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Ireland and the English Question

English doctor feels the need for a clinical examination of his own attitudes regarding the Irish question.

On 7 February , three IRA mortar bombs were fired at 10 Downing Street while the War Cabinet was meeting about the Gulf. Eleven days later, another bomb killed a commuter in London's Victoria Station and injured 39 others.

Such campaigns have inflamed British public opinion for more than 20 years - and reveal the depth of feeling that exists in some Irish hearts.

Events like these distort the English view of Ireland. The vast majority of people there are opposed to violence. Ireland produces a great number of men and women of faith who have chosen to serve, heal and educate, founding and running some of the best hospitals and schools in many countries. Its economic performance at the moment is high in the European league.

In England we have got used to a caricature. A century ago Thomas Carlyle said that the Irishman was 'the sorest evil this country has to deal with... There abides he, in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence, as the ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder.' When Disraeli asked for a Treasury grant to build Irish railways, a bureaucrat replied, 'Who'd ever travel on an Irish railway? A passenger booked for Dublin would inevitably find himself in Cork!' Echoes of this view continue to this day.

Quite apart from the violence, therefore, something is clearly wrong in the relationship between Britain and Ireland, and it needs addressing. This took me to the history books and to Ireland itself, where I met people with the widest range of views in both North and South. Above all it led me to a search of my own heart. For I am English.

And here I would like to differentiate between Britishness and Englishness. We tend to use both words to mean the same thing, because the English culture has been dominant. The English establishment, for instance, has attracted to itself for generations those with an essentially English expectation of governing. For this reason some Scots and Welsh may feel part of the establishment while others feel excluded.

Black immigrants to Britain can be caught in a similar trap. They can hope to be black British, but to be black English they would have to relinquish their right to their own heritage.

And the Northern Ireland Protestant community can feel British and at the same time estranged from the English.

Ireland was divided into two by Britain in 1922. The South, overwhelmingly Catholic, became independent. Six northern counties remained part of Britain because the Protestant majority there would not agree to a united Ireland, and persuaded Westminster to accept their view. Some of the Catholic minority in the North have continued the struggle for a united country. This remains anathema to the Protestant community. In this division lies the immediate cause of the present problem.

One Catholic farmer told me, 'We have every right to take up arms against a foreign power to attain a united Ireland.' And a Protestant cleric said to me, 'I wouldn't condone terrorism, but to defend our citizenship, we have the right to take up arms if necessary. I would die to remain British.' He had provoked a senior English politician into exclaiming, 'But you're not British, you're Irish!'

One cannot understand the present without looking at the past, and certain events in the complex historical saga focussed the relationship for me. We English are apt to feel that the Irish cannot forget history. But perhaps our problem is that we do not know enough history.

During the four hundred years in which England was under Roman occupation, Ireland remained a free collection of kingdoms linked by a common Gaelic language and tradition. St Patrick converted the people without destroying their culture, and this began Ireland's close relationship with the Christian church.

Over 800 years ago the first Norman English settlers crossed the sea from England, and were followed by Henry II, who sought to maintain his control over them. England was involved in Ireland from that moment.

By the end of the 16th century, when Europe was convulsed by the Reformation, England had become Protestant, while Ireland remained loyal to Rome. So she was seen in England as being both in need of correction and a strategic threat. We did not want France and Spain, the great Catholic nations of Europe, to make common cause with Ireland against us.

Henry VIII claimed all lands in Ireland for the Crown, and Elizabeth I made that claim a reality. The two most powerful Gaelic Irish Earls were finally forced in 1607 to flee to France. Their lands - comprising much of modern-day Northern Ireland - were settled by Protestants from England and Scotland. Fifteen years later there were already about 13,000 Protestant settlers.

In 1641 there was a Catholic backlash against the settlers and 12,000 were massacred. Cromwell used this to justify an invasion of Ireland and a series of massacres. In 1649 he wrote about Drogheda: 'The enemy was about 3,000 strong in the town... I believe we put to the sword the full number of the defendants.'

And in another letter: 'I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgement of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbued their hands in so much innocent blood.' He then confiscated the Irish Catholics' land and banished them to the barren lands of the west.

Three hundred years later, Winston Churchill was to write: 'The consequences of Cromwell's rule in Ireland have distressed and at times distracted English politics down even to the present day. To heal them baffled the skill and loyalties of successive generations... Upon all of us there still lies "the curse of Cromwell".'

After Cromwell, England returned to the monarchy. Charles II was followed by James II, who had converted to Catholicism. James appointed Catholics to high offices of state in Ireland and it looked as though he would be able to repeal the Cromwellian land settlements. But before he could, William of Orange emerged from Holland, married Mary, who was next in line to the throne and, after agreeing to the Bill of Rights, they were jointly proclaimed King and Queen of England. The Protestant line was restored.

James fled to Ireland to enlist support but the Protestant settlers in Londonderry slammed the gates in his face and he besieged the city. After much hesitation, the siege was lifted by English ships. This made the Protestants determined on a policy of 'no surrender' - and to stand alone because England might be unreliable, a feeling which remains to this day. In 1690 James was finally defeated by William at the Battle of the Boyne. These events and feelings are kept alive each year in the Orange Marches.

In the eighteenth century harsh Penal Laws were enforced. Catholics were excluded from Parliament and any kind of government service. They could neither teach nor maintain schools. Barred from owning land, they could only lease it, for up to 31 years. When they died the land had to be divided between all the children unless one of them became Protestant. Then he inherited everything. By the end of the century, only five per cent of the land remained in Catholic hands, and many Catholic Irish lived in great poverty.

So the Protestant faith was officially established in Ireland not by the conversion of the Irish but by the rule of England, through the 'Protestant Ascendancy' of wealthy settlers, and members of the old Gaelic Catholic families who in some cases changed religion to retain land and other privileges. The magnificent country houses they built can still be seen all over Ireland. All Irish churches were given to the Protestant Church of Ireland, and no Catholic churches were allowed till the middle of the nineteenth century. Dublin today is 97 per cent Catholic, but its two historic cathedrals are Protestant.

By 1841 Ireland had eight million inhabitants. Many of the very poor, with tiny plots of land, subsisted only on potatoes. In 1845 the potato in both countries was destroyed by a fungus. In England, where no one was dependent on one crop, it was a minor irritant. In Ireland it was a catastrophe.

The English Government of the day believed passionately in the free market. They were afraid that giving food to the Irish would distort it. They had been conditioned to think of the Irish as an 'indolent' people. And since Ireland was a long way from London, in terms of the travel of the day, many found it hard to grasp the scale of the tragedy which was unfolding.

An Englishman, Charles Trevelyan, was put in charge. Before long he discontinued relief operations, writing, 'It is my firm opinion that too much has been done for the people...'

The reality is revealed in the writings of others on the spot. A Justice of the Peace wrote, 'I entered some of the hovels... and the scenes that presented themselves were such as no pen or tongue can convey the slightest idea of. In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse cloth, and their wretched legs hanging about naked above their knees. I approached with horror and found by a low moaning that they were alive. They were in fever - four children, a woman and what had once been a man.'

A parish priest wrote, 'Deaths, I regret to say, innumerable from starvation, are occurring every day; the bonds of society are almost dissolved... The pampered officials..., removed as they are from these scenes of heart-rending distress, can have no idea of them and do not appear to give themselves much trouble about them.'

By 1849, 800,000 to 1,000,000 Irish had died of starvation. A further 1,500,000 had been forced to emigrate, mostly to America or Canada. The population of Ireland decreased in ten years by a third.

From that time and experience can be traced both modern Irish nationalism - with its deep wish for freedom and independence, its heroes and martyrs - and the conflicting pressure upon successive British governments from those who demanded an Irish state and from the Protestant community who regarded themselves as unalterably British.

Many people and groups are trying to bridge the divide. Sadly, some in each community, including our own, live up to the caricatures. A conversation at Stormont, the Northern Ireland government HQ, made me feel I was in Lagos or Delhi during colonial days.

A Protestant church dignitary described to me how his doctor, a Catholic, invited him to his retirement party in a village just two miles from the Protestant's home. 'It was a fine affair,' he said, 'but with whisky, which I abhor, and Gaelic songs and Irish dancing, there was nothing with which I could identify. I might as well have been in Soweto.'

One senior Catholic figure told me of being invited to a mess dinner by the Commanding Officer of the British Army in his city. He expected to have a chance to explain some of his community's feelings. But the talk was of whether the helicopter pad could be marked out as a croquet pitch.

People live under enormous pressures. A doctor who treats Catholic families told me that the IRA often seek to use his patients' homes as hide-outs. If the householders protest, guns are brought out. When 'the boys' leave, the Security Forces, who have been watching, come in. The people are under pressure to tell - but if they do, they know the IRA will return. Not surprisingly, there is a high incidence of stress-induced illness.

If the security forces were placed on a war footing and could intern suspects without trial, a senior policeman explained, they could radically reduce IRA activities. But though the IRA regards their campaign as a war, internment without trial is seen as counter-productive. The laws of peacetime apply, with proper convictions required through the courts. He accepts this, and the resultant danger to himself and his men. Such people demonstrate the great courage of many in Northern Ireland.

The more I read and listened, the more the thinking and perspective of these different communities became clear. But what about us? We in England decry Irish nationalism but do not so easily understand English nationalism.

I was taught to be proud of my country. When I was a child, much of the world map was still coloured red, but each year more and more countries obtained independence. I was proud of what Britain had achieved in founding the empire and in winding it up with so little bloodshed.

Later I discovered that people from other parts of the world had a different perspective. The Poles reminded me of Yalta, the Chinese of the Opium Wars, the South Africans of our concentration camps in the Boer War and the Irish of the events I have outlined. We have flawed relationships with many countries.

I realized that our policies in Ireland over many centuries had produced the current situation. But this did not entirely satisfy me. How could we have deliberately done such terrible things in Cromwell's time and in the famine, even though values then were different? I assumed there must have been extenuating circumstances.

Or was it because of characteristics we still had?

Our family lived for some years in Birmingham and our older boy went to a Catholic inner-city comprehensive school. Many of the boys were the sons of working-class Irish fathers. I thought I was free of prejudice, and I was quite happy with the school until the language, accents, culture and attitudes of the boys began to rub off onto my son. I was concerned that the school was spoiling his Englishness.

We were then invited to a Mass at the school for parents and boys and as I sat there, English and professional, among many less academic parents and children, I was in turmoil because, in spite of myself, I despised them.

I did not mind my son associating with them but I did not want him to become one of them. Something akin to hatred of what they might do to our family welled up in my heart. Yet we were supposed to be taking Communion together.

Suddenly I saw that that would be hypocrisy. I sensed Jesus saying, 'I died for them as well as you. I love them as well as you. Why do you not love them?' For me, it was a choice. I liked to think of myself as balanced and objective and unprejudiced but I had suddenly seen that without God, deep down there were very unpleasant streams which needed healing and cleansing.

I can now say that true equality came as we knelt at the altar before God. Aware of my own need I realized for the first time that equality has everything to do with forgiveness. And at that moment, a great weight of unrecognized and unjustified superiority was taken from me and affection took its place. This has grown enormously. I began to see too the enormous debt we owe to Ireland for the faith and education which it has contributed to Europe and far beyond.

This is a simple, personal illustration. It was a necessary step for me, and it gave me some insight into how British policy could have been the way it was. Historical events arise because of policies. But policies depend on attitudes.

If our policies have been moulded by our character, certain other traits which I recognize in myself seem relevant: the expectation of supremacy and control, for instance; a self-confidence in one's own judgments; and an ability to keep emotion under control in order to 'stay above the fray' and appear objective. These are among the qualities which made empire possible, and were shaped by it. They lie at the heart of English nationalism. They have a positive side. But the down-side - the sinful side - has been brought to bear on Ireland and has harmed it.

The violence of the IRA is rightly condemned and confronted in Britain. It is also condemned in Ireland by many who share Republican aims and by the Church which feels responsibility for the young men and women involved. Others must be responsible for their own actions, but if our policies have led to and sustained a situation full of injustice, we may have been the means of them being tempted to violence.

The Protestant community was placed in Ireland to serve our interests. They see themselves as a beleaguered community, without friends, threatened by others' desire for a united Ireland in which they will lose security and identity, and by the fear that Britain will leave them to their fate. 'Why are we not accepted as British in the way the English, Welsh and Scots are?' they ask.

We cannot condone the actions of their extremists either. Yet it is our policies that brought their forebears to Ireland to manage our affairs, to uphold the Protestant faith, to keep Ireland loyal to Britain. We are embarrassed now that they continue the aims and attitudes we initiated. We have found them difficult and distanced ourselves from them, adding to their isolation. All this revealed to me our part in creating the situation in which they now live. So often conflict becomes inevitable because of the sin or failure of earlier years.

These insights have made me feel a deep need for repentance over Ireland.

The British position, too, is a difficult one. We acknowledge our responsibility to the extent that we know we cannot wash our hands of the matter. When cases arise - for instance the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six and the UDR Four - in which it appears that British justice has failed, we become rightly troubled. The saddest aspect is that there appears to be no overall political 'solution'; no way out which does not do serious harm to the legitimate hopes of one group or another.

It is not possible, for example, to honour the wishes of the Republican cause without betraying the Protestants and vice versa. We also have to reckon with those who ruthlessly use the historic wrongs to gain their own ends.

By our very presence, and that of our army, we have become a target. We cannot withdraw without abdicating responsibility. We too have been hurt. We are the third wronged community. Violence against us will not make us withdraw. But it has created yet more injustice, forging further links in the chain of hate. So we as a community also need to learn to forgive.

Politicians must keep exploring possible ways to an eventual solution. But there is an essential precursor: a search not for solutions but for healing; personal healing and a healing of the flawed relationships between us; the kind of healing that is not the result of accurate analysis or great wisdom but is a gift from God whenever, before Him, people feel real sorrow.

Such healing might make possible some otherwise unexpected development. It would be a valuable example of something the world needs.

Our histories are intertwined. The British, like many other people, prefer being in control to being in need. Yet our common sense of need is the strongest bond and the finest gift which Britain and Ireland could offer the world together.

Britain has long-term links with people in many parts of the world. Many of these relationships require healing, like the English-Irish one, because the same attitudes have applied. If we could dare to recognize, acknowledge and seek forgiveness for our failings, we might contribute more than we imagine. It is there, with myself and my own community, that I feel the need to start.

by Dr John Lester



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