Two divided islands have been back in the headlines this week, and we – that is, us Brits – have something of a history with both of them; in fact, we maintain an interest that means neither has never really fallen off our national radar. I’m talking about Ireland and Cyprus. One has been a crucial, not to say a controversial, element of this little land mass’s story for centuries, whereas the other is a military legacy of our imperial adventures when we began punching above our weight on a staggering scale. One appears poised to descend into depressingly familiar factions as another shaky coalition collapses, whereas the other finally seems to have reached a point whereby some form of reunification is being cautiously discussed.
In the case of Northern Ireland, the structure of the power-sharing Executive at Stormont means the resignation of decade-long Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will have to be followed by the resignation of First Minister Arlene Foster, thus triggering an election. Sinn Fein have seven days to nominate a replacement for McGuinness, but they’ve dug their heels in and refuse to do so. One of the ironic consequences of the veteran republican’s decision is that, as of Monday, direct rule from Westminster will return to Ulster as the Northern Ireland Secretary takes charge; James Brokenshire then has six weeks in which to call an election.
Since the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, every election has seen the DUP win the majority vote, relegating Sinn Fein to second place on each occasion. But the fact that running Stormont is a joint office means they can still bring the Executive to a standstill if they so wish; and they have.
This latest disagreement between the two parties has been brewing for quite some time. It stems from the Renewable Heat Incentive, a 2012 policy instigated by Arlene Foster when she held the post of Enterprise Minister; she introduced the ‘green energy’ scheme that became something of a black hole for the Executive’s limited funds and could eventually cost taxpayers an estimated £490m; Sinn Fein understandably reckoned she should take some responsibility for the disaster, while the DUP have responded by accusing Sinn Fein of deliberately sabotaging the continuation of the Executive with McGuinness’ resignation.
Despite the unexpected cordiality of relations between McGuinness and then-First Deputy Ian Paisley when they first worked together in 2007 (AKA ‘The Chuckle Brothers’), tensions are never far from the surface at Stormont; indeed, it’s been something of a minor miracle that the Executive has survived this long considering the intractable differences between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Having said that, the traditional enmities dividing Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland have at least been put aside for the sake of the country over the last decade-and-a half; the same can’t really be said when it comes to an island in the Mediterranean with an equally troubled history.
In the aftermath of the 1877/78 Russo-Turkish War, Britain’s mistrust of Russia led to a clandestine deal between the UK and the Ottoman Empire in which the running of Cyprus was ceded to Britain; the Ottomans needed an ally in the region to provide military support in the face of repeated Russian aggression, and Cyprus was a handy stop-off point on the route to India. Both parties were apparently happy until the outbreak of the Great War, when the Ottoman Empire threw in its lot with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria), prompting Britain to annex Cyprus and make it a Crown Colony. Its significance as a military base proved vital over the following forty years. As the majority of the island’s population was Greek, long-held grievances over Turkish domination meant that British rule was deemed the lesser of two evils.
However, it didn’t take long before the Greek Cypriots began demanding the island be unified with Greece, leading to several violent protests in the 1930s not eased by the repressive regime instigated by the colony’s governor of the time. The Second World War suppressed such protests, with 30,000 Cypriots joining the British war effort; but the post-war era saw Greece drumming up international support for unification with Cyprus, something Britain resisted as the island’s Turks feared the worst.
The formation of the Greek Cypriot guerrilla organisation EOKA in the mid-50s unleashed a bloody campaign that became Britain’s key colonial battle in the Mediterranean following the withdrawal from Egypt. After Suez, Britain decided it would be preferable to grant Cyprus independence if it could maintain its military bases and this eventually came to pass in 1960. Britain’s military presence was called upon during a fresh outbreak of Greek-Cypriot violence in 1964, but the situation deteriorated further a decade later when Greeks overthrew the Cypriot President in a coup, prompting Turkey to invade Cyprus. The ultimate outcome of 1974 was the effective division of the island into Northern Cyprus (Turkish) and Southern Cyprus (Greek); and this state of affairs has been upheld ever since.
As Britain maintains Sovereign Base Areas in both Northern and Southern Cyprus, our commitment to the island lingers and, along with Greek and Turkey, we remain guarantor powers of Cyprus’ independence. Talks in Geneva at the moment are intended to review the situation and discuss possible reunification of the island, but the legacy of past clashes between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is a grim one that will take a considerable effort to resolve.
Over 2,000 members of both communities have been officially listed as missing persons for almost half-a-century; in recent years, the remains of more than 700 bodies have been exhumed, all victims of the atrocities that events in both 1964 and 1974 led to. If there is to be a resolution to Cyprus’ troubled history, there is still a hell of a lot to resolve.
On one hand, it could be said Northern Ireland is further along the road to recovery than Cyprus; and then we have to remember that we’re talking about just one half of a country that has been officially divided for ninety-five years, and the picture suddenly doesn’t seem much better at all. There’s a long way to go yet.
© The Editor