Robert Fisk: How Ireland exorcised the ghost of empire

On the 92nd anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, our Middle East correspondent sees numerous parallels between the bloody, intractable conflicts in Ireland and Israel – and says that the war in Iraq has shown us the true value of neutrality

Sunday 23 March 2008 01:00 GMT
The Irish army has joined many UN peacekeeping missions, including that in Lebanon
The Irish army has joined many UN peacekeeping missions, including that in Lebanon (AFP/Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In November 1974, I was racing to Dublin from Belfast at more than 100mph when I was stopped at a police checkpoint. Sorry about the speed, I told the Garda officer who stopped me. "I'm going to be late for the Childers funeral!" The Garda looked at me – this was long before speeding became a serious crime in the Republic, and replied: "You will be as dead as Childers if you drive at that speed."

But the death of Erskine Hamilton Childers – Protestant president of Ireland, and son of the author of The Riddle of the Sands (who would be sacrificed in Ireland's very own civil war) – was not the real reason for my speed. I wanted to look at the last link with Padraig Pearse, the very last symbol of the leadership of the 1916 rebellion against British rule in Ireland, the battle that created the 20th-century blood sacrifice of Irish republicanism. And, sure enough, within an hour, I was sitting in the 12th-century Cathedral of St Patrick in Dublin, staring across the aisle at the tall, blind figure of Eamon de Valera. He stood as straight and tall as a round-tower, sightless behind his moon-size spectacles, depressed at his own great age; that, at least, is what his closest advisers later revealed, and he was to die within nine months.

But it was the flags hanging above Dev's head that I kept looking at. They were the colours of the long-forgotten Irish regiments of the British Army, the banners of those units – disbanded in 1920 – that fought for the Crown and whose own veterans of the 1914-18 war had been cruelly ignored in the newly independent country of their birth. But St Patrick's was a Protestant cathedral and the clergymen read the funeral service in impeccable English accents. And the flags – like so much of Ireland's ambiguous history, Dev was blind to their presence – suggested that Ireland might never shake free from the ghost of empire.

I guess I only realised the great, historic change in Ireland when the country first acknowledged that ambivalent, dangerous past: while Irishmen like Dev were fighting and dying for the Republic in Easter 1916, tens of thousands more were fighting and dying to protect Catholic France and to free little Catholic Belgium from the Kaiser's, largely Protestant, Germany, alongside the Protestant 36th Ulster Division.

A few Irish journalists remembered Ireland's sacrifice for King and Country before it was fashionable to do so. In the early 1970s – when I was Northern Ireland correspondent of The Times – I wrote about the old Irish-British regiments. But my article elicited not a scintilla of interest at a time when theProvisional IRA claimed to be following the blood sacrifice of Dublin in 1916, when Protestant paramilitaries claimed to be following the blood sacrifice of the Somme in 1916 and when the British, believing Northern Ireland was an "integral" part of the United Kingdom, made a claim that now sounds wearily familiar in our post-Iraq ears: that a British retreat from Belfast would mean – yes – civil war.

This Easter, the 92nd anniversary of the Rising, it is intriguing to look at the parallels that connect Ireland and the Middle East. The "Black and Tans", whom Churchill supported when they took their revenge on Irish civilians in 1920, were later sent – again with Churchill's support – to Palestine, where they became the "British Gendarmerie" and continued their reprisals against Arab and Jewish civilians to considerable effect. Decades later, John Hume (Ireland's only living statesman) wrote in The Jerusalem Post that Israel and "Palestine" should take a page out of Ireland's Good Friday Agreement. It was all about compromise, he said.

He was wrong. Israel's settlements on Palestinian Arab land in the occupied territories were as illegal as the Protestant settlements and the dispossession of the Catholics in 16th-century Ireland. A closer historical symbol was Fallujah. Not long after the US 82nd Airborne killed 14 Iraqi civilians during a protest in 2003, the people of Derry wanted to twin with Fallujah. Had not the British Parachute Regiment killed 14 Irish civilians in Derry (13 on "Bloody Sunday", another died of wounds) in 1972? The offer was never taken up – but the message was valid enough: we must deal with injustice before we look for "compromise".

The relatives of the Bloody Sunday dead received a multi-million-pound inquiry. The relatives of the Fallujah dead were twice put under US siege until their city was almost destroyed.

Yet if Ireland is now truly at peace, I suspect it is not just for the simple reasons: the overwhelming self-awareness among the killers, the realisation by all (including the Brits) that there could be no military victory, and the emergence of the "Celtic Tiger" south of the border. I think Ireland's "differentness" also has something to do with it, not least its traditional neutrality.

During the Second World War, Dev kept the 26 counties neutral. Sure, he stood aside from the great moral conflict of our times. Sure, he paid his respects – a silly, deeply wounding gesture – to the Dublin German legation on the death of Hitler. But he sent stranded British pilots back to the UK and never – despite British folklore – refuelled a U-boat. Though the Allies boycotted Eire's initial request to join the UN, her neutrality allowed her to play a noble (and costly) role in later UN operations. It was better to keep the world's peace, Ireland thought, than invade other countries. Hence the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war is being analysed with cool – albeit slightly smug – detachment in Ireland.

Ireland joined Nato's "Partnership for Peace" without a promised referendum, and its army now wears uniforms that are almost indistinguishable from the British variety. "Neutrality" was becoming an embarrassing word, until Iraq taught us just how dangerous alliances could be. Irish men and women must count themselves lucky that they stayed out of the "war on terror", as they did from the 1939-45 conflict.

Under the UN banner, the Irish army has now served in almost as many countries as the British Empire ruled. So much for the flags in St Patrick's Cathedral.

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