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Opinion: There are some striking similarities between Irish independence and Brexit

Irish negotiators had to agree that Ireland would remain within the British empire while May’s deal could keep the UK trapped in the EU indefinitely, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

KARL MARX ONCE said that all events of history occur twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Almost a century ago, the Irish War of Independence broke out. This culminated in the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 – which lead to a bitterly divided country and civil war.

In recent weeks, Theresa May has negotiated a Brexit deal that has produced deep divisions within the UK.

If these comparisons appear superficial at first, there are actually many parallels between the Irish independence movement and the British campaign to leave the EU.

To begin with, neither Ireland nor Britain was ever fully content within the larger political unit.

For the century or so that Ireland was a part of the UK, it always stood out as the least satisfied member of the union.

From O’Connell’s repeal movement of the 1840s to the Fenian campaigns and the push for home rule in the later nineteenth century, efforts were constantly afoot to weaken, if not completely sever, the connection between Ireland and Britain.

Likewise, the UK never really embraced the European project in the same way as its fellow members. The British only entered the EEC in 1973 but renegotiated the conditions of their membership in 1974.

They then held their first ever national referendum in 1975 on the question of whether to remain or leave.

The UK decided not to join the European Monetary System in 1979, while Labour campaigned in the 1983 general election on the promise to immediately leave the EEC.

Under Margaret Thatcher, Britain reluctantly joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1990, only to withdraw two years later.

Opinion polls since the 1990s have consistently shown the British public to be much more sceptical about European integration compared to their continental peers.

Popular Vote 

The immediate onset of the crises that led to Irish efforts to break away from the UK and British efforts to depart the EU, both stemmed from plebiscites. 

In the British general election of 1918, Sinn Féin won a decisive majority of Irish seats by promising to establish an independent Irish republic. As we all know the Brexit referendum of 2016 has brought the UK to the brink of departing the EU.

In both cases, however, there was considerable ambiguity about what exactly had been decided at the ballot box.

While Sinn Féin won a large majority of the seats in 1918, over 50% of votes cast were for home rule or unionist candidates. That said it must be noted that one of the reasons Sinn Féin’s tally was lower was because in 25 constituencies they were elected unopposed. 

But did this election provide a mandate for rebellion against British authority? Did it suggest that nothing but an independent 32 county Irish republic was acceptable for the Irish people?

Such questions roiled Irish politics for the next decade.

By comparison, interpreting the 2016 referendum seems more straightforward. Brexit means Brexit after all. But the last two years have demonstrated that no one can say what exactly the British public meant when it voted to leave the EU.

Did they vote for a soft Brexit or a hard Brexit?

Did the referendum even reflect the true will of the British people, or did a decisive segment of voters carelessly choose ‘leave’ as a warning shot to their government, convinced that a ‘remain’ victory was a foregone conclusion?

That lack of clarity has paralyzed the British political system ever since.

Negotiating Agreements

Similarities can also be identified in the negotiation efforts that created the respective agreements.

Both Irish and British delegations had idealism in abundance, but they were negotiating with an opposition that held most of the cards.

In 1921, the British government had the option of escalating its military operations in Ireland in the case of negotiations failing.

EU representatives understand that the UK has much more to lose if an arrangement can’t be made on terms that suit Brussels.

The most contentious points of both arrangements were remarkably similar. Ireland was forced to agree to pay a portion of the British national debt in 1921, just as the United Kingdom will have to pay an exit fee for departing the EU.

Both agreements were interpreted as involving an unacceptable loss of sovereignty. Irish negotiators had to agree that Ireland would remain with the British empire and its representatives would swear an oath of allegiance to the monarchy.

May’s deal, meanwhile, may keep the UK trapped in the EU indefinitely, bound by its rules but unable to wield any influence over them. 

Likewise both deals got stumped on the thorny question of Ulster.

There is considerable irony – in our less charitable moments, we might say delicious irony – in the fact that the partition of Ireland in 1921 has effectively trapped modern Britain within the EU

Back then, partition was supposed to be temporary (with nationalists led to believe that the boundary commission would leave Northern Ireland with no choice but to join the south) but clearly wasn’t.

The Northern Irish backstop is apparently a contingency plan that will never be put into action, but it has the potential to become a permanent arrangement.

Hardline Brexiteers complain that this weakens the integrity of the UK. Their forefathers, however, were never quite so vexed about the integrity of the island of Ireland. 

The Critics

No sooner was the ink dry on either agreement when the cutting backlash was unleashed. 

Michael Collins felt he had signed his own death warrant and Theresa May certainly seems to have signed her political equivalent.

Critics railed that the negotiators had made unacceptable compromises, despite the fact that many of them had shied away from taking part in the discussions themselves.

Jacob Rees Mogg doesn’t just bear a physical resemblance to Éamon de Valera, his strident opposition to the arrangement in question is remarkably familiar as well.

Despite the opposition, both agreements were accepted by the cabinets of the respective governments.

But the historical parallels may end there.

The Dáil ratified the Anglo-Irish Treaty  – but Paddy Power bookmakers is offering odds of 1/10 that May’s deal will be rejected by the House of Commons.

Furthermore, it is possible that this issue will be resolved by a ‘Remain’ victory in a second referendum. There was no equivalent option in Ireland in 1921.

Still British observers would do well to note what happened in Ireland after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed. Sinn Féin was torn apart and the political acrimony lingered for decades.

There is a real chance that the Conservatives, and possibly even Labour too, will suffer the same fate.

Regardless of the outcome of Brexit, a sense of anger and betrayal is likely to form the backdrop for British politics for some time to come.

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

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