What have the British ever done for Ireland? Quite a bit, actually…

One of the recurrent themes of these blogs is that if we are going to welcome 600,000-800,000 Unionists (possibly an over-estimate) into a ‘new Ireland’, we are going to have to accept and respect their passionate Britishness. And that is going to be a hard task for a society that fought a war of independence against Britain a hundred years ago, and has adopted a political and popular ethos which has been largely anti-British ever since.

Occasionally that anti-Britishness has softened: notably after particularly horrifying IRA atrocities in Britain in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s: for example, after the bombing outside Harrods in London in December 1983, in which six people were killed and 90 injured, Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald told Margaret Thatcher that the two governments now faced a common enemy; and during the peace process period of the 1990s and early 2000s, when excellent inter-governmental relations were built up, started by Albert Reynolds and John Major, and greatly strengthened by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair. But following Brexit, and with the rise of Sinn Fein, the undercurrent of anti-Britishness has risen again. One sees it even in the opinions of people who should know better: prominent former diplomats, political scientists and journalists. They should know that any coming together of people on this island into a closer constitutional arrangement also has to involve the British government. They should know that anti-Britishness does nothing for movement towards a careful, harmony-building unity agreement between the British and Irish tribes in Ireland.

One thing we need to do – and it won’t be easy – is to start to recognise that not everything the British have done in Ireland over the past couple of centuries has been bad for this country. I am going to cite examples of three things the British government did that were good for Ireland: in pensions, housing and education.

In 1908 the then Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, introduced legislation to bring in non-contributory pensions for the elderly, funded out of general taxation, making the UK the third country in the world (after Germany and New Zealand) to take such a radical step. The lack of adequate records meant that many Irish people applying for this new pension received the benefit of the doubt. In 1912, of the 942,000 pensioners in the UK, 205,000 were in Ireland, a proportion far greater than the relative populations of the two countries at the time would warrant.

Five years later John Redmond, the head of the Irish Parliamentary Party, told the House of Commons that a wartime increase in the pension to 2s 6d per week was “an extravagance which would not have been indulged in by an Irish Parliament comprised of Irishmen responsible to the country and knowing the country.”1 Sure enough, when Ireland gained her independence in the early twenties, an Irish government headed by W.T.Cosgrave and Ernest Blythe cut the old-age pension for the same reasons Redmond had outlined.

Then there was housing. While the Irish Civil War was raging, the first of 289 houses were started in Killester Garden Village in north Dublin, one of several estates built for ex-British servicemen in the First World War by the Irish Sailors and Soldiers Land Trust with British government money. This was the largest such estate built; over 2,600 such homes were eventually provided throughout Ireland. When Lloyd George, now Prime Minister, had promised “homes for heroes” at the end of the World War, he could not have envisaged that most of Ireland would be an independent nation by the time they came to be built.

The Killester estate was arranged in ‘garden village’ style so that residents had plenty of open space and large gardens and thus could grow their own food. At an Armistice Day ceremony a year ago, the then Green Lord Mayor of Dublin, Caroline Conroy, said it was “well ahead of its time”, “a perfect blend of nature and city”, and could provide a vision of housing that enhanced mental health during our current housing crisis.2 If you are interested in seeing this little gem of urban planning, take the DART to Killester (whose station was built to serve the estate) or look for The Demesne off the Howth Road.

Thirdly, there was education. Áine Hyland, the distinguished former Professor of Education at University College Cork (and co-founder of the Dalkey School Project), wrote to the Irish Times in August, as follows: “The Government decision to provide free schoolbooks to all primary (national) school pupils is very welcome and long overdue.

“It is, however, worth noting that when the national school system was set up in 1831 (almost 200 years ago) every school received a stock of free books. The books were renewed every three years. For a school with an average attendance of 125 pupils, 30 first reading books, 30 second reading books, 15 third reading books, six English grammars and six arithmetic texts were provided. Extra books were available on request. In addition, copybooks, slates, slate pencils, quills and ink were also provided, either free of charge or at a reduced price.”3

I’m going to finish with a quote from the eminent archaeologist, historian and writer, the late Liam de Paor. Speaking to the Irish Association in 1973, he said: “The element of shared experience is enormous; but in the South we have liked to forget about the British parts of our inheritance; in the North we have tried to forget about the Irish parts. Saving the important matter of religion – and this is, of course, a major part of anyone’s culture [although less in 2023 than in 1973, AP] – the cultural traditions of by far the greater part of the present population of this island are not all that different. It is the myths that have differed, and these no longer serve the health of either of our societies…In this whole matter of identity, we should, rather than try to bully one another into accepting the Britishness of Ulster or the Irishness of Ireland, endorse the principle of individual liberty, which is nowhere more important than here, and offer to everyone who lives on this island his or her free choice.”

PS I heard a story recently about two County Armagh men who had taken the midnight train from Portadown to Dublin in April 1916 to join the Easter Rising. If they had been trying to do the same thing today, they would have had to take the last train at 8.39 – more than three hours and twenty minutes earlier than 107 years ago!

1 Padraig Yeates, A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-18, pp.200, 265

2 ‘Dublin village built for WW1 veterans hailed as ‘model’ for urban living a century on’, Irish Times, 13 November 2022

3 ‘Letters to the Editor’, Irish Times, 12 August 2023


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