Jude Collins

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Dervla's Dilemma

Dervla Kirwan had a problem last night. She was featured on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and the producers clearly decided that they weren’t going to waste the fact that Dervla is Michael Collins’s great-grandniece. Dervla herself said she was very proud of the great man and of his brother, her great-grandfather, who also fought in what’s commonly called the War of Independence, although since it didn’t achieve independence, that’s an odd name for it. The thing was, Dervla wanted to get some vivid detail on her great-grandfather’s role in things, but she didn’t want it to be, um, too vivid. So she knew he’d been part of a flying column in West Cork, and she knew that he’d been involved in violent operations, so what did she choose to highlight? An encounter where he waved a burning brand to warn his comrades and so saved their lives. You get it? He was in the flying column to save lives, not to take them.

We got more of the same when Dervla pored over her forebear’s records. After the establishment of the twenty-six county state, her great-grandfather joined the Irish army, and on his records he had to fill out ‘Previous Service’. He wrote ‘I served in the IRA for three years’. Cue alarm bells. Dervla looks worried and says that that word, IRA, makes her feel uneasy. And she wanted to stress that the IRA being talked about was a very different IRA from that involved in the Troubles in the north and elsewhere over the past forty years. Not the same at all. Completely different. The old IRA fought for Irish independence and the more recent IRA fought for, um, well, Irish independence, yes, but in a different way, they shot people and killed them and exploded bombs, whereas the old IRA, um, shot people and…Look, they’re different. And yes, there was a Sinn Féin party back then, just like now, but that Sinn Féin party was different from the present one because they, well, they believed in Irish unity, a 32-county republic, whereas ….

It’s a hopeless, hilarious argument, trying to convince yourself and everyone else that, as my late mother-in-law used to say, the old IRA “were nice” and the more recent version was un-nice.

There are just two possible reasons why people march up this logical cul-de-sac. The first is that, because the IRA violence of the 1970s, 80s and 90s was more recent, it also looks a lot rawer. The second possible reason is that people see clearly the link between the goals and methods of the old IRA and the more recent one, but willfully close their eyes to the link because, as Dervla says, it makes them very uncomfortable.


  1. The PM wants Britain to punch above its weight, but fiscal constraints mean hard decisions over outposts like the Falklands

    Are we approaching an "east of Suez" moment in British history? A crisis of international confidence in the nation's finances back in the late 60s saw Harold Wilson's Labour government forced to abandon most of the chain of overseas military bases Britain had formerly maintained from the Mediterranean to the South China Sea. The imperial retreat east of Suez was confirmation of Britain's fading power.
    In the first few heady days of the coalition, there were noises that the government would ensure that defence spending matched Britain's aspirations to be a player on the global stage as well as what was needed for security at home. This was code for keeping Trident. Britain could not argue for a permanent place on the UN security council without nuclear weapons. Powers such as India would argue their time had come and Britain's was over.
    Today's news is that India's time might be closer than we think. Our former colonial possession has no problems paying for its defence despite poverty abounding. In Britain, Liam Fox faces the Herculean task of finding £20bn from his own defence budget to keep Trident and the fleet submarines prowling under the seas.
    Until now the defence secretary had been keen to stress that Trident would be funded by the Treasury. He has been relieved of such illusions by his cabinet colleague George Osborne. Fox could decide that we no longer need such weapons. The result would see the coalition go down in history as a British government that cut and run from Afghanistan and then unilaterally disarmed. One suspects this is not what David Cameron wants as a legacy.
    The politics of retrenchment is never easy. In important ways the current Tory prime minister is haunted by his party's past. The draw back from empire was temporarily halted by a totemic victory in the Falklands over the Argentinian junta. Odd fields of glory like Goose Green and Port Stanley entered the lexicon as badges of British imperial pride.
    Hovering above all this is Margaret Thatcher, the go-it-alone Tory PM for whom the sun never really set on empire. By winning the war she showed to many that a Britain shorn of imperial splendour could have an influence bigger than its much-diminished status justified.
    But the coalition want and expect serious international clout – to "punch above their weight" in Cameron's own words. That means having a serious nuclear deterrent and a military able to project overseas. With the coffers empty and an ambitious intent to scale back public spending, the coalition perhaps should confront its own history and have a "south of Gibraltar" moment – relinquishing the military outpost of the Falklands and the series of tax havens in the Caribbean.
    After all, the savings could be recycled into more relevant areas – say perhaps air defence? The south Atlantic is not cheap. Retarmacing the airstrips and refuelling missions that patrol British waters thousands of miles from home all costs real money. And while we draw down forces from Helmand can we really justify having a thousand men count penguins in the Falklands' freezing squalls? Even the race for oil in and around the South Pole should perhaps be left to those able to gamble with billions.
    There is much to say our time is over. When future historians chart when the rise of the rest meant the end of the west, they may pinpoint our age as the start. Britain struggles with mounting health and pension bills. At the same time budgets will have to be squeezed so that we can start paying back the stimulus-induced surge in debt.
    Everything is on the table. Even the ghosts of victories past. While Thatcher is alive such talk may remain a political no-no. But Cameron should confront it. Britain's place in the new world order can only be retained by leaving the shadow of its recent past.

    Taken from the Guardian newspaper

  2. You were much more direct in your valid comments on the cop out that the programme makers were guilty of than I was, although I used her reluctance to tackle the issues head on to raise other points.