Opinion Columnists

Sunday 22 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'We need marriage counsellors to keep the peace during UK and EU's divorce'

Who better to deliver a settlement between the bickering parties now politicians have failed, asks Eilis O'Hanlon

'The Irish are back to seeing the British as duplicitous and confrontational. The British are painting the Irish as spineless and weak for supposedly doing the EU's bidding even when, Brexiteers believe, it’s against Ireland’s own economic interests.'
'The Irish are back to seeing the British as duplicitous and confrontational. The British are painting the Irish as spineless and weak for supposedly doing the EU's bidding even when, Brexiteers believe, it’s against Ireland’s own economic interests.'

Stephanie Regan is a clinical psychotherapist in private practice and a regular contributor to Newstalk and Ireland AM.

Last week, she could be found writing in the Irish Independent about divorce. "Forget who's at fault when a marriage breaks up," was her simple advice to couples going through a separation. Instead, she said: "We need to accept marriages are sometimes untenable and need to break. Efforts to lay blame and find fault make the future more difficult for everyone. We can do better."

It's important to resist the urge right now to force every issue through the narrow gate of Brexit, a subject which has wormed its way into everyone's consciousness to such an extent that many people, including Sky News political editor Adam Boulton, have admitted having dreams about it.

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Reading Stephanie Regan's article, it was hard all the same not to see a parallel with Brexit, especially as one of the most shared stories on the Independent website at the same moment carried the headline: "No deal Brexit would be Britain's fault, warns French President Macron."

Readying for Brexit, and assigning blame for whatever adverse effects it might bring, have become tangled up together so messily that many of those in charge of preparing the country for October 31 appear to believe the latter is the same as the former.

If no-fault divorces are the best way to end intimate relationships, why shouldn't that apply to political ones as well?

Perhaps the real lesson here is that we need relationship counsellors rather than politicians to negotiate Brexit.

They're the ones who seem to have foreseen the problems that can arise when rancour intrudes on a break up, a toxic atmosphere of bitterness not least. Old grievances are dragged up. Things are said that are best left unexpressed.

Stephanie Regan said the urge to assign blame should be resisted because as soon as other people know what happened in your relationship - such as who cheated first, or who walked out on who - then their view of the partner who's deemed to be at fault inevitably changes.

Initial anger becomes fixed and hard to overcome. That's definitely what's happened with Brexit.

The Irish are back to seeing the British as duplicitous and confrontational. The British are painting the Irish as spineless and weak for supposedly doing the EU's bidding even when, Brexiteers believe, it's against Ireland's own economic interests.

When it was reported last week that Boris Johnson wanted Ireland to agree a common rule book with the UK until a new deal could be sorted out, some people on this side of the Irish Sea even felt the need to point out to their neighbours that the Irish had been through a war of independence precisely in order to be free of British rules, and that anyone who thought this proposal was a runner needed to bone up on their history.

The reports were subsequently pooh-poohed by Downing Street, but the damage was done.

To put it mildly, it's neither normal nor healthy to frame talk about future customs arrangements in a post-Brexit world in the old tribal language of 800 years of colonial oppression.

There were even rumours circulating on social media last week that a fist fight had broken out between Irish and British civil servants in a Brussels bar.

Again, not true, but the story didn't feel as ludicrous as it should. This is a "you always hated my mother" and "you never put the lid back on the toothpaste" level of mutual resentment.

That the atmosphere has got so toxic is telling, though. The British and French are at loggerheads too, reviving ancient cross-Channel rivalries, but it feels more calculated. The breakdown in the relationship between Ireland and Britain has exposed deeper hurts. It isn't just business.

It's personal.

In a way, Brexit was always about much more than whether the UK stays in the customs union or goes it alone. That's why therapists reported from the start that it was leading to the break up of many relationships. "It's not the only reason for marriage breakdown," an invited speaker from the UK told the Irish Council of Psychotherapy last autumn, "but it might be the final thing."

She put it this way: "What does Brexit symbolise for people? To what extent do they feel like they belong, or don't belong?" Once those feelings are stirred, it can only lead to more questioning.

Another marriage counsellor told the New Statesman that he was seeing many couples who suddenly realised, after Brexit, "how different their value systems were".

One woman said of her husband: "He changed. All the nastiness came out which I didn't know existed." No doubt, he'd tell a similar tale.

That's exactly what's happened with Ireland and Britain, and what exacerbates the tension is that both sides are convinced the other one's value system is not just different, but demonstrably, irrefutably wrong.

As countries, we're now at the stage in a break up where couples argue over who gets what, only in this case the prized possession being most fought over is Northern Ireland, despite the fact the principle of consent means it isn't in either party's gift to give away.

Unionists are the children over which the warring parties are fighting for custody, and few of those who would rather have no deal than no backstop have even bothered to ask them what they want, possibly because they know they wouldn't like the answer.

Only one in six unionists supports the backstop, and not a single unionist MLA signed last week's letter from representatives in the North to European Council President Donald Tusk urging him to hang tough against the Brits, not even those who backed remain in the 2016 referendum.

The scheduled meeting between Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson may help ease some of these tensions, but it probably won't. What's worrying is the barely concealed undercurrent of longing for the British to fail to come up with an alternative to the backstop, even if that makes no deal inevitable, and for disaster to strike when it does.

Masochistically embracing self-harm just to see the other person suffer is typical of relationships that have gone sour, in which neither partner wishes the other one well in future.

What's more terrifying still is the way the most fervent critics of Brexit in Ireland almost seem to be banking on violence breaking out in Northern Ireland after October to prove them right. With opinion on Brexit in the North split largely on nationalist/unionist lines, that's a dangerous fantasy to indulge.

If this were a marriage, Stephanie Regan would surely ask couples if they really want to risk making things worse by dragging up everything that's gone on in the past.

The question is even more relevant when it comes to nations. Ireland and Britain can't exactly move to different parts of town to avoid bumping into one another on the street.

Sunday Independent

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