By Osmund Agbo
The Boston Celtics is inarguably one of the most successful franchises of any National Basketball Association (NBA) team in American history. Fact. Upon formation on June 6th, 1946, the then owner, Walter Augustine Brown was intentional in naming the team Celtics, as a tribute to Boston’s huge Irish population. Today, the Boston Celtics hold the record for the most recorded wins of any NBA team and it’s hard to tell if this magic was made possible with the help of Lucky the Leprechaun, the team’s official mascot or has something to do with the famed Irish tenacity of purpose. Or maybe both. But I digress.
A little history here. The first evidence of human presence in Ireland dates back to around 33,000 years ago and historians taught that the Irish are the descendants of the Celts, an Iron Age people who originated in the middle of Europe and invaded the area between 1000 B.C. and 500 B.C. By the late 4th century AD, Christianity had begun to gradually subsume the Gaelic Ireland’s polytheistic religion and replaced it with Christianity. Attempts to impose a new Protestant faith, however, were met with a great deal of resistance by a predominantly Catholic population.
It was the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 that resulted in a partial conquest of the island and would mark the beginning of more than 800 years of English rule. Henry VII later proclaimed himself King of Ireland in 1541 and turned the place into a potential battleground between Protestant Reformists and Catholic Counter-Reformists.
Between 1801 and 1922, Great Britain ruled all of Ireland. Resistance to British rule by Irish nationalists, the majority of whom are Catholic, had existed for hundreds of years and took the form of mostly peaceful matches but sometimes violent protests. Facing civil war, Britain partitioned Ireland in 1920 into a predominantly Protestant North and predominantly Catholic South.
The Irish Free State (later renamed Ireland, 1937) became a free state in 1922 with 26 counties and Dublin as the capital. Northern Ireland with 6 counties and capital in Belfast, exercised its right to stay within the UK. In 1949, Ireland declared itself as a Republic and left the British Commonwealth.
The Republic of Ireland, a nation of a little over 5 million people is a land of scenic beauty and famous for its Georgian urban buildings as well as Norman and Anglo-Irish castles. In his travelogue published in the Daily Trust of December 26, 2004, Farooq Kperoogi had this to say: “There are many instructive historical parallels between Ireland and countries that make up Africa. Like most African countries, Ireland was a victim of decades of ruthless imperial oppression. It also went through severe deprivation and underdevelopment after freeing itself from the stranglehold of British colonialism….. English is not the original language of the Irish people. It was imposed on them, like the rest of us in Africa, by British colonialists. After independence, which was won at the cost of great sacrifice, the Irish strained very hard to instill loyalty to Irish Gaelic, the original language of the Irish, among its citizens by insisting that the language be taught to students from an impressionable age so that they will grow up to speak the language and have pride in it.” Who knew!
Between 1845 to 1852, Ireland also faced what was called the Great Famine which led to the mass exodus of its people. That was how many of them ended up in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Yet, with no natural resources available to extract and sell, the people were able to overcome these adversities to welcome prosperity and even went on to build an economy that was the fastest growing in the whole of Europe. It was once referred to as the Celtic Tiger to buttress a period of rapid economic growth in the mid-1990s to the late 2000s.
The reason for Ireland’s economic miracle lies in a well-educated and skilled workforce that allowed the country to attract long-term foreign direct investment. Early on, the country had invested heavily in education, introducing free secondary education and grants for third-level education. The Irish economy has become a European hub of corporate headquarters and the country is one of the largest exporters of pharmaceuticals, medical devices and soft-ware related goods and services.
Today, the Irish economy is diversified, and even in this COVID era when many nations are struggling and businesses shuttered their doors, its economy remains resilient and continues to grow.
The story is much different in Northern Ireland which is not a country but rather a province in the United Kingdom. There is still a dramatic difference though, between economic metrics of the two Irish jurisdictions in favour of the Republic of Ireland. There is obviously a flip here because, prior to the partitioning of Ireland in 1921, the six counties that were to become Northern Ireland were the powerhouse of the Irish economy.
The Protestant majority and Catholic minority in Northern Ireland have been in conflict almost from the beginning. While the Republic of Ireland is fully independent, Northern Ireland remains under British rule, and the Catholic communities in cities like Belfast and Londonderry complained of unfair treatment and discrimination by the Protestant-controlled government and police forces. Violence erupted between unionists who favoured remaining with Britain and nationalists who preferred unification with the Republic of Ireland.
Growing violence with terrorist attacks both in Ireland and Great Britain led to the direct rule of Northern Ireland by the U.K. parliament. For a period of over three decades, more than 3,500 deaths were attributed to these hostilities which came to be known as “The Troubles.”
A peace initiative by the United States and involving the Republic of Ireland, four of the major political parties in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom yielded an agreed framework for lasting peace to the troubled region. Called the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, it achieved compromise by creating a power-sharing government, abolishing border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and facilitating disarmament. Relative peace seems to have returned to the area till the Brexit vote of June 2016.
The most contentious issue in the region has always been the border between
Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Prior to Brexit, the border, which used to be heavily militarized at the peak of the conflict, had become essentially invisible, with seamless movement of people, goods and services across. This was possible in large part because both the Republic of Ireland and the UK were part of the European Union single market. With Brexit, that ceased to be the case. Part of the negotiation on how to navigate this volatile issue during Brexit was what gave rise to what is now referred to as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
To maintain peace, it was agreed that Instead of checking goods at the Irish border, any inspections and document checks would be conducted between Northern Ireland and Great Britain with the inspection happening at Northern Ireland’s ports. It was also agreed that Northern Ireland would keep following European Union rules on product standards.
The problem is that unionists, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that voted in support of Brexit as a way of drawing closer to the UK, have serious issues with the Protocol. They worry that any distinction between their region and the rest of the United Kingdom will drive a wedge between them. The UK government also wants to renegotiate the terms of the protocol, requiring an independent body to settle disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol, rather than the European Court of Justice which currently obtains.
For almost a year, the DUP has blocked the formation of a regional government and demanded that the Northern Ireland protocol be revised as a pre-condition. As at today, the deadline elapsed and the British government is now expected to schedule new elections within 12 weeks. Problem is, since the 2016 Brexit vote, Northern Ireland’s nationalist and republican leaders have called for a referendum. This could lead Northern Ireland’s people to vote to leave the UK and join a united Ireland, for which the Good Friday Agreement allows. That would, however, require London’s approval, as well as a separate vote in the Republic of Ireland.
All the issues aforementioned have caused renewed tensions within Northern Ireland and Belfast had witnessed one of the worst street violence in decades in April 2021. The Brexit vote has come and gone but left in its wake challenges of gargantuan proportion.
Back to the Boston Celtics. Ime Udoka, a Nigerian-American professional basketball coach was until recently, the team’s head coach. It may also interest you to know that as far back as 2011, there were 17,624 Nigerians resident in Ireland. Today, our people constitute the largest African group in the country, although the majority of Nigerian migrants to Ireland have been prompted by economic necessity, much more than any other considerations. But maybe there is something about the Irish and Ireland that Nigerians find irresistible. We may have found kindred spirits in them which is why it may not be entirely fortuitous that the Embassy of the Republic of Ireland in Abuja is domiciled in a street called Negro crescent.
And so as the basketball season plays out, I have no other team in mind to root for than the Green Smash Machine. For out here, it’s the Celts or nothing. Enough said.
Osmund Agbo writes from Houston, Texas. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com