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Monday, July 03, 2006

Iberia and Britannia

Two of the individuals mentioned in my last post have something in common. Neither of them had ever left the United Kingdom in their lives at the time of the incidents in question (one of them had never left Scotland). In fact, as coincidence would have it one of them is now abroad for the first time in his life. And where has he gone in order to broaden his horizons? Ibiza! He had probably been lynched by now for cheering at Portugal's victory in the penalty shoot out. Could it be that a lack of perspective is part of the problem? I have an extremely right-wing great aunt who has a very dim view of foreigners and hasn't left her (very small) village in France for fifteen years. When I was walking to Santiago a few years ago I was struck by how fissiparous Spain seems to be. I knew about the Basque Country, but Leon seemed to be covered in graffiti demanding its administrative separation from Castile. In Santiago on the road leading up to the youth hostel someone had painted "THIS IS NOT SPAIN" and one village in Navarre seemed to have a terrorist group all of its own. It is odd really as Spain (with the exception of Portugal) seems to be almost as geographically well defined as Britain. Perhaps just as the Irish question destabilises Britain so the independence of Portugal destabilises Spain. For part of the way I was accompanied by an Irish Priest and we were both marvelling at the graffiti and comparing it to various well known insular phenomena. "God!" said the Priest "it shows you how bloody self-indulgent it all is". And, at the risk of sailing into dangerous waters, it is remarkable how utterly insignificant the difference would be in terms of everyday life between Ulster administered by the Irish Republic and Ulster administered by the United Kingdom. Obviously there were serious human rights issues in the 1960s but for most of the last thirty years they have been blowing people up over whether their post boxes should be red or green. It strikes me (and now I will get into trouble) that the Irish problem was always a religious and not a national problem. All lands under the English crown resisted the Reformation and the territories least under Royal control did so with the most success. Ireland accordingly remained Catholic. Because of the danger of invasion from that quarter the Protestant government responded with draconian measures and plantation. The response of the Irish until the death of the Jacobite cause seems not have been to seek independence but to place a Catholic monarch on the British throne. Only later did the issue become one of secular nationalism. If the Irish had stayed and helped in the conversion of Britain (which was proceeding apace until the 1960s) perhaps Mr Paisley would face a Catholic majority on both sides of the Irish Sea. Instead the issues of Nationalism and Religion have become hopelessly intertwined. The Irish flag is supposed to represent peace between Catholics and Protestants and instead it is the symbol which most divides Ireland, another episode in the glorious history of ecumenism.