The British establishment, with its protectionist governments, religious prejudices, and cultural biases has had a history of being deplorable to the Irish people, lending fuel to the fire in a violent cycle of tribal sectarianism that still lingers on in the Emerald Isle. While the bulk of the Scottish people did indeed adopt a strong sense of Britishness during the 18th century, the Anglo-Irish Ascendency could easily claim Britishness while the common Irish people continued to be scorned as barbarians and second-class citizens.
In spite of such obstacles put up by the ruling regime, most of the Irish continued to cling to their Catholic Faith and Gaelic culture. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Protestant governments stopped just short of genocide to make them abandon their identity, they just held fast to it all the more. “No Surrender” was the Catholic maxim as much it was the battle-cry of the Protestant settlers. Cromwell, who was instrumental in wiping out or selling off almost one half of the Irish Catholic population, made a snarky comment him being unable to get the people to “let go of their beads.”
That having been said, there was any number of times in history when relations between Ireland and the rest of The British Isles might have taken a turn for the better. Had Mary I succeeded in turning England Catholic again and cementing papal support for her claim to Ireland, the lack of religious animosity would have softened the blow of conquest. Had the King James II managed to secure lasting religious toleration for both Catholics and Dissenters, it would have been more natural for his three kingdoms to draw together. The main moment of decision was in 1801 when King George had the opportunity to embrace Catholic Emancipation and refused to do so. And the Potato Famine is a subject far too broad to cover in depth here, but suffice to say, the British government cared more about not offending the Anglo-Irish land-owners than giving proper aid to the starving Irish populace.
All these things are tragedies, since the union of Britain and Ireland could have been a great success story beneficial to The British Isles as a whole. As ever, I believe they would have been “better together” in the long run. But things happening as they did, it is little wonder that the Irish people became more and more disenchanted with monarchial government, which they saw as representative of their woes, and wanted to get themselves out from under the British establishment. To do so, Republican activists often exaggerated past sufferings to make the “Sassenachs” guilty for everything, including unavoidable social and economic changes. Anglo-Irish and Scots-Irish cultural achievements became purposely disconnected with the “real” Ireland, and anything good that developed during the time when Ireland was in the union was overlooked.
Thankfully, historical and cultural studies in Ireland are gradually embracing a broader, multi-faceted approach. Emerging on a world stage, she is beginning to view things through an international lens, as is highlighted in the excellent documentary series The Irish Empire. While Northern Ireland still has its troubles, the goal of creating a peaceful settlement is still being pursued with a reasonable amount of success, and The United Kingdom and The Republic of Ireland have made closer moves towards friendship than ever before, with an excellent example set by Her Majesty, The Queen.
But even with all this (or perhaps because of all this), I wonder if having Ireland divided is really a tenable position. It’s not just a matter of geography, after all, but contains manifold psychological factors on both sides. I have quite a few Ulstermen for friends, some of whom have done so much to support me in my unionist efforts. They rightly dread they would lose that very important aspect of their identity and economic security should a reunification of the island ever take place. On the other hand, I cannot help but sympathize with those who have always seen Ireland as a single nation and would like to see it reunified once again. It’s a form of “unionism” when you get down to it.
I personally would be more than pleased to see the day that all of The British Isles were reunited into a single entity, but I highly doubt that is one the horizon. I do wonder if a compromise might ever be agreed upon if push comes to shove regarding reunification, something to the effect of Ireland, north and south, being reunited as a separate entity, but then becoming a commonwealth realm with the British Monarch as Head of State. Ireland would be equal to The United Kingdom of Great Britain under the title of The Kingdom of Ireland. And then maybe she could adopt a new, more distinctive flag. The harp and the crown on a green field, please? Or maybe the cross of St. Patrick, or an amalgamation of both? And maybe they could also settle on a national anthem to represent the whole island, both North and South, with enough punch to be inspirational, but not so much as to start radicals to rioting again.
For this to be even vaguely workable in a broader context, I would advocate stronger ties being generated in The Commonwealth and the restoration of the title “British Commonwealth”, so that Britishness can clearly transcend The United Kingdom itself. Some have suggested the production of a single currency and interchangeable citizenship within The Commonwealth. While this may be virtually unworkable in reality, I think that theoretically it would serve to build a stronger sense of unity among them. All these ideas are a bit outside-the-box, but I believe in thinking outside the box. It is only when inexperienced people stop trying to present new solutions to old problems that things become hopeless. To hold to the “No Surrender” tradition that Irishman of all backgrounds have passed down, we must never let that happen.