Understandable loss of nerve on N Ireland
IN A wholly unpredictable• situation, but with the notable exception of the courageous SDLP, there has been some understandable loss of nerve in and over Northern Ireland, just at a time when Mr Merlyn Rees's calculated gamble needs all the support it can get.
That the past helps to explain the present is a well known axiom of particular relevance to Irish history, There is often, however, confusion in English minds as to which exact period of the past is of direct relevance to the Northern Ireland of today; and the roots of the present tragic conflict are well within living memory.
It so happens that in the course of something I was last week engaged in writing — in quite a different context — a short summary of the 1912-1922 period in Ireland was called for. If only to show how difficult I found the task, here is what I wrote:
The greatest obstacle to Home Rule for Ireland had been Ulster's determination to have no part in
any such arrangement. And yet both Houses of Parliameni had, before the Great War, voted for such Home Rule for the whole (all 32 counties) of an undivided Ireland.
This provoked the threat of armed resistance under the banner of Sir Edward Carson and the cry of "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right," Although such a threat was unconstitutional and constituted a treasonable willingness to defy the wishes of the Crown in Parliament, it was backed not only by Carson, but also by Lord Birkenhead, two of the Crown's most "respected" taw officers and Cabinet Ministers.
The "Gun-running" into Ulster and the arming of the North were illegal but connived at by the Government. The aim of such activities was to frustrat, by force if necessary, the sovereign will of Parliament, whose suspended Bill provided that Home Rule would come into operation after the war,
Such resistance, in turn, provoked a Rising in Dublin in Easter Week, 1916, the execution of some of whose leaders united Catholic Ireland — hitherto not fundamentally anti-British — into fanatical determination to be completely rid of the British connection if humanly possible. Four Protestant and anti-nationalist counties in the North remained equally determined to stay outside any kind of independent Ireland. Post-war violence, involving the notorious Black and Tans, was ended by the Anglo-Irish negotiations for a Treaty, and the Irish negotiators were pressurised into agreeing to a partition of the country.
They were assured that a Boundary Commission would clear up anomalies arising from the proposed frontier between the Six Counties which would, for the time being, constitute "Northern Ireland." (It had been decided that four counties would be too few to constitute a viable entity; so the Catholic and nationalist counties of 'Tyrone and kermanah had been added.) The Irish negotiators were further assured, however, that these two counties, and the important town of Newry near the Border, would be returned to the Irish Free State with which an attenuated Northern Ireland would ultimately have to throw in its hand. Such objects would — it was claimed — be accomplished by the Boundary Commission when the immediate task of assuaging Ulster fears had been accomplished.
It was all, of course, double talk, designed to dispose summarily of the centuries-old "Irish problem," even if by a crude and possibly only temporary expedient, The Treaty was duly signed, but the Boundary ' Commission remained a dead letter.
Two of the four Northern counties remained in an "Ulster" of which they wanted no part but which they had no power, because of cleverly and carefully gerrymandered •conslituency boundaries, either to influence or to escape from by democratic means.
Thus were sown the seeds of murderous civil war in Ulster. The seeds are yielding abundant fruit today.
* * * *
This week I visited Stratfordon-Avon in the sunshine to see the latest addition to the summer season at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. It is Terry Hand's fastpaced production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," making up in sheer exhuberance for much of the laboured humour in this often sticky comedy. Brewster Mason is a gusty, gaseous Falstaff in classic mould.
I happened to see, among the other visitors, that highly distinguished scholar, author and erstwhile actor, Robert Speaight. Bobby, no stranger at Stratford, played Falstaff no less than 50 years ago for the OUDS in his Oxford days. I am ever bowled over by his huge industry. He told me about some of his current lecture and other commitments; quite tired-making even to listen to.
His "Companion Guide to Burgundy," by the way (recently published by Collins) is excellent. He told me that the attention needed to detail was infinitely laborious. But when he gets the chance to spread himself on some favourite aspect of that royal French domain, the result is full-bodied and richly satisfying.
* * * * I once went on such a church-crawl, starting in the Fen district, and covered, in the end, some very out-of-the-way parts of Essex and East Anglia. The expression "You can't get there from here" was practically what was said to me by those from whom I sought directions for certain churches.
That most unusual of Hollywood actresses, Shirley MacLaine, has adapted the expression for her latest book, to read "You Can Get There From Here." She is unusual partly because she thinks for herself, and expresses her
thoughts with trenchant cogency, This book, to be published by the Bodley Head next month, arises from her welt-known
leading of a dozen American women through China. Unlike
many earnest Left-wing ac tivists, Shirley MatLaine has always been willing, first of all, to laugh, even at herself; and, secondly, to admit she is always learning.
Her discovery of the crushing anti-individualism of the
People's Republic of China
might have been explained away by any dogmatic devotee to "the cause." Shirley MacLaine, on the other hand, has re-found her former self by
thinking—and obligingly doing so out loud — about the real lessons of her incredible oriental adventure, which contains some surprising lessons.
It has also, fortunately, had the effect of making her want to return in as big a way as ever to the stage and screen.
I haven't enjoyed so unlikely a book as much for a long time.