Let us cast our collective minds back seventy-seven years when one of the most appalling days of misjudged diplomacy ever to happen on these islands occurred. Eamon De Valera, the Dublin Prime Minister, on the 2nd of May 1945, accompanied by Joseph Walshe, the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, visited Dr Eduard Hempel (German representative in Dublin) to sign a book of condolences on the death of Adolf Hitler, which had occurred three days previously at the bunker in Berlin. The lowering of the Irish flag to half-mast and this action on behalf of the Irish people was astonishing and singlehandedly set Ireland out from all the other “neutral” nations in the world who refused to engage in such a spectacular own goal. De Valera was implored not to do this by colleagues - to think of the many Irish American soldiers who perished in the war – let alone the many Irishmen who served in British regiments. Yet he persisted with his diplomatic disaster.
Fast forward to the 2nd of December 2022, to a scene in Dublin. There in place, the Belgium-born German Ursula Von der Leyen, former German Defence Minister and now President of the European Union. She makes a set-piece speech in Dublin. This was supposed to be a thoughtful piece of diplomatic significance. To reset European, Irish and British relations. Instead, what occurred was one of the most catastrophic diplomatic interventions since De Valera’s condolences for Hitler.
Von der Leyen lamented that the illegal war and invasion orchestrated by Russia on the Ukraine was akin to Ireland's struggle to rid itself of British rule. The absurdity of the comments was lost on no one. Here we have a German, comparing an aggressor’s war of invasion with the Republic of Ireland’s so-called “right to exist”. Quite rightly the comments have been roundly condemned as “disgusting”. Nonetheless, it does tell us something about what lies behind the mindset in Brussels and the unburied hatred for the United Kingdom amongst some Germans and European diplomats - who should know better.
The comments are absurd on all levels because they are so fundamentally untrue. Examining the so-called struggle for Ireland's freedom, all one must do is look at the population demographics on the island to see who has struggled. When Partition occurred in 1920 more than 10% of the population of the south of Ireland was a thriving protestant population involved in commerce, faith and society the length and breadth of Ireland. Fears expressed during the decades of the campaign for Home Rule, that this population would be wiped out were dismissed. Today, the homogeneous population of the Republic of Ireland tells its own story. The protestant population is less than 2%. Much of the faith infrastructure closed and the contribution to commerce in the state has significantly declined. The fact is, the Republic of Ireland drove protestants out of Ireland, to either Northern Ireland or to find sanctuary or a new life in Great Britain. Meanwhile, GB has served as a location to give employment and wealth to countless Irish people, who travel freely back from GB to the tax haven economy of the Republic.
In stark contrast, the claims that Northern Ireland was a gerrymandered, sectarian state falls apart when one looks at the thriving, rights-based society here. Where those of a Catholic and nationalist tradition has witnessed the continued growth, not suppression, of that section of the population to a point where, at the last census, it was on par with, if not exceeding, the native protestant population. Hardly the mark of a state that prevents freedom!
The fact is, that it has been the British people in both the republic and in Northern Ireland who have struggled because of unjustified terrorism and targeting of their community for decades. Who despite those odds, has survived and made Northern Ireland the most successful region on the Island!
Remember, 100 years ago when Ireland sought to leave the British Union it was the poorest region of the UK at that time, in terms of levels of deprivation, measurements of poverty and lack of employment. Today, after 100 years of independence from Britain, over 40 years of membership of the EU and countless levels of support from American-based companies, situated in Ireland for personal tax purposes the Republic of Ireland remains the poorest region of the British Isles, by any measurement of household income or level of support. Whilst the NHS may be in crisis, it remains free at the point of delivery in Northern Ireland - by contrast in the Republic, a GP or emergency room must have its hand crossed with silver to perform. Dublin has significantly higher levels of unemployment, compared to the lowest levels on record for Northern Ireland and Ireland has the highest levels of debt per head in Europe. Independence has been a struggle. And a self-inflicted one.
The struggle for Irish freedom in terms of how well its people are being served by the state was made harder by its decision to freely leave the UK. Von der Leyen would be well served to ask; why have forty years of EU membership served the republic of Ireland so badly? Indeed, today in a poll, only one-quarter of the population of Northern Ireland would want anything to do with that state!
What Von der Leyen’s comments reveal says more about Brussels and the politics there than it does about anything that is happening on this island. In an age when Prime Minister Michael Martin launched his “shared Island” initiative, designed to help bring harmony between North and south, Von der Leyen’s comments (applauded by the Dublin Prime Minister) exposed the shared island project as a sham! There was the Dublin executive, salivating at this German politician pouring scorn on the UK. Comparing them to the aggressor Russia, when the irony of the situation was stark for all to see. This is a state that sympathised with Hitler and regretted his loss. Comments made by a former German minister, who has been partly responsible for her country to be so dependent on Russian energy that they dare not offend Mr Putin’s Russia.
Von der Leyen’s visit can only be categorised as a diplomatic disaster. The measured words have now extended the distance that must be travelled to heal the problems caused between UK and EU relations, post-Brexit. The gaff exposes just the state of mind in some parts of the EU. Little wonder, Leo Varadkar found a ready audience for his campaign to vilify Northern Ireland during the Brexit negotiations, touting photographs of military installations on our border as a result of defence against IRA terrorism and nothing to do with an economic border as suggested at the time.
Scratch the surface and the sectarian bitterness just underneath the skin of the body politic in the republic has been exposed for all to see. This signifies how far we have yet to travel to not only cement peace but to simply generate good relations. Von der Leyen has set back Anglo-Irish relations by a quantum as a result of her misjudged comments. Remember how well Her late Majesty had performed when, on a state visit to Dublin, she had healed over a century of hurt. Unfortunately, Von der Leyen has created more deliberate and completely unnecessary hurt.