The interwoven nature of the Irish and English peoples

Blog by Paul Griffin.

Ireland is, as we know, an independent, sovereign nation. I sometimes wonder, though, how far this sovereignty actually extends. At the time of the 9/11 attacks on New York, I was living in Pembrokeshire, in south-west Wales. In the weeks immediately following the attacks, it became a regular event, just as darkness was falling, to see a pair of American F15 jet fighters, with their distinctive silhouettes, flying very low and very fast over our isolated rural house, heading due west. I later discovered that these were based in Suffolk. At that speed, they would have passed over the coast in a matter of seconds. But where were they going? From where we lived, the only land which lies in that direction is Ireland. I formed the conclusion that, in the heightened state of alert which followed the events of 9/11, these aeroplanes were tasked with the duty of patrolling Irish airspace, or at least the perimeter of it. Whether such a patrol took place with or without the acquiescence of the Irish government, who can say? A glance at the list of aircraft available to the Irish Air Corps suggests that there’s nothing in there capable of intercepting a pair of F15s. On balance, though, with the emphasis rightly placed on diplomacy, it seems more likely that the Irish government was consulted, if not actually given any choice in the matter. The stakes were rather high in those days.

This raises the question of Ireland’s status where defence is concerned. She is clearly not capable of defending herself against any concerted attack by a power antagonistic to Britain, and wishing to use Ireland as a strategic base to regroup and resupply before pursuing their main objective. Any such considerations are, we hope, purely theoretical, but defence planners deal in theory, and spend their time thinking the unthinkable and planning for it. I refuse to believe that, just as the Irish Republic appears to be completely unpopulated and uncharted on weather maps on British television, these defence planners in Whitehall are capable of excluding the Republic completely from their thoughts. On the contrary, I firmly believe that it must be their greatest nightmare to have such a large, virtually defenceless body of land only about fifty miles from Britain at its nearest points, and not under their direct control.

I imagine that it was always so since Irish independence, and especially during the Second World War. Documents which have now entered the public domain tell of the so-called Plan W, a joint venture between Britain and the Irish Free State. According to this, if Ireland had been invaded and occupied by Germany, British forces would have landed in Northern Ireland, and been invited to cross the border by Eamon de Valera to retake the country. Something else which has come to light is that Churchill actually offered de Valera, then Taoiseach, a united Ireland if he would bring the Irish Free State into the war. He, of course, refused. He knew a little about civil wars, and presumably did not wish to precipitate another one.

What all this emphasises, I believe, is the interdependence of Britain and Ireland. The latter, realistically, is hardly in a better position to defend herself than she was in the dark days of the “Emergency;” an epithet which is, surely, a masterpiece of Irish understatement. I flatly refuse to believe that there is not now in existence a contemporary version of Plan W, to be invoked in the hopefully unthinkable contingency of Ireland being invaded by some foreign power with designs on Britain. Such a plan could, I imagine, only exist with the knowledge and co-operation of the Irish government. I’m fairly certain that no government wishes to leave the country undefended. They must accept, however, that they simply don’t have the resources to maintain a first-class defensive capability. Just as the United Kingdom, to some extent, shelters under the umbrella of the United States, so must Ireland seek a similar, if lesser, degree of protection. All this would, of course, be very politically sensitive, and not for public consumption. I assume that many Irish people believe that, because they are a non-belligerent nation with no particular ambitions, the rest of the world is content to let them alone. Let us hope and pray that it’s so. History, however, tends to lead us toward a different conclusion. Many small nations have found themselves as pawns in a much larger game.

Defence is not, of course, the only area where Britain and Ireland have common interests. After the war, Britain was in need of a certain amount of rebuilding. It was some time before plans were in place and funds available. Eventually, though, the day arrived. Towns and cities were remodelled, sometimes along lines which have since been discredited, but with the best intentions, and a certain amount of optimism and faith in the future. Who carried out this work? Anecdotal evidence suggests that the majority of the workers were Irish. They seem to have brought with them a work ethic lacking in the native British population, then becoming accustomed to increasing levels of comfort and affluence. To these Irish workers, we owe our infrastructure of new roads and motorways, our redeveloped town centres which had been damaged by wartime bombing and neglect, our public housing projects, and much more. We in Britain needed their skill and dedication, and they needed the work and the income which it provided. Yet they were sometimes disrespected and marginalised. The wiser ones managed to save their money, and it set them up when they returned home to Ireland. Others were not so fortunate. It must have been tempting to soften the impact of such a hard working life by excessive drinking in the evenings, and this took its toll of many. Some never made it home, and may still be living in reduced circumstances in the towns and cities they helped rebuild. Are they not owed some duty by both British and Irish governments?

In short, Britain and Ireland are two countries with a shared heritage, and with far more things in common than those which divide them. The Irish language is, for all its historical and literary significance, something of a red herring. The insistence on all state school pupils in Ireland learning it is a major injustice crying out to heaven to be remedied. How much better would be their future prospects if they were to learn French or German? We are all, on both sides of the Irish Sea, the beneficiaries of the last 800 years, for better or for worse. For a while, we both shared in the greatest empire the world has ever seen, and men from both our countries fought and died for it. We in Britain let it slip away from us, while Ireland was indoctrinated with a new vision – the repossession of a mythical past which may never have happened, but whose image was powerful enough for men to gamble for it with their lives. The time has come to get to grips with reality. We are all Europeans now. Narrow nationalism has had its day. There have been positive steps forward. Those Irishmen who fought in the First and Second World Wars may now be openly honoured and recognised. War memorials are being maintained and appreciated once again. Her Majesty the Queen paid an official visit which, by all accounts, seems to have gone well. The next step is, surely, for Ireland to take her place in the Commonwealth, alongside many other independent, sovereign nations who share the values of that body. Let us recognise that this estrangement between our two countries was something artificial, maintained to save face and to pursue a political agenda, and should be consigned to history.