Gladstone “spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question, so that as he grew older and older Gladstone became angrier and angrier, and grander and grander”. Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That springs from a British imperialist world view of 1930, but its humour captures a sense of the English misunderstanding of most things, particularly of Ireland.
Mr Blair is now in his final weeks as Prime Minister and is anxious to leave his mark, to be judged by history as, in Sellar and Yeatman’s words, “a good thing”. He believes that he has been successful in building peace in Ireland, and he certainly serves marks for trying, and he is now anxious to drive the peace process forwards towards what he believes will be a final settlement.
The problem is not that the Irish have changed the question, but there has never been any agreement on this island as to what the question is. Sinn Fein believe that the outcome of the special Ard Fheis on Sunday will allow them to take a further step towards bringing the Six Counties of Northern Ireland into a 32 County Republic. The Democratic Unionist Party see the outcome in diametrically opposite terms, seeing it as a further step by Republicans in accepting Northern Ireland as separate state with powers devolved from London.
Mr Blair believes he can reconcile positions that are fundamentally irreconcilable; at times it must be asked who is advising him. If he sat at his computer some evening and Googled Ian Paisley’s sermons, he might have some awareness that there is not a gap between Republican and Unionist positions, but a yawning chasm. If co-operation takes place, it arises from judgment of political expediency on both sides; it is not because there has been any rapprochement between the antagonists.
If Mr Blair is to be judged “a good thing” he needs to learn from Sellar and Yeatman and not spend his declining years seeking an answer to a question he cannot answer. This would not be a mark of failure but a mark of the wisdom to realise that where opposing communities have no agreement as to the problem, it would be foolish to attempt to impose a solution.
The closing lines of 1066 and All That include “5. that the Kaiser should be hanged: this was a Good Thing as it was abandoned, together with Mr Lloyd George, the Irish question, etc.” Perhaps Mr Blair should not abandon the Irish Question, just know when to leave well alone.