Unionists in pre-independence Ireland lost faith in the United Kingdom partly because of the arrogance and contempt emanating from London, now Scotland is experiencing similar treatment as Tory leadership candidates try to outdo one another in their rabid rejection of the EU, writes Keny MacAskill
The meeting in the wake of the EU election results between the First Minister and Leo Varadkar put me in mind of the biography I read several years ago of a former Irish Taoiseach. It was about John Costello, who twice held the position between 1948-51 and again between 1954-7. A character I didn’t really warm to, as with Varadkar, he represented Fine Gael, a party that I tend not to sympathise with, even though I’ve been hugely impressed by their handling of Brexit. Varadkar and his Foreign Minister Simon Coveney being quite superb and showing their British counterparts to be utterly inept, if not downright stupid.
Costello is most noted as being the leader who moved Ireland in 1948 from the Free State to becoming a Republic. Ironic in many ways, given his rather conservative social and constitutional views, but it was part of a natural evolution for the country, whether Home Rulers, Free Staters or Republican.
But that hadn’t been Costello’s original position as the book narrated. Indeed, a somewhat humorous tale was told of him returning home on his bike from playing golf when the 1916 Easter Rising broke out.
His reaction to it, though to be fair one mirrored at that stage by many in Ireland, was opposition, if not outrage. His journey home was impeded and the disruption to his life was irritating to say the least.
At that stage, he was approaching 15 and neither heading off to war for the British Empire nor committed to fighting for Irish Independence. Born into a wealthy Dublin family, they were, of course, Home Rulers but not Republicans. They were followers of John Redmond, who had succeeded Charles Stewart Parnell in leading the Irish Parliamentary Party.
Redmond, who’s much maligned in Irish politics, was swept along by war fever, although to be fair so was the British Labour Party, and guilty perhaps of rather naively believing British promises. For the likes of Costello, it was simply assumed that an Irish Parliament within the Crown would come when war ended and he and his ilk would inherit power. The Republican Rising threatened that natural order. However, vicious overreaction by the British saw Irish sympathies, including Costello’s, turn. The General Election in November 1918 saw a Sinn Fein landslide with the Irish Labour Party sitting it out and the Irish Parliamentary Party, which Costello supported, being defeated. Once again British reaction as much as Irish actions resulted in the War of Independence.
Costello didn’t participate in that either and instead concentrated on his career at the Irish Bar. In that, he mirrored quite a lot of Irish citizens whatever myths may have developed. But, when the vote to endorse the Free State came in 1922, he had no hesitation in backing it and likewise in moving on a generation later to establishing the Republic of Ireland. The reason I tell that tale is that Scotland could be on the cusp of a clear choice, as in Ireland at that time, and those who have previously eschewed support for independence may find that there’s no alternative. Neither in 1916 nor in 1918 did a great deal of the Irish middle class seek to break from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Home Rule – some might call it federalism – was the preferred option.
But it wasn’t coming and the debate on constitutional change was moving on. The behaviour of the British, whether through the Black and Tans or just through arrogance and contempt, showed that remaining in the union was no longer possible, let alone desirable, other than for the rump unionists.
Now in Scotland 2019, there’s a Tory leadership election that will bring forth at least for a short time the next Prime Minister. In it, candidate after candidate has been seeking to outdo one other in their rabid rejection of the EU and their espousal of a new English Golden Age. Other than the rather quaint Rory Stewart, who appears on a quest akin to Captain Oates in the Antarctic, they’re marked by their disdain, if not total disregard for Scotland.
There’s many who rejected independence in 2014 and probably still would rather avoid it with doubts over currency and the inherent risk in it. That’s much the same as Costello in 1916 and 1918. But there comes a juncture when the Union you believed in and supported has either behaved in a manner that’s entirely unacceptable or is making it clear you’re either unwanted or that you need to know your lowly standing in the pecking order.
As with an Irish Taoiseach, a time can come when staying is riskier than leaving and a Free State comes about.