“Down to Earth: Geopolitical Realities” by Geoff Sloan, PhD

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Geopolitics and the Union

It was the American writer Samuel Huntington who observed that the job of the political scientist is not to improve the world, but to say what he thinks is going on in it. Huntington demonstrated this ability in his 1996 classic, The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. The book was badly reviewed at the time by the elite he had the temerity to criticize, but his geopolitical themes eventually achieved a heightened reality. He is now dead, but regarded as a “startling clairvoyant”. 

I do not claim this characteristic. However, I am going to aim for a heightened reality by applying some concepts to the idea of the Union—the geopolitical realities. Firstly I will identify the conditioning influence of geography on the British Isles and its relationship to Europe; secondly I will explain how geographical configuration has conditioned Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland’s relationships within the British Isles predate the 1801 Act of Union by hundreds of years.  These geopolitical realities have been obscured or insufficiently acknowledged by successive Irish and British governments, and by Irish nationalism. 

Understanding the idea of the Union through the lens of geopolitics is not a partisan enterprise—it is a vital one. It will critique the narrative of geographical determinism, which falsely assumes that because Ireland is an island, it must be a unitary state. But geography does not determine political outcomes; it merely conditions other factors that unfold within a geographical framework. The fact that Ireland is an island creates no presumption that it should be one state.

By geopolitics, I do not mean a synonym for international strategic rivalry: classical geopolitics is a confluence of geography, history, and strategy. It can do two things: draw attention to geographical patterns in political history, and formulate explanations which suggest the political relevance of geographical characteristics.  It fuses spatial relationships and historical causation. Geography conditions but does not determine political actions, relations and outcomes. Classical geopolitics helps us to assess practical conduct. It does not obey the artificial boundaries of academic disciplines, but embraces a synthetic approach to address interdisciplinary policy issues.

Britain and Europe

Sir Halford Mackinder formulated key concepts in understanding the geopolitical realities of the Union. He was that rare beast in British public life, a polymath. He set up the School of Geography at Oxford, and founded what was to become the University of Reading in 1926. In 1919, he was appointed British High Commissioner to South Russia. Between 1910 and 1922 he served as Scottish Unionist MP for a constituency in Glasgow.

In a book published in 1902, Britain and the British Seas, he identified an important geographical pattern in the history of the political relationship between the British Isles and Europe. His starting point was the southeast coast of England. This area lies on what he called the “linguistic frontier of Europe”, a confluence between the Teutonic and Romance peoples. This confluence had geographical expression in the form of the Rhine and Seine rivers. Both had shaped Britain: “To the Teutonic – Easterling and Norsemen – England owes her civil institutions and her language; to the peoples of the west and south, her Christianity and her scholarship.” 

Mackinder saw this as a unique geopolitical paradox: “Britain is part of Europe, but not in it.” It framed political and strategic relationships: “Great consequences lie in the simple statements that Britain is an island group, set in an ocean, but off the shores of the great continent; that the opposing shores are indented; and that the domains of the two historic races come down to the sea precisely at the narrowest strait between the mainland and the island.” Britain was able through sea power and freedom from land frontiers to defend and expand its economic and political influence. This analysis still stands. Terms change, but­­­— whether we say France and Germany, or the prosperous North and the debt-burdened South or, like Mackinder, the Teutonic and Romance peoples—the great ports and hinterlands of the Elbe, the Rhine, the Scheldt and the Seine and the British archipelago still impact on each other. 

Much has changed in the relationship between Britain and Europe since 1902: Mackinder would acknowledge the importance of the European Single Market for the UK. Unfortunately, Boris Johnson has failed to understand the nature of the geopolitical relationship between Britain and Europe, and that it has at its heart two enduring qualities that are difficult to align: paradox and mutability. They constitute the essence of the policy challenge that successive Conservative governments have struggled to resolve. 

The paradox is, as I have said, that Britain is part of Europe but not in it. History illuminates the mutability of the relationship. It was not until the Tudor period that the English Channel became an effective strategic boundary. Before then, Mackinder argued that “London was more closely connected on the tide ways with Paris, Flanders, and the Hanseatic cities than with Scotland or Ireland or Wales.” 

Northern Ireland

The primary function of any nation state is to integrate its diverse regions into a cohesive organizational unit, assimilating regional differences. This raises the question of the nature of the boundaries that separate these regions. The differences between Northern Ireland and the Republic are extensions of variations in Britain. Much of the previous literature (including that by N.J.G. Pounds, J. Anderson and F. Gallagher) focuses on the “disputed” nature of the land boundary. This is despite the fact that the international boundary was confirmed in a tripartite treaty between the Free State, the British government and the Northern Ireland government in 1925. This did little to ameliorate the development of a narrative by Irish governments that the Irish Sea and the North Channel constitute a “natural” boundary. Implicit in this is the assumption that the whole of Ireland and Britain constitute two distinct cultural regions, the geographically deterministic rationale being that they are both islands. 

In The Irish Border as a Cultural Divide (1962), the Dutch political geographer, M.W. Heslinga studied regionalism in Ireland in the context of the British Isles, and comes closest to a valid understanding of the geopolitical realities of Northern Ireland. Heslinga’s thesis consists of three propositions that are all grounded in the methods of geopolitics. Firstly, political boundaries that have no relation to conspicuous geographical configurations are not necessarily unworkable. Secondly, Heslinga challenges the assumption that the sea constitutes a natural boundary separating political entities: in the context of the British Isles the sea actually brings people together. Thirdly, he builds on the concept of human associations as articulated by the American political geographer Richard Hartshorne. A consequence of these associations is that regions can have ties with one another which do not conform to the boundaries arising from physical geography. There are three types of human associations: historical, socio-economic and cultural.

These three associations provide the core of Heslinga’s thesis: the Irish border not only delineates the limits of political jurisdiction, but also conforms to one of the most important regional divisions in the British Isles as a whole. Firstly, it marks off, in a geopolitical sense, the Scottish part of Ireland from the Anglicized part. These human associations were conditioned, not determined, by two aspects of Ireland’s geographical configuration. In a geographical sense there is little evidence of “national unity”: “The general physiographical plain, a central basin surrounded by group of mountains and hills is repeated on a smaller scale in the north-east of the island” (p. 43). The central Ulster lowlands clearly stand apart, as does the Foyle valley in the north-western part of Northern Ireland. Secondly, this dividing line between the north and the south of the island conditioned political outcomes: “…it may be said that the often-repeated Nationalist argument, that the natural unity of Ireland should have imposed a natural unity from an early date, is one very hard to sustain in the light of historical geography. It was relatively easy to gain a foothold on Irish soil; it was very difficult to establish an effective supremacy over the whole island” (p. 45). 

Heslinga’s analysis focuses on how relations between the northern sub-regions of what he called Highland Britain were conditioned, but not determined, by two geographical configurations.  First is the geographical isolation of Ulster from the central Irish lowlands, due to the features that have been described. Second, the geographical proximity of Ulster to Scotland. The North Channel at its narrowest point, between Fair Head and the Mull of Kintyre, is less than twelve miles wide. It was in this sub-region encompassing Scotland and Ulster that human associations achieved the greatest frequency of interaction, and where this frequency had the greatest effect. These human connections give Northern Ireland its unique geopolitical nature.

Scotland and Ulster

The socio-economic associations between Scotland and Ulster have a number of strands. In Ireland outside Ulster an inefficient system of land tenure existed. This resulted in the sub-letting of small holdings for short periods, usually one year with six months grace. In Ulster there existed a system of tenant right, which guaranteed Protestants and Catholics alike security of tenure, a fixed rent and the right to sell their stake in their holdings. This accounted for Ulster’s relative prosperity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Irish Land Act of 1870 extended it to the whole of Ireland. The origin of the Ulster tenant right predated the Plantation, and can be traced to the settlement of Scots in Antrim and Down.  

Commentators in the early nineteenth century such as William Parnell – landlord, Liberal MP for Wicklow (1817-1820), father of Charles Stewart Parnell and an opponent of the Act of Union in 1801 – recognised the effect that this type of human association had on Ulster: “The six northern counties of Ireland are so very differently circumstanced from the rest that they very well deserve a separate consideration, if there be really any intention of restoring the tranquillity of the country.”[1]  According to Parnell, the advent of the industrial revolution and the geographical scope of its application were products of geographical configuration and the frequency of interaction: “The industrialisation of Ulster is by no means remarkable when it is seen in its proper perspective, in the context of the ‘northern half’ of the British Isles. Indeed, industrial Ulster is a province of the industrial empire of north-west England and south-west Scotland. There was a constant flow of capital and machinery from across the Channel. The industrial development of Ulster merely epitomizes the historical intertwinement of the north of Ireland with the north of Great Britain” (pp. 188-89). 

In terms of historical human associations, the frequency of interactions conditioned by geography had an effect that was long, complex, and deep. Hugh Shearman in Ulster (1949) indicates its long lineage: “For thousands of years the inhabitants of north-east Ulster and south-west Scotland have been aware of each other’s existence and have looked across at each other’s territory with a view to exploration, conquest, refuge or trade. There have been comings and goings between the two since the earliest periods of human occupation”.[2]  What this description lacked was a geopolitical analysis. Heslinga provided this and more: “For the colonists from east Ulster gave Scotland her name, her first kings, her Gaelic language and her faith. It is often suggested that modern Ulster is an extension or projection of Scotland, but the first concept of Scotland was really an extension or projection of Gaelic Ulster” (p. 118). 

This conception of Scotland had a number of different geographical iterations that preceded the formation of a Scottish state. The most surprising was a chiefdom that straddled both sides of the North Channel. A.T.Q Stewart tells us in The Narrow Ground: Aspects of Ulster 1609-1969 (1977) that “In 1399 the heiress of the Norman Lordship in eastern Antrim married John Mor MacDonnell, the Lord of the Isles. The son of that union became Lord of Antrim and Lord of the Isles; thus Antrim was absorbed in the MacDonnell kingdom…. The combined Lordship lasted throughout the fifteen century, resisting the hostility of the Scottish kings until the Scottish part was overrun and the MacDonnells defeated by James IV” (p. 36). 

The final human association is cultural. It has both tangible and intangible dimensions. Today the colloquial language you hear people using throughout Northern Ireland is the same that you would hear in Girvan, Ayr or Glasgow. Heslinga articulated the intangible and claimed that Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland have more in common with each other than with their co-religionists south of the border: “Many a southern Catholic regards his northern co-religionists as being ‘sharper’ and more business-like than himself. The northern Catholics may be as hospitable and charitable as their co-religionists but they have a ‘hard core’ which is not found in the south. These opinions are, to some degree, paralleled by the views expressed by Protestants from the south. As they see it, their northern co-religionists are on the whole more dogmatic and pugnacious” (p. 74) 

In summary, these three different human associations show convincingly that cross-channel contacts between Scotland and Northern Ireland have been a sustained feature of Highland Britain long before the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. Geographical proximity meant that these contacts were pronounced and continuous.

England, Wales and Southern Ireland

There were also human associations between England and the south of Ireland. They were fewer, and lacked the historical complexity of those between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Again, geographical configuration conditioned political outcomes, as identified by Mackinder. The lowland gap between the southern end of the Pennines and the northern part of the Welsh uplands is often called the Cheshire Gap. He gave it a new name, the Midland Gate, as it gave access to the English plain. This configuration is one of the most significant in the geography of British Isles. He drew attention to the fact that there existed, mirror-like, a similar configuration in Ireland: “The Midland Gate, affording an exit from the English plain may be correlated with the Dublin Gate opposite, which gives wide entrance to the Irish plains of Meath. It was by this way that the Goidels, and afterwards the English, succeeded in thrusting a colony into the midst of Ireland ”.[3] This resulted in the Anglicization of large parts of southern Ireland. The Irish Republic was a product of secession from the United Kingdom in 1922. Geopolitically its origins go back to the medieval English settlement in southern Ireland. The French geographer Pierre Flatres applied a synthetic analysis to these geopolitical realities and argued that the British Isles can best be understood by recognising the existence of what he called ‘two pairs of countries’[4]: southern Ireland, Wales and England; and Northern Ireland and Scotland. 

Irish Nationalism and Geopolitical Determinism 

These geopolitical realities have been consciously obscured by Irish nationalists and insufficiently challenged by successive British governments since the formation of the Irish Free State. They are displayed in the mentality of extreme nationalist Éamon de Valera. Between July 1921 and the signing of a treaty in December 1921, the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, and de Valera engaged in an extensive exchange of letters. Lloyd George’s willingness to engage with the realities that he hoped would frame the forthcoming negotiations was notable for its geopolitical insight: “The geographical closeness of Ireland to the British Isles is a fundamental fact. The history of the two islands for many centuries, however it is read, is sufficient proof that their destinies are indissolubly linked . . . when you as the chosen representative of Irish national ideas, come to speak with me, I made one condition only, of which our proposals plainly stated the effect—that Ireland should recognise the force of geographical and historical facts. It is those facts which govern the problem of British and Irish relations. If they did not exist there would be no problem to discuss” (13 August 1921).[5]  De Valera’s response was evasive: “I shall refrain therefore from commenting on the fallacious historical references in your last communication” (30 August 1921).  As his fellow Irish republican Kevin O’Higgins observed, “…de Valera hated facts like a cat hates water”.

When de Valera took power in 1932 as leader of Fianna Fáil, he immediately embarked on a five-year campaign to destroy the agreed provisions of the 1922 Anglo–Irish Treaty. By 1937 he had replaced the agreed constitution with one containing the phrase “the island of Ireland”. It was evasive, deterministic, and designed to fulfil three political objectives. Firstly, to deny the political implications of the geographical configurations and  human associations that Lloyd George had mentioned. Secondly, to enshrine a “blood and soil” nationalism which excluded Protestants throughout Ireland. Age did not wither de Valera’s extremism. In 1962 he stated, “If in the north there are people who spiritually want to be English rather than Irish, they can go and we will see that they get the adequate, right compensation for their property”.[6]As Liam Kennedy has remarked, “The crudity of the terminology—English instead of British, the exclusiveness of the idea of Irishness—is consonant with the sinister undertones to the proposition itself.”[7]  Thirdly, to build  geographical determinism into a constitutional document. As Len Hochberg, a leading geopolitical analyst, has remarked, this kind of exclusive nationalism can have toxic implications for those who are excluded from the chosen racial group: “Ethnicity and nation are often confused in the social scientific literature.  This is a regrettable source of considerable confusion. What distinguishes a nation from an ethnic group is the assertion of territorial exclusivity by the ethnic group.  Nations are human communities that believe they have the exclusive right to given territory, over which their state should enforce laws derived from a particular ethnic group’s traditions and folk ways.”[8]

The Irish demand to have exclusive rights over the territory of another sovereign state, and to enforce the laws of a particular brand of nationalism was candidly set out in de Valera’s constitution. Article 2 stated, “The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas.” Article 3 was evasive as to how this territorial appropriation would be achieved: “Pending the re-integration of the national territory and without prejudice to the right of the Parliament and Government established by this Constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole of that territory, the laws enacted by that Parliament shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws of Sáorstat Éireann and the like extra-territorial effect.”

The strategy de Valera used to legitimize this illegal claim was to hold a referendum, and thereby coat it with a veneer of democratic credibility. The result provided him with only 38.6% in favour: no votes, abstentions and spoilt ballot papers amounted to 61.4%. These two articles represented a frontal assault on one of the central doctrines of international politics: that states should respect and acknowledge the sovereignty of other states. This in turn produces legitimacy, a vital coinage in sustaining peaceful and co-operative relationships. 

The reaction of the British government, led by Neville Chamberlain, was pitifully weak: “His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom has considered the position created by the new Constitution …of the Irish Free State [and] cannot recognise that the adoption of the name ‘Eire’ or ‘Ireland’, or any provision of those articles [of the Irish constitution], involves any right to territory ….forming part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. 

De Valera’s geographical determinism has not gone away. In 2018 the Sinn Féin MP Paul Maskey underlined the continuity of this unfounded claim of ownership: “For 100 years now, Irish republicans have refused to validate British sovereignty over the island of Ireland by sitting in the parliament of Westminster. As an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP, I can provide an Irish republican perspective on this issue”.[9]  By 1969 the idea of geography as political destiny, and the constitutional claim of ownership over Northern Ireland, was deeply embedded within the ideological parameters of Irish republicanism. 

“Powersharing with an Irish dimension”

In 1972 it gained further traction from the British government itself. In October, seven months after devolved government in Northern Ireland had been suspended to take the blame for the events of “Bloody Sunday”, the Northern Ireland Office produced a discussion paper titled “The Future of Northern Ireland” (HMSO, 1972).  A new strategic narrative was created by the use of the phrase “The Irish Dimension”. Instead of defending the integrity of Northern Ireland’s territorial boundaries as part of the British state, a distancing process was set in motion: “A settlement must also recognise Northern Ireland’s position within  Ireland as a whole . . . it is a  fact that Northern Ireland is part of the geographical entity of Ireland”.  There was a sense that the British state in future would become what Richard Rose had characterised as a “qualified state”, and it would just carry out administrative tasks in an integral part of its territory. The discussion paper went on to assert: “Whatever arrangements are made for the future administration of Northern Ireland must take into account  the Province’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland; and to the extent that this is done, there is an obligation upon the Republic to reciprocate”.  Unfortunately this  has never been forthcoming. 

Perhaps the most egregiously erroneous geopolitical statement to come from a British Prime Minister was that made by John Major. It was a neutralising proposition designed to distance Northern Ireland from its rich, long and complex geopolitical relationship with the rest of the British Isles. The “Joint Declaration” of December 1993 stated “… on this basis, he [Major] reiterates, on behalf of the British Government, that they have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”.[10]  The weasel phrase in this statement was “selfish strategic” as it deliberately obscured the fact that the territory of Northern Ireland has since 1949 been an integral part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.                      

In 1998, Article Two of the Irish constitution was replaced by the Irish government in return for endorsing the Belfast Agreement. However, the new Article Two remains geographically deterministic and regards geography as political destiny. “It is the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, to be part of the Irish nation. That is also the entitlement of all persons otherwise qualified in accordance with law to be citizens of Ireland. Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.” The Belfast Agreement uses the phrase “the island of Ireland” ten times. Since then it has performed a dual function. For Irish republicanism—and successive Irish and indeed British governments—it provides a mechanism for keeping alive the issue of the future ownership of Northern Ireland. By contrast, it gives only trifling recognition to the geographically conditioned human associations that exist within the British Isles as a whole. 

The geopolitical realities show that the United Kingdom’s only international land boundary conforms to one of the most important regional divisions in the British Isles. It marks off the Scottish part of Ireland from the English part. Geography must underpin democratic aspirations and policies if democracy is not to become subservient to sectarian politics. 

As Northern Ireland celebrates its centenary, we see the recurrence of a politically motivated attempt to obscure these geopolitical realities of the Union. The Conservative Party has again qualified its support for the Union, prioritising its own electoral interests. On 14 December 1921, after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Carson launched an excoriating attack on Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, and on the Conservative Party: “I think he is a very proper person to pronounce the funeral oration over all that has been said and done by that misguided party . . . for the last 35 years, dead and buried from today, with all the engineered splendour to cover up defeat and humiliation you have had in Ireland; dead and buried, strangled, without consultation with their followers, by the leaders and trustees who were sent into the Government to protect them”.[11]

Fast forward one hundred years and this political trickery remains in rude health. The imposition of the Northern Ireland Protocol has meant a Conservative Prime Minister walking away from the vital and eternal challenge of statesmanship: maintaining the unity and integrity of the state that you govern. The imperative to “get Brexit done” has resulted in the Union being sacrificed again on the altar of office. This has totally discredited the Democratic Unionist Party, now revealed as the victim of its own naïve faith in the Conservative Prime Minister. This was summed up in the woeful comment made by its former leader Arlene Foster on 2 October 2019, when she described Johnson’s proposals as a “serious and sensible way forward”. Her party has been reduced to playing the role of the Judas Goat of Ulster unionism.

Despite this reverse, all unionists can take comfort from the conditioning effect of geography and human associations. The geopolitical realities which I have outlined have endured for centuries and remain resilient. The false proposition of the “island of Ireland” is still viral, but the vaccination of geopolitical understanding is available and ready to be used. It provides a pathway to show that Northern Ireland is and will remain connected to the larger tapestry of the British Isles through the geopolitical phenomena of “Highland Britain”.   

Copyright: Geoffrey Sloan. This article first appeared in The Idea of the Union: Great Britain and Northern Ireland, edited by John Wilson Foster and William Beattie Smith (Belcouver Press, 2021.)

[1] W. Parnell  ,An Enquiry into the Causes of Popular Discontents in Ireland (London: Wallis, 2nd ed., 1805), p. 22. 

[2] H.Shearman, Ulster  (London: Hale, 1949), pp181-2.

[3] H.J. Mackinder, Britain and the British Seas  (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902),  p. 227.  

[4] P. Flatres, Geographie  Rurale de Quatre Contrees Celtiques (Rennes: Plihon, 1957), p. 38.

[5] Lloyd George to de Valera,13 August 1921, Lloyd George papers, F/14/6/15, House of Lords Library. 

[6] Quoted in J. Bowman, De Valera and the Ulster Question: 1917-1973 ,Oxford :Oxford University Press,1982 p318.    

[7] L. Kennedy, Who was Responsible for the Troubles?  (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2020), p.77.   

[8] Interview with Professor Hochberg, 16 April 2021. 

[9] www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/06/sinn-fein-mp-british-parliament-irish-republicans-brexit Accessed 14/8/18.

[10] The Downing Street Declaration, 15 December 1993, paragraph 4.

[11] Hansard, House of Lords Debate, 14 December 1921,col 36.