“The Irish Question” — or the Story of how a Colonial Narrative Stole the Voice of a People

4 mins read

By Charlotte Renström

Another episode in the Brexit soap opera: a new deal negotiated, another one outvoted. Relentlessly repeating itself, the procedure has become awkwardly predictable. The less predictable aspect of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU, however, is the destiny of a border – one which is paradoxically located on the neighbouring island. This border has undoubtedly evolved into the defining issue of Brexit, yet its destiny will carry consequences stretching far beyond Westminster.

Often referred to as an ‘Irish’ border, the ambiguous future of the frontier between the Republic of Ireland and the UK is widely defined – and simplified – as the ‘Irish question’. One of its major challenges lies in the complex task of avoiding a ‘hard border’ in order to ensure the secure flow of goods. Several high-tech solutions have been proposed in an attempt to address the problem, which in turn has sparked a debate accusing the UK and the EU of transforming a political problem into a technical issue. To the Irish, the border is a matter of life and death – not technology.

“It was never an ‘Irish’ border. It’s a sectarian border created by the British, and a product of British colonial rule in Ireland.”

Quoting a Catholic I met – born and raised in the Republic of Ireland – who knows that the problem runs deeper than what the Brexit debate acknowledges. The border issue is rooted in a dark and disturbing past, dictated by centuries of English colonialism.

“The British, or mainstream narrative has sought to diminish the gravity of the issue by referring to it as a conflict between two ‘tribes’, the Irish Catholics and Protestants, driven by hatred. It is not true. We don’t hate each other, but we were given different rights. And in order to understand what is at stake in Brexit, you must understand the history of Ireland.”

The border between the Republic of Ireland and the UK can be traced back to 1921, as an outcome of the UK’s Government of Ireland Act from 1920. However, the history stretches far beyond the creation of the border and is marked by centuries of suffering and discrimination against the Irish, as well as of deadly struggle against British colonial rule in Ireland. The extension of English rule over entire Ireland during the 16th and 17th centuries came with a system of Protestant English rule designed to materially disadvantage the Irish Catholic majority and the Protestant dissenters. It institutionalised the structural economic, political and social discrimination against the Irish by the British. 

 As the Act of Union was passed by the British parliament in 1801, marking the birth of the United Kingdom, Ireland lost its sovereignty and became directly ruled from Westminster. The 19th century faced the rise of Irish republicanism, which later sparked the Easter Rising in 1916 as well as the Irish War of Independence and ultimately ended with the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921.   

“The creation of Northern Ireland was just a way to ensure that Protestants will remain in power, says my Catholic interlocutor.”

Irish Catholics still remained subjects to systematic discrimination, eventually leading up to the long-going war known as the Troubles. 

After decades of riots and the death of thousands of people, the troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The border, which had been ‘invisible’ for 21 years, is once again the source of contestation due to the rise of Brexit. My conversation partner is convinced that the partition that Brexit will cause will lead to escalations of violence in Ireland at some stage in the future.

“There have been demonstrations, riots, bombs, killings and kidnappings since the Good Friday Agreement. There has also been no truth and reconciliation commission set up in Ireland, which would allow the murders of the IRA, UVF, RUC, British Army and the truth behind them to come out and offer closure to the victims’ families.”

 He says that many young people are supportive of a united Ireland, and there are active movements for recognition of Irish as an official language in Northern Ireland. To this day, Irish Catholics are still subjected to harassment, and young Catholic men are still today more likely to be strip-searched by police on the streets. Despite this, he does not expect the majority of the people of the North to support a return to war; however, he is aware that it only takes a small number of people to escalate violence and revenge killings for the war to break out again.

“The Northern Irish State spawns from the Anglo-Irish Treaty to the war of independence, while the republic is founded on a civil war, so if you take a long view, the two states on the island are built on the suspension and continuation of war.”

The Irish strive for agency has been going on for centuries in a room whose acoustics have favoured the voices of the great powers, allowing the colonial narrative to steal the stories of millions. The Brexit debate has thus far proven no exemption, but the memories from the dark decades remain fresh in the minds of an entire people. My interviewee believes Brexit to be good for no one, and fears that the latest Brexit deal will make an Irish unity, that many still hope for, more difficult. 

“I have friends from different backgrounds, but they still support Ireland and many even an Irish state. We want the North to join us, but they have to decide that themselves, democratically. Unfortunately, I believe Brexit will only make this more complicated.”

Only time will tell what the future of Brexit holds. History does show, however, the remarkable power to strike back: whether through tearing down walls, crossing borders – or simply reclaiming its right to exist and to be heard.

Illustration: Josephine Karlsson

Charlotte Renström is currently studying for a master’s degree in Political Science. She finds European politics incredibly intriguing, but is just as fascinated by the power of language. While trying to figure out the most efficient way to combine the two, you would most likely find her listening to 60’s, 70’s or 80’s music on her way to a theatre somewhere in a European capital.

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