Featured Northern Ireland Briefings

Chits from Matron: Select Pampered Nationalisms

Written by John Wilson Foster

J W Foster, formerly professor of English at the University of British Columbia, views Quebec and Ireland as two areas characterised by sometimes aggressive nationalism which are nevertheless treated with kid gloves. Like Russia the Irish attempt to portray their neighbour as an illegitimate statelet, but Ireland’s persistent designs on Northern Ireland are largely overlooked in Britain.

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I have lived by turns in the United Kingdom and Canada. A curious thing connects the two countries.  Defying the Canadian gods of multiculturalism, diversity and globalism, the province of Quebec implements its own immigration policy, is officially unilingual (French only, while the Rest of Canada must be bilingual), and makes its own trade arrangements. Quebec is effectively a nation within a nation but without the responsibilities of a nation; it enjoys the protected status of a province and if anything is the federal government’s most favoured province. In short, it has a steady supply of chits from matron with no expiry dates. Justin Trudeau has declared war on Canadian nationalism, denying that the country has a core identity and insisting instead that it is the first post-nation state; Quebec, however, is free to have none of that. Indeed, with its ongoing cultural de-Anglicisation, Quebec nationalism is a work in progress.

Across the North Atlantic from Quebec, the nationalism of the Republic of Ireland is also a work in progress as its predatory activism towards Northern Ireland since 2016 and its assiduous cultivation of the Irish Diaspora show. While Quebec rejects the promiscuity of multiculturalism, the Republic has nominally accepted it without, however, relenting a whit on its endlessly self-promoting national identity. Yet whereas in international law it is an independent country and EU member, in reality its relationship to the United Kingdom sometimes appears, like Quebec, as that of a nation within a nation but with more latent animosity than Quebec harbours towards the Rest of Canada.

While it is strenuously nationalistic, a sixth of the Republic’s citizens happily live in the UK (without publicly disavowing their national allegiance) while the governors of those who remain have designs on that part of the UK called Northern Ireland. So close are the unacknowledged ties that I suspect the angry anti-Brexit, anti-British and pro-EU cries from Dublin were in fact motivated by a suppressed anxiety about what British abandonment of them might culturally mean.  Brexit was a British secession from the EU but also, the Irish feared (what an historical irony!), secession from a cosy cultural federalism that included  the Republic with all its Quebec-like chits from matron. Politically, Brexit at first made the annexation of Northern Ireland seem more difficult, but once it happened it was quickly seized on as in fact a tremendous opportunity for that very century-old goal.

Anxiety and assertive nationalism; dependency and hostility: this paradox defines the Ireland-UK relationship from the Celtic Sea perspective. Irish support for the Northern Ireland Protocol – the clutching of the exiting British coat-tail – is both an attempt to sabotage Brexit (Do not leave us behind in Europe!) and an advance of irredentist claims on Northern Ireland (the Six Counties are within our grasp!), as well as a spoke in the wheel of the ancient enemy.

Set aside for another time the idea that this unhealthy Irish ambivalence is rooted in colonialism. What also connects Quebec and the Twenty-Six Counties is that each was historically a Catholic region cut off from the European Catholic heartlands and was a minority in a Protestant nation. Partly because they were old rural cultures, partly out of the perversity of nationalism, partly out of lack of opportunity or encouragement, Quebec and Ireland turned their backs on industrialism and modernity when forging their national consciousness and this further estranged them.  But their rich intrinsic cultures (strong in the arts and endemic antiquities) gained sympathy and tolerance from many and turned them into special cases in the twentieth century. Theirs became a colourful image burnished by the facts of minority and, especially in the case of the Irish, of undoubted oppression and poverty. All these became virtues nurtured in the European Romantic project.  Beside the Irish and Quebecois, the WASP majorities seemed unsympathetic, materialistic, grey, imperialist and, it appears, in the case of Northern Irish unionists, dispensable.

But the oppression, the poverty, the spirituality and romance are in the past. The Celtic Tiger in Ireland has been and gone and today Irish economists still boast (without foundation) of the Republic’s affluence in order to provide an economic rationale for (or inducement to) annexing Northern Ireland.  But amazingly, the global sympathy and tolerance linger as if the Irish still are (in Liam Kennedy’s clever acronym MOPE) the Most Oppressed People Ever, and Britain still hands out the chits from matron that were introduced in a different and long-ago world. Northern Irish unionists who self-identify as ineradicably British are among the casualties of that misplaced English sympathy and tolerance.

That sympathy and tolerance has helped both Ireland and Quebec survive the apparent tide of anti-nationalism (even of anti-nationality) that has recently prevailed in the western world, at least until Russia invaded Ukraine. The tolerance and exemptions (the “notwithstanding clauses”, as we say in Canada) extended by their old enemies have ironically indulged these nationalisms (including Scottish nationalism) by shielding them from economic and political buffeting. This very spring we see the tolerance and exemption in action again. The British government intends to introduce legislation that would require non-Irish EU citizens living in the Republic of Ireland to apply for an electronic travel authorisation (ETA) to cross the border into Northern Ireland and the UK. This is to protect the border of the UK from unchecked trespass.  (I had to apply for such authorisation before I could enter Australia.)

Certain political parties on the island of Ireland are utterly opposed to this mild legislation, and their arguments to the untrained ear sound innocently reasonable. (By the way, the political parties in the Republic of Ireland feel entitled to comment publicly in a hostile and interventionist way on British legislation, as Brexit showed. Imagine British ministers doing something as “colonial” as commenting forcefully on Irish legislation.  And while those parties are ostensibly defending the rights of non-Irish EU citizens, here and on other occasions they are in reality both claiming an illicit British involvement and taking an opportunity for more Brit-bashing.)  The Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, the Fine Gael minister of anti-Brexit fame who wants to see Northern Ireland wrested from the UK in his political lifetime, thinks the electronic visa somehow breaches a fantasy “normality” on the island (i.e. the “peace process”, nowadays a code-phrase for a united Ireland). The SDLP thinks it goes against the spirit of the Common Travel Area (which was in fact designed with only the Irish in mind, not the rest of the world, for heaven’s sake). Sinn Fein, the party famous for its compassion and liberality, thinks it is shameful and, naturally, that it undermines the Good Friday Agreement (their skeleton key to the sundering of Northern Ireland from the UK). The Alliance Party of NI thinks the scheme unworkable (i.e., it doesn’t want it to work).

One thing connects all the parties opposed: their concern for non-Irish EU citizens is dubious; they care only that there be no border of any kind on the island between Ireland and the UK, that the UK must NOT effectuate its own border to the west, because this would hamper the long nationalist campaign to remove Northern Ireland from the UK and create a borderless island inside the EU. If the British really need to do something as shameful as controlling who enters their country, well, then, have the entry to the UK on the Northern Irish shore of the Irish Sea, like the Protocol, leaving the whole island of Ireland borderless and intact and effectively outside the UK.  (The self-declared neutral Alliance Party opposes the legislation and supports the Protocol’s sea-border, because it, too, despite its impeccable neutral and cross-sectarian beginnings, is now essentially an anti-unionist party. The attitude of the AP to the Union might easily be one of Arthur Hugh Clough’s decalogues: “Thou shalt not kill, but need’st not strive/Officiously to keep alive”. )

Brandon Lewis, the NI Secretary, knows very well the real reason for the opposition to the legislation, which is why he rushed cringe-worthily to assure the Irish that “nobody is going to be stopped at the border” and repeated, Uriah Heepishly, “we have been very clear about that, there are not going to be any border checks”.  Checks at a nation’s border: heaven forbid. But such embarrassing ingratiation means zilch to Irish pan-nationalism, which by now scents victory in the wake of the Protocol. The British shielding of the Republic from the consequence of its being a country of the EU whose border is to its immediate north is merely a chit to be proffered with the others.  There is to be no border on the island of any kind  and we know (they say to themselves) the British will accept that since they have meekly accepted, and on occasion initiated, every incursion by the Irish into their sovereignty since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.  During Brexit, it was possible to see the Irish as the EU’s cat’s paw; they were, but they also had their own and far older, indeflectible agenda, and in this the EU, wittingly or not, had their back.

Coveney, in truth more Heepish than Lewis, was almost shameless when in reference to the British proposal for the ETA said “not for the first time we will be asking for special treatment”.  Unusually, he will be asking out loud for a chit from matron, but knowing that the Irish have had special treatment from the British since 1923 and will continue to do so, probably even were the Irish to get their way and submerge Northern Irish unionists in an Irish republic that is anathema to them; the last chit at that stage (British soldiers to enforce unification, say) might even help them drive the last spike in the railroad.


Irish republicans may have waged a bloody guerrilla war against the UK from 1919-1921 in their pursuit of independence, but a year after the Anglo-Irish Treaty was ratified in 1922, the Common Travel Area was created, allowing the Irish Free State to be part of the UK for purposes of immigration law. It was the mother of all chits from matron. Extraordinarily, this effectively one-way arrangement survived the irredentist Irish constitution of 1937 that claimed all of the island as its jurisdiction in principle, and the declaration of a full Irish Republic and withdrawal from the British Commonwealth in 1948.  (It was suspended from the British end, 1939-1952, only because of the Second World War when Eire stayed neutral long enough for its President and Taoiseach to go to the German Embassy to offer condolences to the nation on the death of Reichskanzler Hitler.) It survived the thirty-year IRA terrorist war waged against the mainland British and northern unionists. It survived the shrill anti-Britishness of the Republic’s politicians, public intellectuals and newspapers during Brexit; indeed: rather than using it as a bargaining tool against the nakedly pro-EU stance of the Irish, the British government reaffirmed the CTA jointly with the Irish government in 2019; the Irish signatory was Simon Coveney. In November 2020, despite the UK having left the EU, British immigration law was amended to read: “An Irish citizen does not require leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom”. This, of course, will remain the case even if and when the British succeed in expelling northern Irish unionists from the UK and the Irish succeed in reducing the UK to one significant island while hoping Scotland secedes and joins a united Ireland in the EU. Do you have to be a Northern Irish unionist to find this rich?

Despite the CTA, the Irish state in its early decades was actually employed in forging a society as different as possible from England which it regarded as immoral and infidel, and from Northern Ireland which Taoiseach Eamon de Valera regarded as an alien garrison whose Ulster-Scots industrial prowess merely proved.  Ireland was to be rural (agricultural in economy and agrarian in culture), Gaelic in its language and society, Roman Catholic in religion – all enshrined in the 1937 constitution. James Joyce had his fictional self in Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus, complain that he unwillingly serves two masters, the British Empire and the Roman Catholic church; but the latter was so embroiled with Irish identity that it was as much a voluntary as an involuntary imposition and it served to distinguish the Irish from the English. It was the Catholic Church that encouraged ruralism, knowing that a peasantry was a more malleable congregation than the industrial working and managerial classes. (As for the tyranny of the British Empire: by 1878 a fifth of British Army officers were Irish, and Mary Kenny recently reminded us that the Catholic Church happily followed the Union Jack around the globe.  Michael D. Higgins – the President, no less – forgot this when he recently lambasted Britain for not publicly acknowledging its imperial sins against Ireland.)

Not coincidentally, the 20th-century years of the Church’s iron hegemony were the years of greatest emigration to Great Britain; 1.6 million Irish crossed the water in the last century, more than twice as many as fled to the U.S. to escape unemployment, hopelessness and theocracy, and to seek opportunity and room to spread wings. (With brazen hypocrisy, and thanks to the CTA, working-class boys from the Dickensian industrial schools were actually encouraged by the priests to go live in godless Britain.)  Britain was a pressure-valve, a refuge and a fresh start, and with luck the oyster for the Irish world.  By the late 1950s nearly 60,000 Irish were arriving in Great Britain annually. Yet when the Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy dared in 1946 to explain away the attraction of Britain to Irish citizens, he was accused by Fianna Fail of being a recruiting sergeant for a foreign country!


The flow into Britain is steady as ever and elsewhere I have surveyed the astonishing extent to which London is the entertainment, artistic and professional capital of Ireland.  For as Lewis stressed, yet again: “Our commitment to the Common Travel Area is absolute, as seen throughout the pandemic”. (Couldn’t the same man have added: “Likewise, our commitment to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is absolute”?  Apparently not. I fear the renewable Chit from Matron carries more authority than the Acts of Union.)  In terms of employment, enfranchisement and social welfare in the UK, the Irish and British are legally regarded as one people. In 1941, George Orwell commended to his diary the German journalist Sebastian Haffner’s description of  Eire as a “sham independent country”. This seems harsh, but Orwell noted the phrase during the anxieties of a world war. But since this was decades before the Republic surrendered to Brussels authority over its economy and foreign policy (two traditional criteria of autonomy), is it not even more the case?  In which case, why a hostile “foreign policy” towards the UK? Or even a “foreign policy” at all?

Except, of course, the Irish do not see things this way.  Graham Norton from Bandon, Cork, the highest-paid BBC entertainer; Professor Louise Richardson from Tramore, Waterford , Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University (scholarly specialty: terrorism); Sean Doyle from Youghal, Cork, CEO of British Airways – these are at the summit of their professions, but between them and base camp is a crowded mountain of successful Irish in Britain. Certainly, Britain gains enormously from Irish talent that adds to the gaiety of the nation. I’m sure many successful Irish in Britain would express gratitude if asked privately, but I suspect that gratitude doesn’t otherwise occur to them because they actually don’t feel as if they’re in a foreign country. But they are certainly aware of default Irish Anglophobia (they grew up with it) yet choose not to counter it either with expressions of gratitude or rebuttals of Sinn Feinism.

And if there is Irish silence on the subject inside Britain, there is often indignation back in Ireland. Occasionally Irish stars, some with names like Richardson, Norton, Blackmore, Hill, Foster, Hopkins, are mistaken for British. One furious Dublin columnist recently wondered if it is out of Britain’s “pure and utter colonial ignorance”.  Forget Britain’s endless hospitality to the citizens of a country that tried to humiliate it during Brexit. Such mistakes about identity seem a small price to pay for the invaluable opportunity Britain extends to the Irish to learn their trade and become stars in the first place!  But the chits from matron are valid only from one side of the Irish Sea.

British ministers and civil servants might think that the CTA has been a great strategy to get the Irish on board, but amidst the benefits it has brought to countless lives, a dilution of  Irish nationalism has hardly been one of them. That eventuality is wholly in the hands of the Irish. Yet Brendan O’Neill, first generation English, has recently complained in Spiked about the recent self-racialising among the Irish in a Britain that has never been more tolerant of the Irish, and how this fosters a non-British and even anti-British outlook.  Irish self-racialising began seriously in the years that led to the successful Irish Cultural Revival, 1890s-1920s, but maintained its momentum even during the decades of British hospitality (during which the Irish working class often suffered discrimination and enmity in British cities). In 1945 Orwell wondered why racialism and jingoism have to be tolerated when they come from an Irishman, even from one who actually lived in Britain. His answer was “England’s bad conscience. . . . It is difficult to object to Irish nationalism without seeming to condone centuries of English tyranny and exploitation”. Here surely is the explanation of all the chits from matron. But Irish nationalism’s immunity from criticism has long outlived any English tyranny and exploitation.

Irish nationalism’s exemption is tellingly revealed in a column posted by Terry Eagleton in Unherd on March 21, 2022. He is exercised by Putin’s display of ethnic nationalism in his invasion of Ukraine and reminds us of “the dangers of ethnicity” and of the “political havoc” wrought by “the Romantic-nationalist demand that there should be a precise fit between politics and ethnicity, so that an ethnic ‘people’, whatever that means, is entitled to its own sovereign state and should extend this sovereignty to those of its own kind currently living under different regimes”. At this point, I suspect Eagleton suddenly remembered the territorial and ethnic driving forces of Irish republicanism of which he has not been a noted public enemy.  How then to turn on a sixpence and find that chit from matron?  Well, it seems that those Northern Irish republicans who demand a united Ireland so that they can live with their “fellow Gaels”(fitting politics to ethnicity) do so only because they don’t wish to live “with a bunch of benighted Ulster Scots who believe the world was created only 6,000 years ago” . That’s all right, then: ergo chit issued. But Eagleton here maligns republicans. They have no interest in unionists’ views on Genesis (which many nationalists share in any case – unless the Catholic Church is now Darwinian) and no interest in unionists save as obstacles to be removed; their rationale is simply the unacceptable existence of unionism; they simply want to live with fellow Gaels! This is not republicans speaking about the Ulster Scots but Eagleton himself, and dare I say it, sounding a trifle bigoted.

Mary Wakefield in the Spectator (March 12, 2022) also impugns Putin’s stated belief that Russians and Ukrainians are one people and thus the latter have no right to a separate identity. This is actually Irish republicanism’s attitude to the Republic and “the North” when it wishes to appear moderate, and most outsiders also ignorantly believe that Northern Ireland ought not to exist, that Ireland ought to be one jurisdiction because, after all, they’re all Irish. In this regard, were you to look through the wrong end of the telescope, and despite a recent writer who sees in the flight of the Ukrainians an echo of the flight of the Irish during the Famine 175 years ago (with John Bull as Putin), you might see a miniaturised Ukraine as more like Northern Ireland groomed for annexation.

But just when Irish-British relations seemed on the mend came along Brexit (which was a factor only because Irish nationalism belatedly chose it to be so) and now the Decolonisation project in North America and Britain and, of course, in Ireland, President Higgins’ speeches and seminars firing the starting gun. Decolonisation in Ireland – which Sinn Fein has sought for a century – will result, in this recent western world-wide and newly validated phase, in a retroactive Irish cultural differentiation from Britain.  As it sheds the “Royal” in the name of this and that organisation, renames places and removes what statues and other traces of Britishness remain, will the Decolonisation project require the Republic to cancel the CTA on the grounds that its one-sidedness proves its colonial origin and nature?  Fat chance.  The chits from matron will continue and be greedily grasped. The endless mollification and concessions will not abate, to the detriment of the union of Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and to the very Union itself. After all, Irish nationalism in its political guise wishes above all to decolonise Northern Ireland and cancel its Britishness. Yet Irish cultural and political energies are directed in precisely the wrong direction. There will be no lasting peace on the island until Ireland confronts and resolves the paradox of its connection to Britain. The compensation for this painful task will be recognition of the immense cultural contribution Ireland has made to Britain and from which it can take real pride. For his part, Justin Trudeau or his successor is likely to learn the same lesson about La Belle Province if the anti-British Decolonisation project, now up and running in British Columbia, spreads to the Rest of Canada but stopping, of course, at the Quebec border since there will be zero desire across it to cancel the historical French founding and maturing.


Professor John Wilson Foster is co-editor with William Beattie Smith of The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland (2021); his recent books include The Space-Blue Chalcedony: Earth’s Crises and the Tyler Bounty (2020) and Pilgrims of the Air: The Passing of the Passenger Pigeons (2017).

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John Wilson Foster