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Are we becoming beastly towards the English?

In a column under the heading “Brexit has unleashed something ugly here too” published in The Irish Times of 24 July, Jennifer O’Connell argued that Brexit might be engendering an atavistic anti-English reaction in Ireland.

I am reassembling her “argument” from different parts of her column. Ms. O’Connell describes the phenomenon as “simmering resentment”. She suggests that there has always been an acceptance of the English as “fair game” based on our sense of grievance deriving from the proverbial 800 years of oppression. It had been largely contained since the Belfast Agreement but has blossomed mightily since Brexit and reached an apogee during the days leading up to the Euro 2020 final when, Ms. O’Connell suggests, it metamorphosed into actual hostility towards the English. She cites social media comments from English people resident here about feeling between disliked and despised.

Ms. O’Connell offers two strands of warning. First, there may be an economic price to pay (a point to which we shall return). Second, two wrongs do not make a right:

We’re no better than Boris or the most rabid Brexiteers if we can’t resist our own version of the misty-eyed obsession with the past and bitter identity politics that led directly to Brexit.

By appropriating the royal “we” Ms. O’Connell is tarring us all with the same brush. She should either confine herself to speaking for herself or buttress her broad contentions with evidence stronger than anecdotal citations from social media. This is a country of five million people and it is hard to imagine a possible opinion on any issue or topic that is not represented by somebody, somewhere, on the digital spectrum. But, that something exists at all is not evidence of its being widespread or of its being intense.

Nonetheless, I would see myself as begging to differ with her than disagreeing diametrically.

There is a distance between being “peeved” (as I think many of us are) at some of the actions, attitudes and commentary emerging from our nearest neighbour and being open to the accusation of being anti-English as such.

Turning to specifics, first and most important, Brexit.

As early as the morning of 24 June 2016, the ink barely dry on the outcome of the Brexit referendum, then Taoiseach Enda Kenny made a short public statement which has remained the bedrock of Irish official policy ever since and, I suspect, commands widespread support within Ireland. The key points as they relate to subsequent events are these:

- Before the referendum the Government advocated for its belief that the EU was better with Britain as a leading member.

- The British people had spoken and the Irish Government fully respected their decision.

- The Government’s main concerns about Brexit related to trade and the economy, Northern Ireland, the Common Travel Area and the EU itself.

- The Government’s primary objective was to advance Ireland’s interests.

- Ireland would “of course” remain a member of the EU.

A specific passage from the speech:

The implications of this vote for Northern Ireland and for relations between North and South on this island will require careful consideration. These will be a particular priority for the Irish Government.

We will approach these issues in the same spirit of partnership that has underpinned the peace process and has transformed relationships on this island since the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr. Kenny concluded:

Finally I’d like to reiterate that while Ireland’s future lies within the European Union, Ireland’s strong and close relationship with the UK will remain.

In summary, the Taoiseach was totally respectful of the UK’s right to pursue Brexit if they so wished — and that was right and proper. He was entirely clear that Ireland would defend its own interest on the issues Brexit might raise — also right and proper. He was also specifically worried about the implications for North-South relations and Northern Ireland — emphatically right and proper. Nothing anti-English there, not rabble-rousingly pro-Irish, respectful, open and even-handed, telling it like it was then and has turned out to be.

It would not be unfair to suggest that Britain failed to take adequate account of those same issues, possibly even to foresee them at all, despite their being put up under lights early in the game. And Britain has run into more trouble than it expected as a result. That is a simple truth, not an expression of anti-Englishism.

Ms. O’Connell suggests there is a degree of unseemly schadenfreude prevalent in Ireland, self-satisfied pleasure at our neighbour’s misfortune, exemplified by alleged glee at and dismissal of the exasperation recently expressed by the Chairman of Marks & Spencer at the bureaucratic hurdles imposed because of Brexit on supplying goods from the UK to its branches in Ireland. Ms. O’Connell remarks somewhat pointedly:

…there’s more at stake here than prawn sandwiches and Percy Pigs. If M & S were to decide that doing business in the Republic is not tenable up to 2,500 jobs could be at risk.

It’s only restating the obvious to say that any risk hovering over those jobs is a consequence of Brexit itself and the distant post-Brexit trading relationship with the EU that the British government voluntarily chose. The option of “doing” Brexit but maintaining close enough links to preserve previous supply line arrangements was available to it.

Ms. O’Connell makes no suggestions at all about what Ireland might do to protect those jobs beyond perhaps being nicer to the English generally to dispel emphatically the false notion that a “Burn everything English except their coal” mindset is raging here.

Of course, if Ireland were to leave the EU too, that would solve M & S’s problems at a stroke, but at considerable cost elsewhere. That captures exactly an important reason why Brexit disgruntles us. It is solely the UK’s choice to do it, but their decision to do it has forced us into choices where all the options are inferior to the previous status quo.

There is a more fundamental explanation for why we might be peeved with Britain over Brexit beyond the bit of a hash they are making for it and their inadequate recognition of our interests.

EU membership was not an incidental feature of collective European life like, say, membership of the European Football Association or participation in the Eurovision Song Contest. It runs much deeper and wider into many aspects of life, bearing strongly on our sense of who we are, neither Irish nor European, but both. Britain found that pervasiveness and duality constraining and uncomfortable. We find it liberating and enabling.

But separating from so close-knit a pack creates barriers, cools relationships, promotes greater psychological distance. It reduces trust and raises caution, exacerbated in this case by the UK not merely leaving but repudiating the very concept of club membership itself as a positive thing for those still in it. By generally representing its departure as a restoration of lost independence, an escape, Britain has implicitly rebuked remaining member States. The subliminal message has been “We can’t wait to get out and any self-respecting sovereign state would want to do the same.”

Enough of Brexit. Next, four observations following Euro 2020.

- We are in the middle of the Olympic Games. I detect no animosity here at all towards Team GB collectively or to any of the individuals or teams comprising it, whether on account of Englishness or otherwise. Likewise, I can’t recall local hostility towards English or British success in other sports like rugby, cricket, golf, cycling, motor racing and so on. Significantly, lots of Irish people support English football clubs with more than a heart and a half. Some of us are indeed prickly about the English football team in international tournaments but our prickliness is restricted to that context.

- That prickliness is a reaction to the emotional investment the English media (more so possibly than the English public — and indeed the players themselves) make in their team’s fortunes or “destiny” during every tournament pilgrimage, especially when the team is playing some or all of its matches at home. “Football is coming home” reflects a cocktail of prophesy, desire, expectation, and entitlement to being “top nation”, with echoes extending well beyond the football field. “We gave this game to the world. We are its spiritual home. We therefore deserve to win this tournament. The rest of you, stand aside, please.” I’d characterise my reaction to that not as anti-Englishness but anti-hubris. Whether its Iceland or Italy, the team that punctures that balloon gets my relieved vote.

- A section of English football supporters are not exactly ideal ambassadors or advertisements for their country’s claim to normal likeability. Football hooliganism is not unique to England, but is unique to England in its scale and longevity. Within England, it is unique to football.

- Ms. O’Connell doesn’t make it but the case has been made in recent times by others especially after the Good Friday Agreement seemed to have buried lots of hatchets and pikes that we should default to supporting England in football tournaments where we are not represented. Any force in that exhortation is certainly weaker now. England remains, broadly speaking, a good neighbour but others have caught up.

And finally to the 800 years of oppression.

Well, they invaded us. Not the other way around. And they outstayed their welcome by quite a while, remaining tone deaf for too long to our pleas that they leave.

Of course, that’s mischievous simplification.

But, I would say just two things to anyone who thinks it’s time for us to get over it, abandon any lingering inferiority complex and take positive pride in our having taken our full place among the nations of the earth rather than continuing to moan that it took far too long.

First, I suggest we are already in that healthy place. It is long since past time for the writing of Robert Emmett’s epitaph. How many people in Ireland really feel that long history of subjugation as an enduring grievance embedded in their DNA rather than a handy social and cultural verbal stick to take down from the shelf occasionally to deliver a gentle prod to the “ould enemy”. Is there really malice in it these days?

And second, building on the first, let’s look again at something Ms. O’Connell wrote in her column.

We’re no better than Boris or the most rabid Brexiteers if we can’t resist our own version of the misty-eyed obsession with the past and bitter identity politics that led directly to Brexit.

Any lingering local “obsession” with the oppression imposed on Ireland by its actual colonisation over many centuries is as nothing compared to the virulent obsession among Brexiteers about their entirely imagined oppression over a mere five decades in the EU. How likely is it that the dying embers of the former could be reinvigorated to anything equivalent to the furious inferno that is the latter? In the art of parading self-righteousness, grievance and victimhood, the contemporary Irish pot offers no competition to the English kettle.

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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain

Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.