Oliver Cromwell’s legacy should not be spared in Britain’s cultural reckoning


OLIVER Cromwell’s statue casts a long shadow across the Parliamentary estate on the hottest day of the year.
As tempers rise over how best to grapple with Britain’s colonial past, throwing the controversial Cromwell into the fray will no doubt rally detractors. Not least from the ‘where will it end!’ brigadiers of Union Jack emoji Twitter.
That said for many those of us whose forebears left Ireland for English cities, their construction sites, hospitals, offices and army regiments – Cromwell is synonymous with savagery.
Bestowed the title the ‘Lord’s Executioner,’ Cromwell’s understanding of liberty and religious tolerance did not extend to those of the Roman Catholic faith, which made up nearly all Irish people at that time.
A military general and later dictator, he led roundhead armies to subdue Ireland in 1649 with ruthless abandon, massacring civilians, and levelling entire towns to ash.
These atrocities and the resulting Cromwellian settlement – in which Irish Catholics were stripped of their rights and saw swathes of land annexed by settlers – went on to define the relationship between the two islands and in some ways still does.
Though this history is found higher up on British educational priorities than say the exploits of the East Africa Companies during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
This is something of a low bar.
Certainly not translating into the average school leaver giving much thought to why Ireland’s modern population has yet to recover from highs of more than eight million in the 1840s – and the role British policies during the famine years played.
So what! comes the cry, Cromwell is one of the panthea of historical figures with contested legacies, a hero of parliamentary democracy to others, a war criminal and bigoted despot.
Anglo-Irish relations are arguably the best they have ever been, ignoring Brexit for one second, the signing of the Good Friday agreement and the Queen turned heads with her first royal tour of the Republic in 2011.
Well, anti-Irish tropes are still bounded about in contemporary Britain including within the corridors of the estate on which Cromwell’s likeness is – for the time being – firmly planted.
Former Labour MP, Laura Smith recently recalled being labelled a ‘Fenian’ by a Conservative MP during a vote Parliament, a highly sectarian term banned from Old Firm football terraces but seemingly still utterable at the heart of our democracy.

Not that such remarks stem solely from the right of British politics, during Labour’s leadership content eventual runner-up Rebecca Long-Bailey – who is of Irish-Catholic descent – was targeted with anti-Catholic rhetoric, including allusions to her abortion rights policy being ‘dictated by the Vatican’.
A revival of a blatant slur often visited on Catholics in England going back to the days of ‘papist plot’ hysteria.
The bigoted world of ‘No Blacks, Dogs or Irish’ that emigrants from Ireland had to manoeuvre is thankfully not the one we inhabit today.
In 2020, as Britain society embarks on a collective review of the country’s plundering past, perhaps best Oliver Cromwell’s statue topples too, to be replaced by something that truly represents this proudly diverse nation.
Rather the creator of the ‘commonwealth’ leaves the place he helped forged forever tinged with contention.


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Featured Image: Flickr Gary Todd

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