Brexit wounds. Covid failures. Fairness in retreat. Nationalism on the march. It is hard to find reasons to be cheerful about this country’s future as a successful state in the modern world. Yet in the west there is a gleam of hope. To see the kind of politics that the UK needs to learn from in this time of troubles, look no further than Ireland.
To many, this will seem counterintuitive. The suggestion that Britain can learn from Ireland flies in the face of the former’s long self-image of dismissive superiority towards “John Bull’s other island”. It upends the centuries in which British governments saw Ireland as a problem to be mastered and controlled, not as an island offering solutions, insights or lessons.
That is precisely why learning from Ireland is important. The lessons embrace habits of thinking and habits of doing. The two are umbilically linked. The habit of mind is the one that the president of Ireland, Michael D Higgins, set out here last week when he wrote of the post-sectarian “ethical remembering” in which modern Ireland is reflecting on the centenaries of the state’s birth between 1916 and 1922. The habit of practice is the constant search for political compromises in 21st-century relations within these islands. These are currently exemplified by the row over the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol, but there are many others.
Neither of these habits is a magic wand to wave over complex and jagged problems. In the end, trying to learn and apply the arts of acknowledging different perspectives and seeking to accommodate them honestly are what matter most. This is what the late John Hume and others embarked on in a deeply divided Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Today it is the same approach that British politicians need to reinvent if the multiple national, political and cultural divisions in 21st-century Britain are to be overcome and turned to constructive and shared effect.
This honest grappling with differing approaches and interests has borne fruit in many aspects of Irish life, north and south, in recent decades. The consequence is an Irish nation that, at least to this occasional visitor, often seems far more at ease with itself as a modern state than the UK or any of its component parts can claim to be. Given Irish history, that is an achievement to envy and study.
These habits of mind and practice were not conferred arbitrarily upon Ireland by some beneficent deity of good governance. They had to be hard won in the crucible of experience, through processes of trial and error, amid the passage of time and at the expense of a lot of blood, much of it innocent. An extraordinary new book, The Dead of the Irish Revolution, puts names, dates and details on each of the 2,849 violent deaths that occurred between 1916 and the end of 1921. A similar volume, long out of print, called Lost Lives, attempts something similar for the Troubles, during which more than 3,500 died.
These deaths form a potent reminder that Ireland and Britain were once places of harder-edged identities and allegiances than they are today. Some of these still endure, and should not be denied. Others have evolved into what Higgins called “post-sectarian possibilities for the future”. Nevertheless, modern Britain remains a reluctant pupil. It is too hung up about its own supposed greatness. Higgins is right that until the UK engages more openly with its own imperial past, little is likely to change. Britain urgently needs a more capacious and more pluralist view of its history if it too is to be a nation at ease with itself.
And yet the UK shares the same experience as both parts of Ireland in multiple ways. A century ago this spring, Britain partitioned the island into two. The result was a violent civil war in the south and decades of sectarian rule in the north, ending in the 30-year Troubles. Until well into many of our own lifetimes, Ireland – and sometimes the UK – lived with the often lethal consequences. Yet the centenary of partition, like the years of Irish revolt that preceded 1921, is not being much considered in Britain.
At last, in the 1980s, a search for better ways began on both sides of the border, and in Britain too. The result, in 1998, was compromise, change and peace. It is an approach to politics which today’s British government urgently needs to reaffirm, as do Northern Ireland’s own leaders.
The Northern Ireland protocol is a compromise in the tradition of 1998. It guarantees the soft Irish land border that helped end the Troubles, in return for post-Brexit port checks on various goods, mainly food, travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It has been in force for less than two months, and it is facing increasing threats from unhappy unionists. The protocol is indisputably messy. But, in its imperfect fashion, it can still work. Neither the British government nor the European Union has a spotless record on implementing it. But they both insisted again this week that they are now committed to de-escalating the tensions.
This has to be the right approach. That doesn’t mean it will succeed. Brexit has set a bull loose inside the delicate china shop of post-1998 power sharing. But the deliberately overlapping ambiguity of the protocol is more valuable than dangerous. It represents another step away from the zero-sum approach. It is neither an isolated example nor something that only applies in the supposedly special conditions of Ireland. It is a way of political thinking and action that Ireland has learned from bitter experience and which, if only it was learned and applied here, may hold the key to the future of the UK too.