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negotiation: you’re doing it wrong

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Since I moved to Ireland just over three years ago, I’ve had to learn some Irish history. OK, perhaps I didn’t have to, but this appears to be part of the way I do things – the background information helps when conversation takes an unexpected turn. I did the same, about Islam, when I became friends with a Muslim family in England a few years ago.

Last week saw the completion of the Dublin Spire, which is becoming known locally as the “Stump in the Dump” or the “Stiletto in the Ghetto”, thus joining other Dublin statues such as the “Hags with the Bags” (The Shoppers), the “Tart with the Cart” (Molly Malone), and the “Prick with the Stick” (James Joyce). The “Floozy in the Jacuzzi” is no more, having been removed as part of the O’Connell St. renovation, of which the “Stiletto” is part.

Anyway, the “Spire” is outside the Dublin General Post Office (GPO), which was the main rebel outpost during the 1916 “Easter Rising”, after which the defeated rebel leaders were executed by the evil English overlords. I had to look this up, out of curiosity, after an evening listening to Irish folk songs in a pub, with half the songs referring to those brave martyrs of the GPO.

I wrote a little about this last week in response to a question on a bulletin board, read by mostly American and English people. Their reaction? Didn’t want to know, and I can’t blame them – compared to England and Scotland, Ireland has not much history to speak of, and far too much is made here of the little it has. Even American or South African history can be more interesting to read, and more educational too; despite the relative youth of those countries, they at least had a frontier spirit and big ideas, and didn’t spend centuries mired in smouldering religious prejudice.

The way I see it, the main reason to study history at all is to learn from the mistakes made in the past; a look at Irish history, especially the last century, shows the same mistakes made over and over again. It seems to me that this can be attributed to the insular attitude I see here every day; so much of Irish history could be different, had people heeded the lessons of history learned elsewhere.

During the Victorian and Colonial eras (c. 1830 – 1940), we see the same basic pattern repeated again and again: if a country was part of the British Empire, you would find some (never all) of its native people trying to throw off the “colonial yoke” with varying degrees of success. This would usually involve some form of half-baked armed uprising, sometimes so poorly-planned that London hardly noticed. If it did, however, the British Army would come down on the rebels like a ton of bricks, crushing the rebellion by any means necessary. London would only negotiate from a position of strength, but could be surprisingly accommodating when that was the case.

This is what happened in Ireland (1916-1924), and they clearly hadn’t taken note of what happened in South Africa (1899-1910); the 1899-1902 Boer War saw the first large-scale use of concentration camps, and while Winston Churchill was making a nuisance of himself, he also took home some useful ideas, such as guerrilla warfare and the Commandos. South Africa then gained self-governing dominion status in 1910, as Canada has now, less than a decade later. Did Ireland need to go through all that? After eight years of civil strife, it got its independence in 1924, but at the cost of losing the Ulster provinces to Britain, because of their Protestant population.

Other examples are Burma (1885-1890), but an exception to the pattern was India; because there was no significant armed uprising, the non-violent protests by Gandhi were more effective in getting the British to the negotiating table, leading to improvements in conditions long before the tumultuous formation of India and Pakistan in 1947. Then the trouble really started, with internal migrations leading to the deaths of a million people within weeks, and sporadic internal uprisings and skirmishes between the new countries ever since.

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Written by brian t

January 26, 2003 at 12:50 am

Posted in life

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