I’ve just listened to the B(ritish)BC’s Today programme, featuring Fergal Keane. He was giving a report from his native Munster on the impact of Empire. He quoted the poet Edmund Spenser who was an enthusiastic imperialist but who described the awful effects of the Great Hunger on the Irish people – how emaciated creatures would crawl out of fields, their legs unable to support them, and when they found carrion, would unashamedly dine on it. Fergal then described how Oliver Cromwell watered his horses in a Catholic building, and how he couldn’t afford to pay his soldiers, and so gave them Irish land. Fergal then had a word with a Munster Protestant, who cheerfully said that he was descended from those Cromwellians, that half his friends were Protestant and half were Catholic, and if someone would give him some land taken by Cromwell, he’d be happy to apologise for what happened so long ago.
Fergal also had a university professor who emphasised that Empire wasn’t all negative for the Irish, that many of them joined the British armed forces and got good jobs in the English civil service and as administrators of British rule in places like India.
It was in so many ways a typical B(ritish)BC and Fergal Keane report. Vivid images of people dying of hunger, of Cromwell casually having his horses watered as he paid his soldiers in Irish land. Then counterbalancing this with the jobs and authority that some Irish were given, in helping build the Empire in other far-flung places.
It was also typical B(ritish)BC stuff in that there was an elephant in the room which was carefully tiptoed around – the province of Ulster.
Imagine if the report had come from there, where plantation and imperial rule still lingers, where planter descendants like Arlene Foster still see themselves as a people apart, who would have to leave Ireland if it were ever freed of British rule. Imagine if, for the last one hundred years, the province of Munster and not Ulster had been subjected to British rule, with descendants of planters ruling through discrimination and gerrymander, and the native Munster people who objected being beaten off the streets by the police or shot dead by British soldiers. Would Micheál Martin be calling for an apology on the part of the Munster people who had tried to resist British rule in their province?
As surely as the funeral of Bobby Storey has been the subject of unionist and tame nationalist controversy because honour was being paid to a man who had been prominent in resisting the vestige of imperial rule in Ulster, so this morning’s report was about pretending that British imperialism in Ireland was a thing of the past and that the planter and the Gael now work and live in happy harmony.
The shame of Keane’s report lay in firming up this lie in the minds of English people today. No wonder unionist wrath fell on Anna Lo some years back when she described the north of Ireland as a colony.
Truth hurts. But don’t hang around waiting for it from the B(ritish)BC or from Fergal Keane OBE.