Following our interesting visit to the site of the Battle of the Boyne this morning our discussions and hope this afternoon are about peace and it is fitting that we should do so here where peace in the past has been so severely disrupted. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" George Santayana told us over a century ago, so it behoves us to see what lessons can be learned from the Battle of the Boyne and subsequent history. First, we need to look back before this historic European battle (I call it such because William’s 36,000 men consisted of English, Scottish, Dutch, Danes and Huguenots (French Protestants) while James’ 24,000 men (the Jacobites) were mainly Irish Catholics, reinforced by 6,500 French troops sent by King Louis XIV – in total, the largest number of troops ever deployed on an Irish battlefield. Moreover, this was a family affair – William was James’ son-in-law married to his daughter. To add a further complication of loyalties, William's second-in-command was the Duke of Schomberg who had been born in Germany and had formerly been a Marshal of France, but, being a Huguenot, was compelled to leave France in 1685 because of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
For the Jacobites, the war was fought for Irish sovereignty, religious tolerance for Catholicism and land ownership. The Catholic upper classes had lost almost all their lands after Cromwell's conquest, as well as the right to hold public office, practise their religion and sit in the Irish Parliament. They saw the Catholic King James as a means of redressing these grievances and securing the autonomy of Ireland from England. To these ends, under Richard Talbot (1st Earl of Tyrconnel) they had raised an army to restore James after the Glorious Revolution. By 1690, they controlled all of Ireland except for the province of Ulster. Most of James II's troops at the Boyne were Irish Catholics but there were also Scots-Irish Presbyterians fighting for him. It is small wonder that the circumstances and the outcome of the conflict have continued to have resonance for the last 328 years.
I indulge myself often in the “what ifs” of history. What if, for example, India had not been partitioned would we still have troops in Afghanistan – certainly we should not have had the terrible conflicts between India and Pakistan and the events that led to the war of independence for what became Bangladesh. What if the British had been more accommodating to the Irish grievances in the 17th Century and not left the legacy of hate from Cromwell’s conquest. Indeed, what if the British had reacted sooner and with greater sensitivity to the Irish potato famine and all that led up to it? What if Irish Home Rule had been granted at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries – we forget, of course, that the Third Home Rule Bill introduced in 1912 which led to the Home Rule Crisis was enacted but suspended on the outbreak of World War I until the conclusion of the war – but, of course, by then it was too late.
Now I realise that opinion is deeply divided on these issues so I raise them now not by way of stating that history might have been different but by indicating that obduracy, an absence of dialogue and a failure to appreciate the arguments of your political opponents and the vehemence with which they are held are a disastrous cocktail for conflagration and entrenchment. Surely, we can learn those lessons in our search for peace?
My first role on entering Westminster in 1979 as an MP was to become Secretary of the Conservative Party Parliamentary Group on Northern Ireland then chaired by Sir John Biggs-Davison who was that somewhat unusual combination of Roman Catholic and staunch Unionist. I learned a lot and remember coming to Lisburn to see the British headquarters’ post with sandbags from floor to ceiling. It was a shock to see so much barbed wire, road blocks and other military scenery in a part of the British Isles.
All my early political and Parliamentary life was dominated by the Troubles and the bitter conflict over discrimination and the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. It was a war within the realm. More than 3,500 people were killed in the conflict, of whom 52% were civilians, 32% were members of the British security forces and 16% were members of paramilitary groups. There was internment without trial and Diplock courts trying criminal cases without juries. I was at the Brighton Conservative Party Conference in 1984 when the bomb at the Grand Hotel killed, among others, my Parliamentary colleague Sir Anthony Berry. I knew Captain Bob Nairac who was at Oxford with me and was executed by the IRA in May 1977 in a field in the Ravensdale Woods in County Louth, a short distance from here. Yet by then neither side was winning its ultimate objectives and war weariness was apparent. Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan (the Peace People) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 showing the influence of an active peace movement in ending violence and voicing public antipathy towards it. The Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 and subsequent accommodation heralded that, as always, there can never be a military solution to conflict but only a political one. The conflict also demonstrated another axiom of the resolution of conflict, namely that despite British Prime Ministerial public statements about never negotiating with terrorists there were talks between the sides going on for many years – a point reiterated recently by Lord John Alderdice, former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, when he came to speak to the Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust which I chair.
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998, ratified in both Northern Ireland and the Republic in referenda, was an historic document and the process leading up to it has to stand alongside other initiatives in South Africa and other less well publicised examples such as those promoted by the Universal Peace Federation. It demonstrates that by all sides exemplifying forbearance and understanding and the ability to compromise a resolution can be found in a conflict which seemed irreconcilable. We have all seen in our domestic and personal lives as well as in the wider perspective that misunderstanding and lack of appreciation of another’s objectives and attitudes as well as their motivation can lead to the most appalling conflict, often involving horrific bloodshed and inhumanity, which further entrenches a sense of injustice and desire for revenge – so the cycle continues until there comes a mutual desire to end it.
The Agreement also ended the long held assertions of both the British and Irish Governments’ territorial claims by one to Northern Ireland and by the other to the whole of Ireland.
The World Federalist Movement and many other nationally based organisations such as Federal Union in the UK, with which I remain closely involved, have an institutional answer to conflicts arising from territorial, cultural, linguistic and religious differences, namely the application of federalist principles which enable varying degrees of autonomy and self-government based on the principle of subsidiarity – that decisions should be taken by institutions at the most basic level and reserved upwards to higher authorities only where appropriate. It is a bottom-up concept and certainly not a top-down one yet this has been so grossly misunderstood and deliberately misinterpreted by its detractors (often those who believe in nationalist bolshevism or Bentham’s greatest good of the greatest number) that federalism in Britain was described by the late Sir Peter Ustinov, whom I was privileged to know well, as the “f” word in British politics. Whether in those many secessionist movements around the globe or in the United Kingdom itself the concept of giving local people control over their local interests is, constitutionally, a major contribution towards peace. Devolved powers to Parliaments or Assemblies of the four countries making up the United Kingdom & Northern Ireland has paved the way for Britain ceasing to be the most dirigiste, centralised state in the old Europe but there is more to be done – especially with local government and its financing.
Enabling people to follow their local customs and language which creates among them a sense of solidarity is not to be feared as raising an ultimate independence movement but to be enjoyed as empowering a greater sense of belonging.
The Welsh language has been subject to severe repression. The Welsh Not was a piece of wood, a ruler or a stick, often inscribed with the letters "WN". This was given to the first pupil to be heard speaking Welsh and was used to stigmatise the use of the Welsh language among children in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Yet in 1967 the Welsh Language Act was passed enabling Welsh to be used in court proceedings and the translation of official documents and the 1993 Act established that 'in the course of public business and the administration of justice, so far as is reasonably practicable, the Welsh and English languages are to be treated on the basis of equality.' That is a significant journey.
For some years I served in the Welsh Office. It was a time of high tension. Cymdeithas yr Iaith (the Welsh Language Society) was very active, cottages allegedly belonging to English second home owners were being burned reportedly by Meibion Glyndwr a violent Welsh Nationalist group and in 1980 former Plaid Cymru MP and President Gwynfor Evans threatened to go on hunger strike in protest at the failure of the Government to agree to a Welsh television channel. I remember the fraught Ministerial discussions as to the consequences if he were to carry out that threat and weighing that against the political damage of a climb-down by the Government. In the end, the Government relented and the channel started broadcasting on 1 November 1982. I mention this history because, far from meeting such demands for language and greater autonomy leading to greater demands for unique treatment, there has not been an upsurge in nationalism or demand for separation in Wales. Instead, the intervening years have seen a voluntary increase in the use of the Welsh language and greater goodwill towards it. Indeed, in the Welsh devolution referendum of 1997 there was a majority for an Assembly of only 0.5%. Maybe there are lessons here.
I hope that my few remarks have highlighted that, although it often takes political courage, succumbing to the people’s demands for a greater say and common identification through culture and language can be a liberating experience and be the basis for a much longer lasting peace than retreating behind the barricades of prejudice and conviction of one’s own rectitude and confrontation. If we are to live together we must do so by talking to each other and respecting other’s beliefs and customs so long as they are not inimical to the public good. That is a lesson that we can take away from this historic place.
Chair Designate UPF UK
Chair & Chief Executive Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust