So just what am I?

One of the side issues of the UK’s Brexit deal, is that EU citizens living in the UK will no longer be entitled to stay unless they are granted “settled status”. This is a new category of status that’s different to indefinite leave to remain. It is open to all EU residents who’ve lived in the UK for five years or more.

Applying is an easy process except it’s currently only available to users of Android devices. Oh and it costs £65 per adult. The Home Office insists that the starting position for applications, is that the applicant has the right to remain. But past Home Office and Government IT projects weren’t exactly without controversy.

However for me there’s a get out clause. Settled status won’t apply to Irish citizens because of a 1920s agreement that predates the EU.

I was born in Ireland, and despite having lived in the UK for over 50 years, I still hold an Irish passport. Yet here I am able to vote in UK elections. What’s more, that won’t change even if Brexit happens. My Austrian wife on the other hand, won’t have those rights after Brexit. She’ll have to apply for settled status or Irish citizenship.

This raised the question of identity. Just what am I? Cut me, and my blood is Irish. My maternal grandfather would probably disown me if I said otherwise. Yet I’ve a mix of Irish and English culture in me. I don’t speak more than a few words of Gaelic. I was educated in London. As a result I’ve learnt about Irish history from an English perspective. I’ve read unbiased work to fill in the gaps to see things from the other side, but I still don’t feel I know as much about Irish history as I should do.

I ask myself if I’m really English. I don’t think I am. So does that make me Irish? Well yes, but with an English slant. Personally I identify more as a Londoner than English. Actually I see myself as a south west Londoner. Well No. I’m a south west Londoner who enjoys his work, watching football, drinking the odd beer or two, and spending time with my family.

Does that make me Irish? Well, yes and no. I’ll never be anything other than Irish. I’ll maintain that passport as long as I’m able to. But who I really am is so much more than a legal piece of paper. I’m a citizen of the world.

The saddest day in Irish history

This day in 1922, The Dáil (the Irish parliament) voted in favour of the treaty Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith signed in London 32 days earlier. That treaty gave 26 counties of Ireland independence, but crucially left six still part of the United Kingdom.

With parallels to the UK’s Brexit vote, the result was not clear cut. 64 Dáil members voted in favour, and 57 against. The result was to signal the start of a Civil War, with Irishmen who’d fought with each other against the British in the Irish War of Independence, now take sides against their former comrades.

As if to emphasise the emotion and gravitas of the debate, the official Dáil record has the following quotes from the major figures:

Eamon de Valera when he realised he had lost the vote:

“I would like my last word here to be this. We have had a glorious record for four years. It has been four years of magnificent discipline in our nation. The world is looking at us now…”

He broke down with emotion before he’d managed to complete what he wanted to say.

Following a vitriolic debate where each side accused the other of bad faith, Michael Collins wrote:

“I have signed my death warrant.”

He knew he was a significant target for both personal and physical attacks from the anti-treaty side, and would be killed in an ambush just eight months later.

Anti-treatyite, Cathal Brugha commented:

“While the war was in progress, I could not praise too highly the work done by the Head Quarters’ Staff. The Chief of Staff and each of the leaders of the subsections were the best men we could get for the positions. Each of them carried out efficiently, so far as I know, the work that was entrusted to him they worked conscientiously and patriotically for Ireland without seeking any notoriety, with one exception. Whether he is responsible or not for the notoriety I am not going to say (cries of “Shame” and “Get on with the Treaty”). There is little more for me to say. One member was specially selected by the Press and the people to put him into a position which he never held; he was made a romantic figure, a mystical character such as this person certainly is not; the gentleman I refer to is Mr. Michael Collins.”

Strong stuff. A civil war is the worst type of conflict. It’s ugly and often leaves scars for generations.

Those scars may be nearly 100 years old, but they still exist. To most in Ireland the Irish Civil War is just part of it’s history. It’s part of it’s struggle for self-determination. To a minority, it’s a reminder that self-determination was never fully achieved.

The legacy of the civil war though is still felt throughout the 32 counties of Ireland. If the treaty had been voted down, would the troubles of the 60s, 70, and 80s have happened in Northern Ireland? Would the IRA and UDA have become the organisation that killed and maimed thousands both in Ireland and UK? The biggest question of all, would Britain have stood back and let Ireland reject the treaty?

Hypothetical questions, yes. But that’s what makes history interesting.

Forced repatriation: where did it occur?

When you think of evidence of forced repatriation throughout history, where do you think of?

More recently you may think of the Palestinians. A lot of their land has been forcibly repatriated by Israeli settlers, and access to what’s left made more difficult. Discrimination and harassment are daily issues for them.

Maybe you can think of Crimea in Ukraine. Annexed by Russia in 2014, although most of the population wanted this to happen.

How about Tibet? Or the indigenous populations of America or Australia? Both have suffered suppression of their culture, language, and confiscation of land.

Going further back in time, think of how European colonial settlers used divide and conquer tactics to suppress opposition. If that didn’t work, they weren’t afraid to use conflict to expand their empires. It could be argued that a lot of the problems in former colonial territories today, are a direct result of these actions.

All the above are good examples, but I bet there’s one that won’t make most people’s lists.

What? You need a clue?

OK. Here you are…

  • There’s evidence that humans existed here since 10,500 BC.
  • The west tends to be wetter on average, especially in the late autumn and winter months.
  • The Pine Martin and Red Fox are native species.
  • The population is less now than 200 years ago.
  • There’s only one city with more than a million population.

Still not got it? OK here are some giveaways…

  • Their patron saint is celebrated around the world by natives and non-natives alike each March.
  • They suffered a series of famines in the mid 19th century that decimated the potato crop.
  •  Known for their like of a good tipple, they spell whiskey with an “e”.

Ireland? Really?

Yes really. 

The UK’s Tudor and Stuart monarchs implemented a “plantation” policy which saw Protestant settlers from England and Scotland aggressively colonise the country.

From the mid-16th century, Irish landowners were dispossessed to make way for the settlers. This resulted in a vicious cycle of rebellion against the English government, but only resulted in further dispossession of lands as punishment. The province of Munster was the first region to be heavily colonized, but following the Flight of Earls Ulster became pet project of King James I.

The displacement of the Irish was compounded by the threat to the Catholic church in Ireland. English Protestants dominated the Irish government, and Catholics were barred from holding state office. Additionally the Irish Parliament was subservient to its English counterpart as a result of the 15th century Poynings’ Law. Then during the early 17th century Irish constituencies were changed to allow the election of English and Scottish Protestant representatives, resulting in a Protestant majority in the Irish Parliament.

The past is your history lesson

There’s little argument, that the policy of colonizing Ireland has resulted in the issues we face there today. It is at the very heart of Irish history ever since.

Whether it is the Battle of the Boyne, Confederate Wars, 1798 Rebellion, or Easter Uprising, they’ve all centred on one aim: ending British rule in Ireland. The fact that part of Ireland is still ruled (quite literally at the moment) from Westminster, is at the heart of Irish and UK politics to this day.

If you learn one thing from this post, it’s that forced repatriation is never a good idea.

Brexit and The Irish Border

If there is one political story that is rarely off the front pages, it’s Brexit. It’s everywhere. It’s the first question on every political show, and rightly so. After all it’s outcome will affect us all for decades to come. “OK”, I hear you say. “How do you know this when we don’t know the detail of what is on offer?” True enough, we don’t know what the deal will be, or even if there’ll be a deal. Here’s the thing though. Regardless of whether we have a deal with the European Union or not, the political landscape will be significantly different for better or worse.

A year ago, the topic of conversation over Brexit coffee tables was the three main problem areas of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. Namely:

  • The rights of citizens of European Union countries who already live in the UK to remain here.
  • Trade negotiations.
  • The Irish border.

The first was fairly easily resolved. There was never any real desire from anyone to throw people out of the country that were legally here. It is undeniable that immigration played a part in the Brexit vote, but that was about reducing the number coming here, not exporting those already here.

Trade negotiations is a little more difficult. Will we still be part of the customs union and have a tariff free agreement? Or will we follow the Norway model of being part of the European single market. This would allow us to have broadly the same tariffs as the custom union, but also allow us to negotiate our own trade agreements with non-EU countries. Lastly there’s the no deal option, where we’d have to negotiate all trade agreements under World Trade Organisation rules.

If there’s no deal on trade, it could well be because of the final issue. There’s been a border in Ireland since the formation of the Irish Free State in 1920. What was later to become what is now known as Ireland, consists of 26 counties. It’s a separate independent country. The other six counties make up Northern Ireland, which form part of the United Kingdom.

So trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland is a big issue if there are different rules between the two constituent parts. The problem would be made worse by the total lack of any border controls. When “The Troubles” were at their height, there were border points, mainly manned by the military, on major transport routes. This was mainly aimed at ensuring would be terrorists couldn’t get in to the north from the south, and to prevent them from escaping to the south once they’d committed an atrocity.

There were also customs checks back in the day. Cross border smuggling was big business with petrol, booze, and cigarettes being top of the list of items smuggled. The problem was the border goes across some of the remotest parts of Ireland. There are hundreds of crossings, some little more than thin dirt tracks, making it virtually impossible to control. Logistically things haven’t changed. The military border points may have gone, but the myriad of border crossing remain. Should there be different trade rules between the two constituent parts of Ireland, it will equally difficult to police and enforce.

You can understand why all the talk is about trade, but there’s one aspect of the Irish border issue that gets very little coverage. Whisper this quietly; it’s the possibility of a united Ireland. This gets little media coverage because it’s a bigger problem than post Brexit border trade. The two topics are inextricably linked. If we want to remain part of the customs union, the European Union say we must be part of their club. Therefore if we want to leave, different trade rules apply. Neither Ireland or the UK want that.

No matter how unlikely that may seem, a united Ireland of 32 counties would solve the trade issue at one fell swoop. It would create a plethora of other seemingly intractable issues though. Logistical issues like what flag the country would use, or what national anthem they’d sing. The Irish government has stated that should a united Ireland ever come into existence, that nothing would be ruled out. Perhaps that’s more of a politician’s  answer, as they know that such small scale decisions are fraught with historical and jingoistic significance.

Agreeing to a united Ireland may be the easy part. Deciding on changing the wording of the Irish national anthem, agreeing on the colours and design of a flag, now there’s a discussion bound to bring out all the old arguments.

Has Irish Catholicism lost the knack?

Yesterday’s referendum on repealing the 8th amendment of the Irish Constitution may not be a watershed moment in Irish history, but it does say a lot about how we Irish want the country to look like in the 21st century. For decades Ireland had some of the most socially conservative laws in the world.

But why was that? To answer that, we need to look back around a hundred years.

The Ireland of 1918 was a very different to that of today. It was still ruled from London. There wasn’t a split between the 26 counties of Ireland (The Irish Free State – later to become the Republic of Ireland and then just Ireland) and the six counties (Northern Ireland) until the Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified by the Irish Government (The Dáil) in 1922.

Gaining independence from the United Kingdom wasn’t quite as straight forward though. There was a sizable minority who felt there should be no independence deal, unless all 32 counties of Ireland were included. The non-acceptance of the split between the north and south was a major factor is the year long civil war. This ideal of a united Ireland is something that colours Irish politics to this day.

With the major fighting over in 1923, the Dáil started to build a country from a broken, impoverished state. Less than a century before, the country was ravaged by several famines. Many left Ireland for other shores. In the early 20th century, the continued independence struggle had taken its toll on the country’s infrastructure. The stand out conflict was the 1916 Easter Uprising, but even before then there was guerrilla action. After World War One, the IRA saw their chance and started the Irish War of Independence which ultimately lead to Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The first Dáil had a real issue. How do they rebuild a country, when there isn’t a lot of money. Thanks to the Catholic Church, which had suffered none of the financial upheaval, they were able to make a start. The quid quo pro was the cultivation of a one-dimensional type of nationality, culture and religion. In particular the Catholic Church was able to use the education system to foster this. To this day the majority of Irish schools are Catholic schools, run and largely funded by the church.

Roll on 50 years or so, and a series of scandals rocked the Catholic Church, and none more so than in Ireland. For the first time in a long while, Irish Catholics started to question the legitimacy of their faith. A growing number of couples couldn’t remarry after ending previous relationships. Divorce only became legal after the 15th constitutional amendment in 1995.

As the Celtic Tiger moved into the 20th century, the spotlight was shone on Ireland and the world liked what they saw. An young, educated, and hard working population seized their chance and made hay whilst the sun shone. Whilst the scandals certainly affected the association many had with the Catholic Church, so did this sudden feeling of financial and social independence.

The vote to allow abortion in Ireland up to 12 weeks pregnancy, is the latest in a line of revolts against the Catholic church’s stance on issues like divorce and homosexuality.

Perhaps the most telling of all is the Catholic Church’s own faith survey. The 2016 survey showed that whilst 78% still identified as Catholic, this is over 13% down on the 1991 survey. Furthermore less than half of Irish Catholics attended mass at least one a week, down from 81% in 1990. The fact that the Catholic Church’s doctrine describes this as a mortal sin, meaning the individual is likely to end up in hell unless they repent, seems not to worry most folk.

Whilst the education system may still be largely run by faith organisations, it is clear their influence is waning. So is the pull of the traditional faith system of attending services. The end result is a population unable or unwilling to hear a religion’s theological teaching.

Last Friday, the Irish nation said to the world it was no longer accepting of the past. It wants to be a modern, progressive society. It may still want to be identified as Catholic, but not in the same manner as before.

Could this have been prevented? Maybe. The current Pope seems to be the church’s best chance of progressing its theology, but that’s a big ask. If Pope Frances had arrived 30-40 years ago, he would have a better chance of making real theological chance, but then he wouldn’t have been elected back then. The Catholic Church can appear to be like a super tanker trying to turn around in the middle of the Suez Canal. The Catholic Church clearly hasn’t kept up with the times, and maybe has paid the price.

My St.Patrick’s Day through the ages

About ten years ago I went to a comedy event at the Royal Albert Hall. One of the acts, Dubliner Andrew Waxwell, came on stage and asked, “Are they’re any Muslims here?” A few lone voices yelled back. Maxwell’s response perfectly summed up my experience of being Irish in the 70s and 80# in London. “Fair play to you. We love Muslims. We Irish LOVE Muslims. Why. Because you’ve taken the heat off us.”

When I was a child, we’d were able to buy shamrock from the local greengrocer in the week before St.Patrick’s Day. Shamrock was notorious for dying quickly, so we’d buy it and keep it moist until the day itself. On the day we’d all pin it to out coats and jumpers and wear it with pride. As time went on it became more difficult to buy shamrock. We’d source it through the Church or even from relatives back home, but eventually we couldn’t get it at all.

Being an Irish adult living in London in the 1970s and 1980s, wasn’t entirely easy. Racism still existed. The “No Blacks. No Dogs. No Irish” signs may not have been as common as before, but that didn’t mean discrimination didn’t exist. Just because we have laws, doesn’t mean folk aren’t going to ignore it. I remember one conversation at work with a colleague after an IRA bomb had killed a passer by in Belfast. “I see your lot were at it again” was the flippant ill-judged remark. Pushing back diplomatically did little but entrench his position, so I did what most folk would do in this position. I walked away.

Many years later I’m married to an Iraqi Christian. We joke that because of our backgrounds, we’re both terrorists but that I’m an amateur and still on probation! Joking aside, what infuriates me about such ill thought out bigotry, is the association that because I’m Irish, I’m a terrorist willing to kill and maim. In the same way that not every Frenchman wears a striped t-shirt and cycles a bike with onions over the handlebars, I don’t condone activities that harm innocent individuals.

The 90s saw a sudden thawing in relations. Suddenly it was cool to be Irish. Nearly every High street had an Irish pub. The “Celtic Tiger” saw a resurgence in the Irish economy as tech company’s were attracted by an educated workforce. Riverdance cemented the Irish identity to the world in its own unique way. Seeing that performance at the Eurovision Song Contest still brings a lump to my throat. It perfectly captured the optimism of the day in a way that celebrated one of our customs in a modern, inclusive manner.

These days being Irish is just for the Irish. Every St.Patrick’s Day you’ll find folk in just about every bar wearing silly Guinness hats or wearing ginger leprechaun wigs. Yes anyone willing to look utterly foolish can be Irish for an evening, just so long as they get bladdered in the process.

17th March 2018 was a good St.Patrick’s Day. At 8:30am I joined around 400 folk for a run around our local park. Organised by the Park Run organisation, its a very friendly and inclusive event. A shoot out to any Irish in the event briefing, and I cheered back. One of the course marshall’s was dressed in a ridiculous leprechaun outfit, and cheered us on with an equally awful Irish accent.

Roll on a couple of hours and it was time for the big Six Nations game against England at Twickenham. Ireland had already won the Six Nations Championship, but had the chance of beating England and winning the illusive Grand Slam. Something they’d only done twice before. Talking to a friend of mine before the game, we both feared a fairly stale strategic game with lots of kicking. Whoever committed the least penalties would will. How wrong could we be. With Ireland 14-0 up inside 25 minutes and repulsing everything the England offensive line could throw at it, it was looking like an easy victory. And so it was, well relatively.

It’s been a good day to be Irish, but not every year has been the same. I remember the days when you had to keep your nationality under wraps. That’s a soul destroying experience. It’s a bit like being an gold medal Olympic athlete, but told you can’t tell anyone you won. I’m Irish and proud of it. I may not shout it from the rooftops, but I’ll never deny it.

So to Irish everywhere, or those that wish they were Irish, may I wish you a safe and very Lá Naomh Phádraig Shona.

46 years on: Will we ever learn from Bloody Sunday?

If ever there was a place name that sums up the divide in Northern Ireland, it is the name of Ulster’s second city. Is it Derry or Londonderry? Officially it is Londonderry ever since King James I gave Derry a royal charter in 1613, but nationalists still refer to it as Derry. You can understand why.

Those divisions were brought into stark contrast on Sunday 30th January 1972, when the city witnessed one of the darkest days in recent Irish history. A day that started with hope and optimism, and ended with death and recriminations that continue to this day.

The civil rights movement that started in the late 1960s had planned a peaceful march from the Bogside outside the city walls into the city centre where a rally would be held. Although the march was well organised, it took place at a time of real tension and increased violence.

For anyone needing a reminder, one of the commonly quoted reasons for “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, was the perception by many Catholics of discrimination in all walks of their life. Whilst this is true, the original civil rights movement was concerned with discrimination in the Protestant working classes too. A fact a leading member of the organising committee for the civil rights match on Bloody Sunday was a Protestant, Ivan Cooper, later a founder of the SDLP.

But hey, why let a few simple facts get in the way of history!

Anyone who has walked around the walls of Derry, will have seen “The Bogside”. It is the Catholic part of town outside the city walls, and largely consisting of poor housing. It was a perfect breeding ground for what became the Provisional IRA. So when the civil rights movement organised a march through this area, the British army were taking no chances. Among the reinforcements brought in was the 1st Parachute Regiment, well known for their uncompromising attitude. Army intelligence suggested the IRA would fire on the army, so they were prepared for trouble.

The march started peacefully enough from the Creggan estate, with 15,000 people marching to the city centre. The Army stopped the march, forcing the marchers down a different route and effectively barring them from leaving the Bogside. This is where the trouble started. Youths threw stones at the army, who initially responded with rubber bullets. This kind of confrontation was not uncommon in the early 1970s, as the Catholic population saw the army as preventing them from exercising their right to equality.

Enter the 1st Parachute Regiment. They were originally located outside the Bogside, but were sent in despite orders to the contrary by their commanding officer. Not known for their reserve, the Saville Inquiry found that the first shots were fired by them into the crowd of rioters. The Paras say they saw rioters holding weapons, although the evidence is inconclusive at best. By the end of the day 26 civilians were shot and 14 died. Not one of the deceased were found to have a weapon or evidence of having fired one. Some were even shot in the back running away from the soldiers. Others were shot whilst waving white handkerchiefs.

That day’s events were a watershed for Northern Ireland. It effectively signaled the end of the civil rights movement, and sharpened the already deep distrust between the communities. It also proved to be a major recruiting campaign for the Provos. IRA member Séanna Walsh said, “It was bedlam. Anyone who cared about anything was involved in some way. It was the situation I was in and as a young man I would say I had no choice.”

There were undoubtedly IRA members taking part in the march, but the march organisers were assured they’d be unarmed. There were also reports of one IRA member firing a revolver at the paratroopers, but this was after the initial shooting started. It is also proven that some soldiers colluded in changing their testimonies when initially giving evidence into to what happened. It is also clear that the Paras were looking for a fight, and according to Saville’s inquiry “lost control”.

Like most history, it is never simple. Within the context of 1972 Northern Ireland, there was blame on both sides. However the unsolicited killing of unarmed civilians is unacceptable. That there were so many that day, is a tragedy. 44 years on, and justice has still to be seen to be done. The Saville Inquiry put the blame squarely on the army, yet the individuals involved have escaped any charges.

Sunday 30th January 1972 has many parallels with Sunday 21 November 1920 during the War of Independence, not least that this is also known as Bloody Sunday. That day 14 unarmed civilians were killed when an armoured car entered the pitch at Croke Park, Dublin during a Gaelic football match and opened fire. Earlier that day the IRA assassinated 13 soldiers and police that they considered as informers.

A retaliatory event? Almost definitely. Such brutal events never address the real issue. It makes you wonder if we’ll ever learn.

Ireland’s shameful legacy

abortionAs an Irish national, albeit one that has lived most of his life away from the mother land, I have a strong sense of nationality. I’m Irish not British, and I always will be. But sometimes my home country makes me wonder whether it is the modern outward looking place I think it to be.

You see abortion is illegal in Ireland.

In 1968 when the UK government passed the abortion bill, a steady stream of young Irish ladies found the only options open to them if they found themselves with an unwanted pregnancy was to:

  • Proceed with the pregnancy and hand in the baby for adoption.
  • Take the risk of a back street abortion at home.
  • Take the boat across to the UK mainland and have a legal abortion.

None of these were particularly useful, but the fact that some chose to come to the UK mainland seemed weird. Surely it would be easier to hop across the border to Northern Ireland and have the abortion there.

Well it would if abortion was legal there. It isn’t.

Strange as it may seem, the UK’s abortion law doesn’t apply to the six counties. Despite some progress being made on the issue in recent years, pregnant ladies wanting an abortion face the same issues regardless of which one of the 32 counties they come from.

The Irish government has promised a referendum on changing the countries constitution, because it prevents abortion except in exceptional circumstances. If the referendum happens, it promises to be a divisive campaign. On the one hand the religious and conservative groups, and on the other the younger, more liberal population.

In the north, things haven’t been helped by the demise of the Northern Ireland Executive. It hasn’t met for a year since the power sharing coalition collapsed after Martin McGuinness’s resignation. In June 2017 the UK government stepped into the debate and announced that women from Northern Ireland could receive abortions in England and Wales.

That’s a positive step, but it doesn’t go far enough.

There are some horrific documented stories of how Irish women have suffered. Amnesty International has documented some of them.

It is time for such practices to stop. You can help Amnesty International by taking action  on their website.

I’m proud that the country of my birth has taken some big human rights steps in recent years. As of 2015 gay marriage is legal. It is sometimes hard for non-Irish people to understand what a massive step that was. The Catholic hierarchy may not have the same strangle hold on debate that it once had, but it still wields a lot of influence in Irish society.

If the referendum on abortion follows suit, I strongly suspect the result will be a constitutional change. That just leaves the north to sort its act out. If they can’t, and it doesn’t look likely that they’ll be in a position too any time soon, it is the UK government’s responsibility to step in and do the right thing.