from eating some out-of-date cheddar.
The concerns which saw the creation of the border in Ireland, are the same which surround it today: we are primarily concerned that a solidifying of the border may serve as enough of a cultural indignity as to disturb the peace process, and secondly there are economic concerns held by businesses which rely on an easy flow of trade.
As discussions have begun regarding how best to commemorate partition and the foundation of Northern Ireland, the British government proposal of remembrance by reenactment seems most fitting. As they negotiate to leave the European Union, with concerns for how this will affect the peace process and the economy of Northern Ireland, they have proposed another transitionary phase.
This is all the more fitting for a region which never seems to move beyond talks about talks about talks. In some ways, it is easy to see why those who want the UK out of the EU as fast and as hard as possible have such an aversion to the proposed backstop.
There is another example of a chronological doppelgänger. Britain would do well to study the withdrawal of the Free State from the UK, as it prepares to leave the EU. Ideally, they would have made such considerations three years, or even a century ago, but we have to live with our mistakes.
The British government has spent three years, and counting, negotiating what is merely a preliminary deal with the European Union - all trade deals with the rest of the world, the notion of which was extolled to the heavens by the Leave campaign, are the next step, the one after that, and the staircase after those two. This is likely to be the main issue of British politics for at least the next decade; the case was very much similar for what is now the Republic of Ireland.
The Republic, never actually realised, was of course proclaimed in 1916 - a Treaty was finally ratified four years later, and the Irish Free State emerged a years after that. The Free State would remain within the British Commonwealth, retaining the British Monarch, for another 27 years, and its currency would be tied to the sterling for another 30 after that. This all goes without mentioning the fact that all of the above took place without the six north-eastern counties. A century apart, there are many points of parity between 1916 and 2016.