“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.”
1066 and all that, Sellar and Yeatman’s humorous overview of British history, first published in 1930, can sometimes offer unexpected insights. William Gladstone, who was a dominant figure in British politics in the latter Nineteenth Century, did expend a huge amount of his energy in trying to resolve what was called the “Irish Question,” but the problem lay not with the Irish, but with English perceptions of what the question might be. Throughout Gladstone’s years, and in all the years since, the challenge has been one of trying to reconcile irreconcilable positions. It is not possible to grant the aspirations of one community without alienating the other. Whatever possibilities may have existed for mutual progress, (England had not done either community many favours), there were always those who believed political progress in Ireland was a zero-sum game, that a gain for one community necessarily represented corresponding loss for the other.
English politicians came to see Irish constitutional issues as a Gordian knot, as intractable, and with no prospect of an Alexander the Great coming along to offer an immediate solution. The best for which they hoped was a period of peacefulness.
Northern Ireland has enjoyed two decades of relative peace. There have been uncertain moments and there have been times when the threat of a return to violence was real, but what has been the norm for twenty years is preferable to the norm of the years of the Troubles. Of course, the Gordian knot remained: how could you simultaneously meet the wishes of both unionist and nationalist communities? But, for a critical period, the peace process successfully papered over the cracks. The process became an end in itself; as long as people kept talking then there was the possibility that each group would feel like that there was a prospect of their aspirations being fulfilled. The process could not be allowed to stop, because as soon as it did there was a danger of there being a sense of there having been winners and losers, triumphalism and alienation.
As the piece of political and economic nonsense that is Brexit continues to threaten Northern Ireland, it is a Sellar and Yeatman moment. It is not that question is being changed, it is that it must be constantly repeated in the hope that a moment will come when there is no longer a need to ask it.