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Dublin. An Irish-American joker of my acquaintance reckons that the March 17 deadline in the British-proposed Security Council resolution is no coincidence. He sees the hand of Perfidious Albion going about its usual dirty work: “That’s the Brits trying to ruin our national holiday!”
Whether the ultimatum-date (now facing slippage) was Jack Straw indulging in a little Paddy-bashing, the White House hoping for a rub of the green from the ‘Fighting Irish’, or just (and of course most likely) the earliest possible day that provides even the slightest, shammiest charade of allowing Saddam time for a deathbed conversion, it hasn’t gone down well in Ireland. The Irish people, normally and in most respects among the more pro-American in Europe, are overwhelmingly opposed to the war and to US troops being allowed to land at Shannon Airport en route to the Gulf; and while the Irish government has been trying to combine its traditional attachment to the UN with its political fealty to Washington, and to US-based companies, it won’t appreciate having its empty hypocrisies rubbed in its face on St Patrick’s Day. (On the web, a CBS News interactive map that surveys the positions of dozens of governments about the upcoming war leaves Ireland a blank, unlike, say, Niger, Bangladesh and Malaysia.)
It’s likely, really, that the Taioseach (prime minister), Bertie Ahern, would prefer to hide his face in that Waterford-Crystal bowl of shamrock rather than grinningly present it to George W Bush, in the Irish state’s familiar, annual leprechaun ceremonials at the White House — taking place early this year, this Thursday, to accommodate Bomber Bush’s busy schedule. (On Tuesday in the Irish parliament, socialist politician Joe Higgins made the rather unseasonal suggestion that Bertie should give George a bowl of blood-red fuchsia instead of the shamrock.) Even Bertie, whose inarticulateness rivals W’s own, surely has sufficient grasp on the concept of irony to recognise what this moment dramatises: he, as the political inheritor of the struggle that opened the cracks in the British Empire in 1916-21, will be seen humbly paying his respects to George II, dynastic leader of the latest sun-never-sets imperium, just as the US Empire prepares to launch its most flagrant land-grab yet.
The Provisionals’ keeper of the freedom-struggle mantle, Gerry Adams, may be spared the indignity. It has been reported that Sinn Fein’s punishment for the still-mysterious vacation spent by three of its members in FARC territory in Colombia is banishment from the Paddy’s Day photo-ops with Bush — though the latest reports suggest that some sort of meeting is on, so the Prez can press all the Northern pols towards a new agreement on devolution.
At least Sinn Fein officially opposes the war. The North’s unionist parties are typically bellicose, with Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble (remember him, Nobel peace prize winner?) looks forward to a “just war against a fascist and a dictator in the Middle East”, and says “the US is right to pursue Saddam and remove him from power, but Sinn Fein side with the Iraqi tyrant and against America”.
Notwithstanding a few hours of Washington peace talk, it’s unlikely that any of the Irish politicians, photo-opped or otherwise, will return to Dublin and Belfast with anything resembling that warm, Clintonian feeling that the President gives a damn. Bill Clinton’s attachment to Ireland is beyond question, if only because, in the latter years of his presidency, when he couldn’t buy a friend in Washington, he was greeted all over this island by the sort of cheering crowds that — well, that greet him now at his appearances in the US. Here in Ireland there’s a strong belief (apparently cultivated by the man himself) that Clinton’s role in the Irish ‘peace process’ was crucial to his electoral wooing of the ‘Reagan Democrats’ (aka ‘white ethnics’). Perhaps, indeed, it played a small part, but surely insignificant compared to the fact that he pursued Reaganite policies, especially on highly racialised issues such as the death penalty and welfare.
‘The Irish question’, already clearly on a roll toward resolution in 1992, gave Clinton a leg-up in the ‘statesman’ stakes, and gave him a symbolic link to a large ethnic slice of the US population. But the devotion of that slice (estimated at 43 million people) to the Irish-nationalist cause is consistently overrated; and, indeed, a dispassionate analysis of the results of the ‘peace process’ and the US role in it scarcely reveals a major triumph for nationalist politics.
Anyway, while the Irish government chews its nails in the run-up to P-Day/D-Day, hundreds of Irish soldiers have more reason to be nervous. In Kuwait, among the 25,000 British troops waiting for the invasion to start are hundreds of members of the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR). The RIR was formed in 1992, following the disbandment of the largely part-time Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) — a force whose existence helped Northern Ireland’s Protestant majority to be well armed, with weapons that occasionally ‘found their way into paramilitary hands’, as the euphemism goes. In ’92 the UDR was folded into the Royal Irish Rangers (itself a combination of several previous regiments, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and by no means simply a Northern Protestant stronghold) to form the RIR. Young people from the Republic continue to join the British army as a more adventurous alternative to our own.
So there’s the RIR, “Northmen, Southmen comrades all” (as the song goes), struggling to clean their rifles in Kuwaiti sandstorms, waiting to enact the latest episode in a glorious imperial history. And into their camp next Monday, St Patrick’s Day, will come a special delivery from the Queen herself: a big box of shamrock.
Empires are rarely to be outdone for their heart-on-sleeve, shamrock-on-cap sentimentality. This particular tradition dates back to March 1900, when Queen Victoria received the news of Irish casualties in the successful relief of Ladysmith during the Boer War: “I have heard with deepest concern of the heavy losses sustained by my brave Irish soldiers. Her Majesty, the Queen, is pleased to order that in future, upon St Patrick’s Day, all ranks of her Irish regiments shall wear, as a distinction, a sprig of shamrock in their head dress to commemorate the gallantry of her Irish soldiers during the recent battles in South Africa.”
Grating though it may be to see the shamrock in the service of the Crown, for generations of Irish children Patrick was something of a crusader, to be sure. Singing the most familiar hymn to the patron saint every March 17, those kids could be forgiven for feeling called to jihad:
Hail, glorious Saint Patrick, thy words were once strong Against Satan’s wiles and the infidel throng; Not less is thy might where in Heaven thou art; Oh, come to our aid, in our battle take part! In a war against sin, in the fight for the faith, Dear Saint, may thy children resist to the death
HARRY BROWNE teaches in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.