The position of Northern Ireland in the union has long been a subject of debate — a debate stretching from a English caller to a radio phone-in in recent weeks who assured Stephen Nolan that most people in Britain wanted to be shot of the place, to British prime ministers in the not too distant past who wanted to divest themselves of the six troubled counties
IN THE past fifty years, two former British prime ministers have tried to push for a united Ireland and two others have urged the repartitioning of Northern Ireland in order to pacify the region.
The united Irelanders were Harold Wilson and Sir Alec Douglas Home.
Wilson, when in opposition in 1972, the worst year of the Troubles, came up with the idea that Britain should give fifteen years notice of intent to withdraw and work to achieve peaceful unification within that time frame.
Had he held his resolve and got that idea through when he next led a government, Ireland might have been united by 1988.
He didn’t stick with the plan, presumably realising that it was not possible to implement it.
Alec Douglas-Home was foreign and Commonwealth secretary that year. Ted Heath, the prime minister, had decided to prorogue the Northern Ireland parliament led by Brian Faulkner and start negotiations towards a new constitutional arrangement involving power sharing and an input from the Irish government. This would be the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, very like the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, but then brought down by loyalist protest.
Douglas-Home (intriguingly pronounced ‘Hume’) wrote to Heath to try to persuade him that the only viable way forward was to declare that it was now British government policy to work for a united Ireland. He thought that if this was made plain then people in Northern Ireland would have to deal realistically with the challenge to make it work.
Heath also came under pressure from the Irish government to do the same.
I think, like Heath, successive British governments would have loved to offload Northern Ireland and there has been a stronger sense of that since Brexit. There is a feeling that Northern Ireland, as Douglas-Home said, is not British in the way that Scotland and Wales are.
Any move towards independence by Scotland is strongly challenged. It would likely be the same with Wales, but if Northern Ireland wanted to leave the UK tomorrow, one suspects there would be considerable enthusiasm for the idea in Britain.
At the time Douglas-Home wrote his letter to Heath, Northern Ireland was the only devolved region of the UK so the contrast with Scotland and Wales was stronger.
Two other prime ministers, while in office, came up with an alternative idea, not that Northern Ireland should be handed over to the Republic but that it should be partitioned so that the Protestant unionists could have a safe majority in a smaller territory and the Catholic nationalists could be governed from Dublin.
This idea was dispensed with even more quickly than the idea of dumping the lot, but the rationale at the heart of the opposition to the idea was probably much the same.
A country cannot simply divest itself of a section of its population and abandon responsibility for it.
The civil servants called on to evaluate the repartitioning proposal painted for Heath the appalling picture of Catholics being put out of their homes - for no other reason that they were Catholic and presumed thereby to be Irish nationalists - and then taken in trucks
to transit camps near the border, on territory to be ceded to the Irish.
This was never going to happen.
The Good Friday Agreement establishes that the future of Northern Ireland in the Union or as part of a united Ireland is dependent on the will of the majority of people living there but realistically it was never possible to simply expel people from the United Kingdom against their will.
Indeed you might argue that allowing a referendum with a one vote majority to decide the issue makes it easier than it could have been before that, for unionists have, in effect, agreed to go quietly when that day arrives.
This question of how Britain can be shot of us came up on radio and television debates on the BBC, chaired by Stephen Nolan after a caller, Mary from Nottingham, said that the British people should be able to vote to kick Northern Ireland out of the UK.
What? Deprive nearly two million people of the NHS and all public services in the hopes that the Irish Republic will take them in?
It’s a ghastly idea but ditching Northern Ireland has already been considered at the very highest levels of the British government.
And while the tweeting republicans all loved the idea and saw it as evidence that Britain wants rid of us and will one day get her way they didn’t see the full implications of Britain’s plain inability to do that.
These are that Northern Ireland is not, as they claim, a colony. For a country can leave its colonies, as Britain left India, and disregard the chaos that follows.
Heath and Thatcher, Wilson and Douglas-Home, did briefly mistake Northern Ireland for a colony that could be dumped or divided as they chose. They quickly found that it wasn’t and that they had to live with that fact.