Skip to content

Please don’t axe me

Heard it again this morning – someone on TV repeatedly saying ‘axe’ where most English-speakers would say ‘ask’: ‘I axed him straight out’, ‘Don’t axe stupid questions’ and so on. I say ‘most English-speakers’, since as far as I’m aware this pronunciation is only heard in North America, perhaps only the USA – and by no means everywhere there. In fact, it tends to be looked down on as uneducated (though people who consider themselves educated often describe it as ‘illiterate’, which isn’t the same thing).

The odd thing is that it only seems to affect the word ‘ask’. You don’t hear ‘axers’ saying ‘max’ for ‘mask’, or ‘tax’ for ‘task’, let alone ‘ricks’ for ‘risk’ or ‘decks’ for ‘desk’. So what’s going on? Why is this pronunciation so persistent?

It isn’t just an occasional slip of the tongue – people either say ‘axe’ all the time, or never say it all. Nor is it the kind of error young children tend to make when still trying to get their tongues round difficult groups of consonants. For instance, the word ‘wasp’, with its long sibilant ‘s’ followed immediately by an abruptly plosive ‘p’, tends to get mispronounced as ‘wops’ – putting the long sibilant at the end of the word, rather than in the middle, requires less breath control, which in turn depends on control of the muscles in the upper body. Such pronunciations are evidently so common at an early age that the British children’s poet A. A. Milne wrote the following about The three foxes:

They didn’t go shopping in the High Street shopses,
But caught what they wanted in the woods and copses.
They all went fishing, and they caught three wormses,
They went out hunting, and they caught three wopses.

Young Dutch-speaking children evidently have a similar problem with their own word for ‘wasp’ (wesp), for I have heard adult Dutch-speakers jokingly say weps instead. And young Slovenian-speaking children are seemingly well known for uttering the word for ‘uncle’ (stric, pronounced ‘streets’) with an l instead of an r (stlic – ‘stleets’, which I imagine most English-speaking children would find even more difficult). I’m reminded here of Donald Duck’s little nephews calling him ‘Unca’ Donald – ‘ncl’ being another unmanageable group of consonants.

Some languages do not make a clear distinction between the l and r sounds even in adult speech. Japanese, for instance, has a sound that is usually transliterated into Western languages as r, but involves so little tongue vibration that it can easily be mistaken by Westerners for l: Hiloshima, oligami and so on. And Western words borrowed into Japanese use this sound for lrondon for ‘London’, itaria for ‘Italy’ (Italia) and о̄sutoraria for ‘Australia’, with the same letter used for both the r and the l (groups of consonants are generally avoided in Japanese, hence the extra u and o).

And there’s a tendency even in European languages to swap l and r when they occur together in the same word. Thus the Spanish name for ‘Algeria’ is Argelia (a similar inversion occurs in Portuguese); and the Latin word for ‘tree’, arbor, has evolved into albero in Italian, àrvulu in Sicilian, árbol in Spanish, arbre in French and Catalan, árvore in Portuguese, arble in Mirandese (a minor language spoken in north-eastern Portugal), arbore in Romanian, arber in Romanche, and even åbe in the French-based Walloon language of southern Belgium (here there is no longer any trace of either the l or the r). Also note the variation between b and v, with v occurring specifically in languages that – unlike Spanish – do make a distinction between the two sounds.

But back to ‘ask’ versus ‘axe’. This difference can hardly be attributed to consistent differences in dialect, since – as I said earlier – it doesn’t seem to affect other similar words. One commentator on the Internet has said that criticising the ‘axe’ pronunciation as uneducated or ignorant is tantamount to criticising Scots for pronouncing ‘house’ as ‘hoose’; but that surely doesn’t hold water, since Scots make such sound changes consistently (‘oot’ for ‘out’, ‘doon’ for ‘down’ and so on). And, once again, ‘ask’ is the only word in which this change regularly occurs.

So the sk consonant group does not seem especially hard for English-speaking adults to utter – or is it? As I read back the opening sentences of this post, I noticed that in my own version of English the k sound in ‘asked’ almost disappears. Since I pronounce a long closed a (‘ah’) in the word, it comes out as ahssed – and since the slang British word for the backside is ‘arse’, with a silent r, you can’t help thinking of it. In American English the slang word is ‘ass’, with an open a as in ‘at’, so ‘asked’ could similarly come out as assed.

Is what we have here an attempt to avoid repeatedly using what sounds like a taboo word in everyday speech – in other words, to sound more educated rather than less? Saying ‘axed’ instead of ‘asked’ would be an instinctive way to avoid the supposed problem. And if you say ‘axed’ in the past tense, it’s only natural to extend the same pronunciation to all forms of the verb: ‘I’m only axing’, ‘he axes’, ‘why axe?’ and so on.

But then there’s strong evidence that the ‘ask/axe’ alternation has existed in the English language for well over a thousand years. The Old English (Anglo-Saxon) verb from which ask has come down to us was ascian – but there was a common alternative form acsian, with the s and k (c) sounds inverted. The use of axe rather than ask has been traced to texts by the mediaeval English author Geoffrey Chaucer; and it seems that ‘axe’ was a common pronunciation of the verb as late as the sixteenth century.

So is this a survival of two dialectal uses of the same word? With the spread of universal education, the ‘ask’ pronunciation supposedly became established as ‘standard’. But did ‘axe’ continue to be used in certain social groups – and, if so, which?

And this brings us to the crucial issue of who the ‘axers’ actually are – and, presumably, the reason why this usage is restricted to North America. For saying ‘axe’ rather than ‘ask’ has become an identifying feature of black American speech. Uneducated white speakers of American English may say things like ‘jiss’ for ‘just’, ‘hisself’ for ‘himself’ and ‘et’ for ‘ate’ (although the ‘et’ pronunciation is in fact still perfectly standard in British English, and an American friend of mine was surprised to hear me apparently talking like a ‘hillbilly’) – but they don’t say ‘axe’ for ‘ask’.

Much has been made recently of the supposed existence of a separate variety of American English spoken only, and consistently, by black Americans (sometimes called ‘Ebonics’, because of the black-hued wood ebony). Obviously there are certain terms that they use with a specific meaning, such as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ for other black Americans; and some black Americans feel entitled to use the ‘N-word’ (invariably pronounced as ‘nigga’) in situations where most white Americans would nowadays hesitate to do so (‘we can call ourselves whatever we like – but you can’t’). But very many black Americans speak a form of American English that hardly differs from what most of their compatriots speak – especially those from the former ‘slave states’.

I can’t help thinking that the surprisingly persistent use of ‘axe’ for ‘ask’ – which has been criticised as a sign of ignorance and lack of education by black Americans as well as white ones – is becoming a badge of identity in an age when many social groups are increasingly looking for one. If I say ‘axe’, you know I’m a ‘brother’ or ‘sister’; if I say ‘ask’, I may be an ‘Oreo cookie’ (black on the outside, white on the inside). And if it pisses ‘educated’ white people off to hear me ‘axing questions’, I’ll surely have made my point. If, being black, I’m dismissed as uneducated because of how I talk, that just shows how snobbishly racist white folks are, deep down. And comments on the Internet suggest that this is a common interpretation.

Hard to say what the wisdom of all this is. But, for good or ill, there is still such a thing as a standard form of every language; and diverging from it, deliberately or by chance, inevitably leads other people to draw their own conclusions. So, for now, please don’t ‘axe’ me – I’d sooner stay alive.




On my second three-month trip around Greece, almost 20 years ago, I found myself in conversation with a man of about my own age who lived in a village on one of the country’s many islands. At one point, referring to another man in the village, he described him as σπανός (spanós) – a word I didn’t yet know, so I asked him what it meant. He replied ‘Well, there are men who can’t grow beards, and that’s what we call them. In fact, we have six of them here. I expect you have the same thing back in Holland.’ I thought about this, and told him ‘No, I don’t think we do. We certainly don’t grow as much hair on our bodies as you do here’ (I pointed to his dark moustache and the sexy black curls sprouting at the neck of his shirt) ‘but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a man without any body hair at all’. It didn’t seem the time to reveal that I’d almost certainly seen more naked, or half-naked, men than he or most of his fellow male villagers ever had – so I wasn’t just talking about beards.

But then something interesting occurred to me. That weekend there was going to be yet another grandiose wedding between a woman and a man from two of the leading families, who surnames accounted between them for at least 30% of the local people (a handful of other names were also extremely common there). It seemed almost inevitable that there was a great deal of inbreeding in the village: people having children with people who were more or less closely related by blood.

It has evidently been known since very ancient times that having offspring with close blood relatives involves an increased risk that they will suffer from physical or mental defects, and even be unable to reproduce in turn. When, many thousands of years ago, humans began to domesticate animals for their own purposes (transport, food, hunting or defence) they must soon have realised that some breeding strategies worked better than others, that some imposed an unacceptable burden on their communities – and that this applied not only to livestock, but also to human beings. The result was an ‘incest taboo’ that appears to be one of the most firmly established taboos around the world: don’t have sex with your own children or parents, or anyone closely related to you by blood. Not that it never happened; but, when it did, the results tended to be bad.

The royal houses of Europe have provided many classic examples of this. Perhaps the most shocking one is the Habsburg dynasty, in which princes and princesses from various parts of Europe intermarried and interbred simply on the grounds that they were all ‘of royal blood’, even if they came from different countries and did not speak each other’s languages. This inevitably meant that they were often each other’s cousins, aunts, uncles – and at worst parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. Quite simply, institutionalised inbreeding.

This produced a vast number of shocking mental and physical aberrations that were passed on from generation to generation throughout the dynasty – from the Spanish queen Joanna’s insanity (she was dubbed Juana la Loca, ‘Mad Joanna’) to the Spanish king Charles V’s overshot lower jaw that prevented him from eating his food properly (he presumably had royally bad breath).

But then on that Greek island I found myself wondering why six out of a mere thousand local men were beardless – whereas in my own country none were. And not only were they beardless, but they were unable to father children. The man I was speaking to quite simply told me ‘το σπέρμα τους δεν είναι καλό’ – ‘their sperm is no good’.

Since he was a sheepherder, and knew very well about breeding animals, I dared to ask him if there might be a connection between the frequent local intermarriage and the unusually high prevalence of beardless men in an otherwise very hairy male population. It was almost as if a light bulb had come on in his head. He turned to his fellows in the bar, and began to talk about αιμομιξία (‘aimomixía’, literally ‘blood mixing’), something they were all aware of from livestock breeding. Was that why their village had such a high proportion of beardless men who could not father children?

Who knows? But I can’t help wondering.

Scot free

Can’t shed a tear at today’s death in his Vatican City refuge of the former Catholic archbishop of Boston, Bernard Law. The man should have died in jail, paying the fair penalty (perhaps including violent rape at the hands of his fellow prisoners) for his undoubted ‘sins of commission and omission’. Instead, he benefited from the seemingly automatic protection leading clergy are granted by Western societies that still falsely profess to be Christian. So I can only be very sad that this accomplice of orchestrated child abuse got off scot free, and died peacefully in his bed. And here I can’t help naming one of his accomplices – Pope John Paul II, who knowingly presided over Law’s escape from justice and yet is lauded by the ignorant as an icon of democracy and freedom.

It was known for years that the Catholic clergy (who were required to be ‘celibate’ in the hope that they would thus be able to devote all their energies to the worship of God) were no more capable than other humans of suppressing their sexual urges, and simply relieved them on the literally impregnable children (of both sexes) who were supposedly in their spiritual care, and unable to stand up for their rights. One mocking Dutch joke about this undoubtedly widespread practice runs as follows: a newly officiating priest asks his superior, a bishop, what the correct penance is for sexually abusing an altar boy, and is told ‘a Mars bar’.

The horrid underlying point of the joke is that church leaders were not only fully aware of the abuse, but took great care to keep it concealed not only from the police, but also from parents. Time and time again, Catholic priests who were clearly guilty of sexually abusing girls and boys were simply moved to other parishes, where time and time again they pursued their urges with impunity. And one of the main culprits in this deliberate cover-up was Cardinal Bernard Law, who ran the archdiocese of Boston.

Thanks to excellent investigative journalism by the newspaper The Boston Globe, the truth was finally brought to light. At first the Catholic hierarchy did its usual thing of denying everything, but eventually the truth came home to roost. Law submitted his resignation to Pope John Paul II; this was accepted, and he was ‘laicised’ (a euphemism for the more offensive term ‘defrocked’). But that was all. Anyone else would have been denounced to the police as an accomplice to child abuse, and sentenced to jail. Instead, Law (of all names) remained in office as a cardinal – a high officer of the Catholic Church – and in 2004 he was appointed to a sinecure in the church hierarchy, from which he retired seven years later. He received no punishment, either secular or ecclesiastical.

Just as he had protected offending priests under his authority from justice, he was protected from justice by Pope John Paul II, who likewise escaped punishment.

I’m glad the bastard’s now dead, and can do no more harm. But I wish he’d suffered as much as his victims – and, as so often, the Catholic church has contrived to spare him that.

Scot free.

Big deal (2)

Now that Theresa May has signed an agreement with the EU and her Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Philip Hammond has said Britain can’t walk away from it without destroying whatever reputation it has left as a reliable negotiating partner, her populist ‘Brexit minister’ David Davis has had the nerve to dismiss the whole thing as a mere ‘statement of intent’ that can always be amended later (echoing Michael Gove’s earlier comments). Even more outrageously, Davis has threatened that Britain will not pay a penny of the agreed €40-45 million ‘divorce bill’ unless a trade deal is reached with the EU. He doesn’t seem to realise – or perhaps care? – that such threats only serve to confirm Hammond’s warnings about Britain’s long-standing ‘perfidious Albion’ reputation. The Irish government has already responded that it – and the rest of the EU – will hold the UK to its agreement, however much it tries to wriggle out of it.

Since there is clearly a serious split in Conservative government ranks about how to proceed, or even whether or not the country should be seen to keep to its word, May’s chances of surviving as prime minister now look a lot slimmer than they did a few days ago. But who, given all this conflict within the party, would be a credible replacement? Her foreign minister Boris Johnson is a buffoon almost on a par with Donald Trump, and his appointment as party leader and hence prime minister (once again unelected) would surely lead to mass protests – on the morrow of the Brexit vote people gathered outside his home calling ‘traitor’ and ‘shame on you, Boris’. Davis and Gove have already made their unreliability, as well as their crude over-assessment of Britain’s negotiating power, only too clear. As for Hammond, he would run into exactly the same problems as May has done. Meanwhile, there are many Conservatives who object to their party being held to ransom by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and are furious with May for recklessly throwing away the small but solid parliamentary majority their party had inherited from David Cameron.

So is Britain once again heading for new elections? But how would that help? The only conceivable alternative party of government, Labour, has already manoeuvred itself into an impossible position by clinging almost as firmly as its Conservative opponents to the results of the Brexit referendum, despite the large numbers of people in both parties who wanted, and want, the UK to remain in the EU. And its leader Jeremy Corbyn is far from universally popular.

Since the main point at issue is whether Britain should or should not leave the EU, you start to wonder whether the best thing might be for both major parties to split up into their respective pro- and anti-Brexit wings and fight new elections on that basis. The elections would then, in all but name, be a second referendum on Brexit – now that the Brexiteers’ false promises, distortions of fact and lack of clear thinking are increasingly being exposed for what they are. After 18 months of dithering there is every sign that things are going to turn out worse for Britain, rather than better as the Brexiteers had proclaimed. All the extra jobs and ‘money for the National Health Service’ seem unlikely to materialise; and the other 27 EU countries have come out of this more united than ever, and appear to have weathered the populist storm (you now hardly hear a peep out of the likes of Geert Wilders, Marine le Pen and Beppe Grillo, for Brexit has shown just what could happen in practice if their policies were actually implemented; and even in Germany the social-democratic SDP is at last reconsidering a renewed ‘grand coalition’ with the CDU in order to prevent a dangerous fragmentation of national politics that could give more power to inexperienced extremist parties on either side, and so undermine democracy).

Suppose new UK elections with ‘Leave vs. Remain’ as the central theme resulted in a clear majority for ‘Remain’ – and a much clearer one than the thin 52% achieved by the ‘Leave’ camp in June 2016 (for the millions of pro-EU young people who couldn’t be bothered to vote last time would surely do so now). A strong new coalition of pro-Remain Conservative and Labour MPs, with support from the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalist Party, Wales’s Plaid Cymru and all the Northern Irish parties except the DUP (which would then be deprived of its monstrous leverage on London) could tell the EU it was all a big mistake. The three great ‘sticking points’ – the future status of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, the ‘divorce bill’, and the Irish border – would vanish overnight (all very much to the relief of the DUP, whose goals are completely contradictory), as would the problem of Britain’s future trading arrangements with the EU; and, having been through the whole sorry experience of near-Brexit once, Britain would surely think twice about ever trying it again. Only one thing could be worse than being in the EU, namely not being in it.

Trump is making things easier for Europe by showing us why isolationism is in the long run a very bad idea – and a risk the world can no longer afford to take. Walling others out ultimately means walling yourself in, and losing all your friends. Europe doesn’t want to go there; and nor, in the end, does Britain.

Big deal (1)

At the very last minute, the UK and the European Union (EU) have supposedly reached agreement on the three major ‘sticking points’ that the EU has insisted be solved before further talks on the relationship between it and post-Brexit Britain can begin: (1) the status of EU citizens in Britain, and vice versa, (2) the ‘divorce bill’ (what the UK still owes the EU because of existing financial commitments), and (3) the status of Northern Ireland and its borders with the EU and the UK.

Despite the media euphoria, I’ll believe it when I see it. The whole ‘agreement’ is what is commonly known as a ‘fudge’, as becomes apparent if we take the three points one by one:

(1) It is easy to say that EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in EU countries will have precisely the same rights as they have enjoyed since 1992; but, in practice, this is bound to conflict at some point with agreements already reached. If British citizens can continue to enjoy the same rights within the EU, and vice versa, to what extent will Britain have actually left the Union? Like all rights, these ones entail commitments – which can only be enforced under the existing rules. Trying to pretend otherwise is like trying to ‘square the circle’. And, if the rights the various citizens retain prove in practice to be less than they once were – which is what seems more likely to happen – the people involved will be in a more precarious situation than before. You can’t have it both ways.

(2) The proposed ‘divorce bill’ of £35-39 billion (currently equivalent to €40-45 billion) is far more than pro-Brexit politicians – and the people who voted for them in the hope of a brighter economic future for Britain, and above all fewer ‘wogs’ – were ever prepared to countenance, and far closer to what the EU has always insisted is its due. The UK’s loudmouthed, opportunistic foreign minister Boris Johnson is now unconvincingly trying to claim his notorious statement that the EU could ‘go whistle’ for money supposedly owed to it by Britain only referred to much higher sums. He may now affect to believe that, but it was quite clear at the time that he was saying the EU was not owed any money at all – and just as clear that this was populist bluster.

(3) The ‘agreement’ that there will not be a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has simply postponed the problem. As I said in my recent post Foreign body, Northern Ireland is a political entity that should never have been allowed to exist in the first place; and any attempt to maintain open borders on both sides of it after Britain leaves the EU is illusory. If Britain is outside the EU, the Union must protect its external border with Northern Ireland; and if that border is not subject to customs and immigration checks, Britain is effectively still in the EU, with a porous border that ‘illegal’ immigrants can, and surely will, continue to use as a back door. The only solution is then an internal British border ‘in the Irish Sea’, which Britain and above all Northern Ireland are strongly opposed to.

Some of the first reactions to the ‘agreement’ from British politicians have already made clear that the problems are far from being solved. Northern Ireland’s recalcitrant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has reserved the right to vote ‘no’ once the ‘details’ are known; and that would leave Theresa May without a parliamentary majority, and probably lead to new UK elections, in the very midst of further Brexit talks. Meanwhile, one of the most rabid pro-Brexit ministers in May’s government, Michael Gove, has stated that British voters can still torpedo the ‘agreement’ – and that is undoubtedly true. But, in that case, the whole thing is hardly worth the paper it’s written on. Once again, the UK government has refused to commit itself, and the EU’s other 27 governments must continue to wait until it gets its act together – assuming it ever does.

The leading EU negotiator Michel Barnier has already indicated that Britain still needs to make clear just where it stands. Some of the more nationalist UK media have suggested that the EU has ‘blinked’ on these issues, and that the EU has ‘given way’ in order to preserve its supposedly essential commercial ties with Britain – but the truth is the UK has blinked, by accepting a much higher divorce bill than expected (quite apart from the many ‘hidden costs’ of Brexit, which the Brexiteers either failed to calculate or deliberately chose to ignore) and postponing the more complicated questions of citizens’ rights and the Irish border, in order to preserve its quite definitely essential commercial ties with the EU.

Meanwhile, the clock is still ticking, and Britain is due to leave the Union in just over 15 months’ time, having dithered for 18 months ever since the Brexit vote. One of the current mantras is ‘unless everything is agreed, nothing is agreed’; and sometime in 2018 we’re going to find that not everything has been (or can ever be) agreed – at which point the whole thing is bound to break down, and May will finally get her comeuppance, despite yesterday’s supposed triumph.

Deal? Big deal.

Foreign body

A thousand years ago, an aggressive England – which had just been conquered by invaders from Normandy, themselves descended from Viking invaders of northern France – set about invading all its immediate neighbours: Wales, Scotland and Ireland, where different (Celtic) languages were spoken. Wales, the smallest, nearest and most digestible of the three, soon succumbed to the onslaught; from the late 13th century onwards it was effectively part of the English state, and its native language suffered a precipitous decline that has only very recently begun to be reversed.

Scotland remained a separate monarchy for several more centuries, sometimes in alliance with England’s traditional enemy France. Its remoteness made it less of a threat to the English regime; but it remained a magnet for anti-English forces throughout Europe, and from the 16th century onwards, with Tudor and Elizabethan England emerging on the world stage as a new political power and the Protestant religion in the ascendant, still largely Catholic Scotland was increasingly seen as an enemy to be neutralised and assimilated. The English and Scottish monarchies began to intermarry, and at the turn of the 17th century the Scottish king James VI inherited the English throne as James I. A century later the main island of Britain was unified as ‘Great Britain’, with a new and uniquely multi-coloured flag that incorporated the Christian cross emblems of different patron saints: the vertical-and-horizontal red on white of England’s St George, and the diagonal white on dark blue of Scotland’s St Andrew (the vertical-and-horizontal yellow on black of Wales’s St David had long been forgotten).

Around the same time as English forces were making their inroads into Wales and Scotland, they were also crossing the Irish Sea and conquering the nearest parts of the island to the west. Ireland remained resolutely Catholic; but a slowly expanding area round Dublin on the east coast fell under English (later British) and – from the Tudor/Elizabethan period onwards – Protestant influence. And in 1801, a century after Scotland had lost its independence, it was Ireland’s turn to be officially incorporated into the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’, and the diagonal red on white of its patron St Patrick was added to the ‘Union Jack’, where it remains to this day. But by then the recent French Revolution had encouraged the rise of democratic movements throughout Europe; and the Catholic native Irish now increasingly resisted the occupation of their country by a foreign power with a different religion and language. Educated Irish people already spoke and wrote fluent English, and in the urbanised east no longer even had a good command of Irish; but their access to what was now a major world language (the English-speaking USA having declared its independence a quarter of a century earlier) also gave them access to democratic ideas.

From the 17th and 18th century onwards, the British government deliberately embarked on a policy of ‘planting’ large numbers of Protestant Scottish farmers in the north-eastern corner of the island, round the country’s second-largest city Belfast. An ugly regime reminiscent of South Africa’s later apartheid system gradually developed, with Protestants occupying the dominant economic and political positions, and local Catholics relegated to the inferior ones; job advertisements reading ‘no Catholics need apply’ were still common in the early 20th century.

‘Sectarian’ (interreligious) tension increasingly took hold, and by the outbreak of the First World War was coming to a head. At Easter 1916 an armed uprising in Dublin heralded the second attempt by a British colony (after the Dutch-speaking territories in South Africa) to break away and declare independence. The uprising was brutally suppressed, with executions of rebel leaders and atrocities against Irish civilians by riot police (such as the notorious ‘Black-and-Tans’, named for the colours of their uniforms); but in the wake of the world war, with US president Woodrow Wilson appealing for the self-determination of Europe’s oppressed nations, the independence movement swelled, and in 1922 the Irish Free State (in the Irish language, Saorstát Éireann) was proclaimed as the world’s newest nation. At first it remained part of the British empire; but in 1937 Ireland became a fully independent republic with no further allegiance to the British monarchy, and during the Second World War it even denied Britain’s armed forces the use of its ports and airfields (although many Irishmen served in the British armed forces in the fight against fascism).

Yet Ireland had not yet achieved full independence, for the deliberate plantation of Protestant immigrants in the north-eastern corner of the island had created a disgruntled anti-independence minority who were themselves a majority in that part of the country. As the independence movement grew and the British authorities realised it could not be stopped, the idea developed of ‘partitioning’ the island: the six north-eastern counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone would remain part of the ‘United Kingdom’ and be renamed ‘Northern Ireland’, while the remaining 26 counties would form the new ‘Irish Free State’ and eventually the ‘Republic of Ireland’. Ireland’s independence in 1922 depended on the Irish negotiators’ acceptance of this partition; and, faced with this dilemma, they accepted it in order to create a new, independent Irish state. Ireland’s two main political parties, with the Irish-language names Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are descended respectively from supporters and opponents of the partition agreement with the British government, although this no longer plays such a key role in their policies as it once did.

But Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland has always remained a foreign body in Irish and British politics. In the late 1960s the oppressed Catholic minority’s patience finally ran out, and ugly violence, stirred up by paramilitary bodies such as the pro-Catholic (‘nationalist’) Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the pro-Protestant (‘loyalist’ or ‘unionist’) Ulster Defence Association (UDA), erupted on the streets. Britain’s colonial-style response was to ignore the roots of the problem and simply treat the Catholic protest as subversion, while overlooking the Protestant violence. The British army was sent in to suppress the Catholic ‘rebels’; and its blatant ignorance and lack of neutrality sowed the seeds of even more hatred.

One reason for this one-sided approach was that the Protestants were a numerical majority, and that any attempt to improve the Catholics’ position more rights could be – and, in pro-Protestant circles, was – construed as anti-democratic. Another, whenever Britain had a Conservative government, was that Northern Ireland’s pro-Protestant political parties could be relied on to provide extra support for the Conservatives in the London parliament – ominously foreshadowing the intractable situation that has arisen as 2017 draws to a close.

To her credit (for once), it was the arch-conservative British leader Margaret Thatcher that made the first serious moves, in consultation with the Republic of Ireland’s Fine Gael prime minister Garret FitzGerald, towards resolving the crisis after it had dragged on for over 15 years. A series of talks and agreements finally led to the paramilitaries agreeing to lay down their weapons, and to both sides working together. Despite occasional flare-ups, there has not been a return to the urban warfare that bedevilled the province for so long.

Britain and Ireland had both joined the forerunner of the European Union (EU) back in 1973, when the ‘Troubles’ (as the warfare was euphemistically known) were in full swing; and this shared membership within ‘Europe’ undoubtedly helped smooth the way to a more peaceful future. But Ireland was always a far more enthusiastic member of the Union than Britain; and, as time went on, the two countries began to pursue different political and economic goals.

They had effectively had identical currencies ever since the foundation of the Irish Free State, the only difference (from 1928 onwards, when the Free State introduced its own currency) being in the lettering and images that appeared on the banknotes and coins; and when Britain finally decided to decimalise its currency with effect from 1971, Ireland followed suit (though again with different lettering and images). Pre-decimalisation, the currency units were the pound, the shilling and the penny (in the Irish language punt, scilling and pingin); post-decimalisation, the shilling/scilling disappeared. Throughout this period, British currency continued to be accepted throughout Ireland; but Irish currency was never accepted in Britain.

But then came the world currency crisis in the wake of US President Nixon’s abrupt decision to take the dollar off the gold standard in 1971; this ushered in an age of floating exchange rates, which made national currencies objects of speculation that undermined countries’ economic stability. In response to this, the EU’s predecessor eventually decided to create the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), whereby member states agreed to maintain the exchange rates of their currencies within prescribed limits; the idea of a single European currency was already being mooted, and the mechanism was seen as the first step towards it. True to type, Britain (unlike Ireland) refused to join the ERM; and this forced the Irish government to break the long-standing parity between the Irish and the British pound. From now on the Irish currency was often referred to even in English by its Irish name punt; and British visitors to Ireland now had to exchange their money, which could no longer be accepted there as its value in Irish currency was now fluctuating.

When Britain belatedly joined the ERM a decade later, speculation put the pound under such pressure that it crashed back out of the system within two years, never to return. Ireland adopted the euro as soon as it was introduced at the turn of the new millennium, but Britain kept the pound, reciting the unconvincing mantra that it would only join the euro zone ‘when the time was right’. Today, with Brexit looming, that will never happen.

Which brings us back to Northern Ireland, once again become a bone of contention – or a fish bone in everyone else’s throat. Consider that Northern Ireland was one of Britain’s few regions that actually voted by a majority (55%) to remain in the EU. Unfortunately, its dominant political party, the pro-Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is pro-Brexit – a stance that does not even reflect the views of all its supporters, but these are above all anti-Catholic and pro-Unionist. And the party wants two incompatible things, both of them ostensibly in the interests of Northern Ireland’s trade and the free movement of its citizens: an open border with the Republic of Ireland, but also an open border with the rest of the UK.

As I indicated in my earlier posts Checks and balances and Trust her? I wouldn’t (3), there is no way both things can happen. If Northern Ireland remains within the EU single market and customs union, and hence effectively part of the EU, the latter’s external border will have to be ‘in the Irish Sea’ – which means customs and immigration checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country it claims to be part of (even though many of its citizens would sooner see Ireland reunified). On the other hand, if Northern Ireland remains outside the single market and customs union, the checks will have to take place on the border with the Republic of Ireland. There’ll have to be a ‘hard border’ somewhere.

This week, under pressure to reach agreement on the Irish border question before talks can move on to the question of how trade between tomorrow’s UK and the EU is to be organised, Britain’s politically inept prime minister Theresa May seemingly came very close to accepting an open border (euphemistically described as ‘regulatory alignment’) between the two parts of Ireland. But, not surprisingly, the DUP said ‘no’, on the grounds that this would mean a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (even though the party doesn’t want a hard border with the Republic either). Unfortunately, the DUP has leverage quite disproportionate to its numerical strength – for May’s parliamentary majority, substantially reduced by her silly decision this year to call a snap election which destroyed her party’s majority, now depends on its support. We don’t know exactly what DUP leader Arlene Foster said to May during their 20-minute phone call in the midst of the talks in Brussels – but it was enough to make May back off from a decision she was clearly on the verge of making.

The media, as well as anti-Brexit politicians, are now of course saying that the ‘DUP tail’ is wagging the ‘UK dog’, and that May is being held to ransom by an unrepresentative minority – exactly what was predicted when she made her devil’s pact with the Northern Irish party on the morrow of her electoral defeat.

The DUP wants open borders on both sides of Northern Ireland; but that is only possible if both countries are members of the EU, and the Brexit vote has ruled that out. And the last thing those who did vote for Brexit surely want is that Northern Ireland should become a backdoor entrance for immigrants from the EU and other parts of the world if the borders remain open. Once again, there’ll have to be a hard border somewhere – a further hidden cost of Brexit, given the extra customs and immigration infrastructure that this will require (and I can’t imagine the EU would be prepared to pay for it, any more than Mexico would be prepared to pay for Trump’s proposed wall).

In my view, Northern Ireland should never have been created as a political entity in the first place. If the English had not attempted to subjugate Ireland by planting an artificial Protestant majority in the north of the country centuries ago, the whole island would undoubtedly have gained its independence after the First World War, or perhaps even earlier; and there would now be two clearly demarcated countries with a natural sea border between them, instead of the wholly unnatural border south of Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone.

In short, it is not the border that is the problem, but Northern Ireland itself; and the DUP has no business making things worse by standing in the way of what might have been an agreement, especially as it does not even represent the views of all its own supporters on this issue, let alone the majority of Northern Irish citizens.

The standing agreement on the possible reunification of Ireland is that this can only be considered if a majority of Northern Irish people want it. Until now that was automatically ruled out by the rigidly Protestant majority; but there are signs that younger people’s views may no longer be so strictly dictated by religious affiliation.

In the light of this week’s impasse, I can’t help wondering what would happen if a referendum on Irish reunification were now held in Northern Ireland. A vote in favour would surely come as a relief to one and all, other than people like the intransigent Arlene Foster. The UK would be rid of one of its poorest regions, which has always been a source of strife; Ireland, already casting off the shackles of the Catholic church, could finally present itself as the homeland of Irish people of all persuasions, as reflected in the colours of its flag (white for peace between Catholic green and Protestant orange); and the EU would not have to struggle with yet another seemingly insoluble problem that has been foisted on it by a thin majority of nationalist fanatics in Britain.

Of course, if Northern Ireland were to join the Republic of Ireland, the pressure on Britain’s other non-English regions (Scotland and Wales) to break away too would increase; and so, rather than usher in the breakup of the EU, Brexit could yet lead to the breakup of the UK, leaving England back where it started a thousand years ago.

I’m reminded here of Serbia, which set out two centuries ago to conquer its neighbours and gain access to the sea. Until 1990 it seemed to have succeeded, with Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia all under its control; but in the years of bloody warfare that followed all these territories successively broke away as independent states, leaving Serbia back where it started, as a small and not very important landlocked country.

Antagonising all your neighbours does you no good in the long run – a lesson Russia is also beginning to learn. In Britain the process may take a little longer, but the principle remains the same.

My enemy’s enemy

When I was boy I sometimes read typical boys’ adventure stories, many of which were designed to reinforce a sense of Britain’s cultural and (above all) military superiority over supposedly inferior races. One such story dealt with Britain’s fight during the Second World War against Japanese forces that had overrun many of its colonial possessions in South-East Asia, including Singapore, Malaya (now Malaysia) and Burma (now Myanmar, and then an integral part of British India, which the Japanese were hoping to conquer the rest of); and one of the ‘baddies’ in the story was an Indian man called Bose, referred to by the Japanese characters in the story as ‘Bose-san’, as if he himself were Japanese.

What made this man a ‘baddie’ was his simplistic portrayal as a Japanese collaborator and a traitor to the British Empire. No mention was made of India’s struggle for independence, or Bose’s part in it.

Not that Japan would have granted India more than nominal independence if its assault on the country had been successful and it had emerged on the winning side of the war; but it attempted, not entirely in vain, to persuade the peoples it conquered in the Philippines, French Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and the British colonies mentioned earlier that it was in fact ‘liberating’ them from European oppression, on the principle ‘Asia for the Asians’. Within ten years of the war’s end, every one of these countries had attained independence – although not, in most cases, democracy.

One of the people who chose to side with India’s ‘liberators’ rather than its oppressors was a Bengali called Subhas Chandra Bose. As a leader of the pre-war independence movement he had been placed under house arrest by the British rulers in 1940, but managed to escape early the following year. Even though more and more news was emerging about the atrocities committed by Japan and its (ironically) European allies Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the countries they had conquered, Bose fled to Germany and set up an ‘Indian Legion’ of soldiers from his homeland. His escape route led via Afghanistan and the Soviet Union – then still allied with Germany (which did not launch its surprise invasion of its ally until the following summer) – and finally Italy. He had cordial meetings with Mussolini, Himmler and Hitler, and discussed the possibility of a military assault by Axis forces on British India. Hitler, wrongly assuming that his already planned attack on the Soviet Union would bring that country under German control and destroy communism in Europe, envisaged a further invasion of India from the north, with Japanese assistance from the east; and Bose agreed to muster support among the Indian population.

However, eventually realising that Germany’s plans for Asia did not include Indian independence, he decided instead to put his faith in Japan, and travelled there by submarine. After meeting Prime Minister Tojo, he established an Indian National Army (INA) which fought alongside Japanese forces in Burma. Although many Indians shared the self-serving British view that the 45,000 INA soldiers were nothing but traitors, others saw them as heroes; and when, just after the war, the British colonial government (whose days were already numbered) put members of the army on trial for treason and threatened to deport them from their homeland for life, the public outcry in India was so great that the government backed down.

Bose died of severe burns sustained in a plane crash in Japanese-occupied Formosa (now Taiwan) in August 1945, just days after Japan had announced its surrender following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs.

The members of the German-based Indian Legion had referred to him as Netaji, a Hindustani word meaning ‘respected leader’; and the extent of continuing support (especially in his native region Bengal) for him and his contribution to India’s independence struggle and sense of national identity can be seen in the decision in 1995 by the Bengali city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) to rename its refurbished airport after him: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport.

Some might see this as a disgraceful mark of honour for a man who openly collaborated with such vicious regimes as Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany and longed for their victory; but many Indians would disagree, saying that Britain’s often brutal oppression and exploitation of their country left them with little option but to side with their enemy’s enemies, in the hope – and here Bose was naïve – that they would not simply be exchanging one tyranny for another.

Whatever Bose was, he was almost certainly not a fascist. On hearing of the fatal plane crash, Mohandas Gandhi said he had ‘died well’ and was ‘undoubtedly a patriot, though misguided’. And when the newly independent republic of India issued its first postage stamps in 1947, one of Bose’s favourite slogans appeared on them: जय हिन्द (Jai Hind, sometimes translated as ‘Glory to India’).

But none of this was mentioned in the boys’ adventure story I read all those years ago – Bose was simply a ‘baddie’ who ‘deserved to die’.