Monday 10 December 2018

'What a bloody awful country!' the Tory story of Ireland

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher Photo: PA Wire
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher Photo: PA Wire

The attitude of Conservative politicians to Ireland has frequently veered between ignorance and disdain.

Few have been so withering in their assessment of our green and pleasant land as the former home secretary Reginald Maudling, who declared as he stepped aboard an aeroplane after his first visit in 1970: "For God's sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country!"

As Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher did not seem to show much respect for Ireland, rudely telling Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in 1984: "History shows that the Irish, whether the Scottish-Irish or the Irish-Irish, don't like to move. However, they all seem to be terribly happy to move to Britain."

She was more scathing when she gave the Labour minister Peter Mandelson some advice on his appointment as Northern Secretary in 1999: "I've got one thing to say to you, my boy. You can't trust the Irish, they're all liars. That's what you have to remember, so just don't forget it."

More recently, public statements about Ireland have been more friendly, but show signs of confusion, particularly on the Brexit issue.

The Tory MP and former leader Iain Duncan Smith claimed recently that Ireland was taking a hard line on Brexit, because we had an election on.

He said in a TV: "A lot of things are in the making on this one. There's an election going on in Ireland…"

When a presenter pointed out that there wasn't in fact an election, Duncan Smith simply resorted to spoofing: "Well no, the presidential election is coming up. And of course the key point about that is that the present government is worried about Sinn Féin so I think there's a lot of showboating going on in Ireland."

The Tory MP Bernard Jenkin seemed even more bewildered when he gave his views on Leo Varadkar's stance on Brexit in a Sky News interview: "If you listen to Bertie Ahern, if you listen to Enda Kelly (sic) - these are two former Taoiseachs, prime ministers of Northern Ireland - they haven't quite played ball like the present Irish prime minister."

When they manage to pay attention to Ireland, Conservative politicians can find us a damn nuisance.

As the former Tory cabinet minister Michael Portillo put it in a debate about Brexit on the BBC: "Ireland has been so disruptive to the British and… Britain has been so disruptive to the Irish.

"Our policy has often been determined, thwarted, and just messed up by our relations with Ireland."

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