The Blanket

Why Doesn't Britain Leave?

Sandy Boyer

Why doesn't the British government pull out of Northern Ireland? The disadvantages of continuing British rule are obvious. Among other things, it costs the British treasury approximately 1,500 million pounds a year in direct subvention. As well, bombs have periodically exploded in British cities and Britain has often had the embarrassment of being condemned by international human rights organizations.

What advantageous, if any, the British government receives from ruling Northern Ireland are harder to identify. Not surprisingly, unionists and nationalists have radically different explanations for why the British government persists in governing Northern Ireland.

Unionists often say that they are the real British presence in Ireland. Apparently they believe that the British government stays because they want it to. It would be difficult to be more naive.

After all the white Kenyans also believed they were British. The fought and died for Britain in the war against the Mau Mau. That didn’t stop the British government from pulling out and installing the Mau Mau leader Jomo Kenyatta as the president of an independent Kenya when they decided the time was right. More recently, many Hong Kong Chinese might have wanted Britain to stay. We don’t know, because no one asked their opinion.

Why should unionists be any different? If the British government decides to leave the North they will be abandoned just as ruthlessly.

The most plausible nationalist explanation has always been that the North is of great strategic importance to Britain. This rested in part on a quote from 1948 British cabinet papers saying that the North was so important to the British military that they would never consider leaving. Later there was the idea that without Northern Ireland, Britain would be vulnerable to Russian backfire bombers coming in off the Atlantic. With the end of the Cold War, these explanations clearly don’t make sense any longer.

A few years ago Martin McGuiness said in an interview that the British government was in the North to protect the profits of British corporations. But the entire experience of neo-colonialism in the second half of the 20th Century is that you can protect your investments without the expense and difficulty that comes with maintaining direct political rule.

British companies flourish in the south of Ireland under the firm protection of the Free State government. There is far more British investment in the South than in the North. It never even occurs to British capitalists that they might need a British administration or British military presence to safeguard their investments. It’s also much cheaper to let the Irish taxpayer pay to protect them.

In the North, unionist/loyalist opposition has made it impossible for Britain to put together that kind of stable neo-colonial regime. Loyalists and unionists have repeatedly launched widespread disruption and even violence when they were afraid that the British government was abandoning its commitment to the Union. They have effectively demonstrated that when the Protestant community is solidly united in its opposition to British policy, as they were at the time of the Sunningdale Agreement, they can come very close to shutting Northern Ireland down. This has made British policy makers extremely reluctant to gamble on withdrawing from Northern Ireland.

They obviously fear leaving an unstable situation behind which could threaten to destabilize the South or even sections of Britain itself. The events around Bloody Sunday, when there was a spontaneous general strike in the South and the British Embassy in Dublin was burned down, showed the potential for serious unrest in the North to involve the South. From the British government point of view, the Free State government is an important economic and political partner which shouldn’t be jeapordised.

Any instability or violence in the North would also threaten to spill over into Britain with its large Irish population. Glasgow is bad enough when Celtic plays Rangers, never mind if there was serious Nationalist-Unionist fighting going on in the North.

This doesn't mean that a British withdrawal would necessarily bring sustained, serious violence between nationalists and unionists. It is just that the British government is not willing to take the chance when they can keep the military, financial and above all political cost of ruling the North at an acceptable level, something the Good Friday Agreement has made far easier.

If this analysis is correct, there are important implications for those who still want to pursue the goal of a united Ireland. It will be virtually impossible for any resistance limited almost exclusively to the Northern nationalist community to force a British withdrawal. This leaves a number of possible strategies.

Some blind militarists might want to try to bomb a million Protestants into a united Ireland. Not only would this fail completely, anyone who tried it would stop being an Irish republican or even an Irish nationalist. Going back to Wolfe Tone, the idea that everyone who lives in Ireland is part of the Irish nation has been at the core of Irish nationalism. You don’t terrorise your own people to force them to accept your preferred political option.

A more popular idea is that Catholics will breed themselves into a united Ireland. Demographers differ widely on when and if Catholics are likely to become a majority in the North. Certainly the Catholic birth rate seems to be declining to the point where it is coming closer and closer to the Protestant birth rate.

But even if Catholics became a majority tomorrow, the dirty little secret is that large numbers of middle class Catholics have no great desire to join the South anytime soon. What they really want is to be able to live in peace and prosper. The Good Friday Agreement settlement is offering them every opportunity to do just that.

It might at some point be possible to convince the business class in the North that it makes more sense to join the South where they would have real power and influence without having to look over their shoulders at London. The real question isn’t whether this is viable but who would want to live in a society like that. James Connolly’s famous words about painting the postboxes green would have come back with a vengeance.

An alternative would be to at least try to build a movement that could build significant active support in the South and win over at least some important segment of the Protestant working class community in the North. It is a strategy that might well fail. But at least it would be a fight worth fighting.





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Our task must be to free widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.
- Albert Einstein

Index: Current Articles

5 September 2002


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Why Doesn't Britain Leave
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Che Guevara

Anthony McIntyre


Perfecting the Violence of Curfew
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Understanding Culture
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Brian Mór


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I See Dead People

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Faith & Politics
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Rose Tinted Culture
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