By An Sionnach Fionn
There are few other British historical figures more controversial - and more reviled - in the popular culture of Ireland than Winston Churchill. Described by Eamon de Valera in a carefully worded eulogy upon his death in 1965 as a “dangerous enemy of the Irish people”, the career politician is best remembered in this country for his close association with the United Kingdom’s violent rejection of pro-autonomy majorities in four plebiscite-elections held on the island between 1918 and 1921.
As the Secretary of State for War, the Secretary of State for Air and later as the Secretary of State for the Colonies his malevolent influence contributed significantly to the UK’s political and military responses to the 1916-23 Revolution. Including, most obviously, the partition of the country in December 1920, and the deployment of three infamous militia units in 1919-20: the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve (the RICSR or Black and Tans), the Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary (the ADRIC or Auxies) and the Ulster Special Constabulary (the USC or B-Specials).
Given that record, one would assume a fair degree of caution on behalf of any politician visiting Ireland from Britain who might choose to summon up his opinions on matters Irish related, however distant in time. Especially during a period of high crisis and low relations between Dublin and London, thanks to the ongoing Brexit debacle and the failure of the latter capital to negotiate a feasible withdrawal plan with the European Union. However no such thoughts seem to have entered the head of the British prime minister Theresa May and her advisers on Friday as she adorned her speech in the city with some remarks by Churchill lauding the nature of the British legacy colony in the north-east of the island.
Short of pulling out a Tricolour, the national flag of Ireland, and setting it on fire on the dais, it is difficult to imagine how much more undiplomatic and positively provocative the Conservative Party leader could have been in her words and sentiments on Friday. Gone was any real attempt at nuance or subtlety, of an authentic reaching out to that half of the population in the UK-administered Six Counties with an Irish nationality. Instead we were treated to an egregious display of British revanchism, of territorial colonialism by rhetoric, with a deceitful twisting of the principles underlying the Good Friday Agreement of 1998; the complex, multistranded peace settlement which effectively ended thirty years of armed conflict in the contested region.
In the full speech delivered in the Waterfront Hall there is little evidence that the minority Conservative Party government in London, reliant on a parliamentary alliance with the far-right hibernophobic Democratic Unionist Party for survival, is now willing to deliver on the commitments given to Dublin and Brussels in the “backstop” agreement of late 2017. A Brexit-facilitating deal guaranteeing continued regulatory alignment under EU rules on the island of Ireland in the absence of any similar arrangements with the United Kingdom. On the contrary, ministers and officials in the increasingly desperate UK seem determined to use the political stability and economic prosperity of this island nation, and the very peace process itself, as a playable card in its chaotic negotiations with its former partners and neighbours in Europe.
The French did not coin the phrase, la perfide Albion, for no reason.
* The full text of May’s speech is available at https://bit.ly/2NU5hXp