Tuesday 22 October 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'Why Ireland is playing a vital role saving the UK from its own extremists'

'Recent weeks have shown the vast majority of British MPs have a tolerant and understanding view of where we are coming from – by way of keeping an open Border.' Stock image
'Recent weeks have shown the vast majority of British MPs have a tolerant and understanding view of where we are coming from – by way of keeping an open Border.' Stock image

Gerard O'Regan

Could it be the Irish are saving the British from the worst part of themselves as a motley group of hardliners pushes for the Brexit-induced chaos and disruption it craves?

These extremists believe Britain 'crashing out' of the EU is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not to be missed. They see it as a chance to reshape the UK in their own image. The risk of widespread job losses is dismissed as short-term pain for long-term gain.

Of course they are personally inured from the effects of any economic downturn. Many have the fallback of considerable personal wealth, or the security of holding down a safe Conservative seat.

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Yet despite all their sound and fury - from an Irish perspective - there is still much to be consoled about. We can be cheered this House of Commons rump has remained very much a minority, albeit a vociferous and influential one. Overall, the gloomfest regarding serious damage to Anglo-Irish relations is exaggerated.

Recent weeks have shown the vast majority of British MPs have a tolerant and understanding view of where we are coming from - by way of keeping an open Border on the island of Ireland. Some hold legitimate Brexit views, and would wish for more give on our part. But they are willing to see things in a historical context, and the overarching need to preserve peace in Ireland.

It's also important to remember the real Commons hardliners - numbering perhaps 40 - are driven by various ideologies apart altogether from rage over the Irish 'backstop'. They differ from mainstream Conservative MPs, some of whom oppose Theresa May's exit deal on reasonable, well-argued grounds.

Dubbed 'extremists' by a cabinet minister last week, this grouping wishes to subvert that strain of tolerance and reasonableness which is such an appealing hallmark of British life. Their vision of the future is some kind of Trumpian 'let's make England great again' nirvana. Brexit is their stalking horse for a narrow and intolerant nationalism.

Some are members of fairly wacky ultra-right think-tanks. They obsess about immigration, gay rights, climate change, welfare dependency, and the baleful presence of the EU. They have little time for the spirit or the letter of the Good Friday Agreement. A tragedy of the current round of Brexit brinkmanship is that it has resurrected dormant instincts among some DUP MPs. There was something chilling about party members sharing a platform with the ever-present British alt-right icon, Nigel Farage.

But equally dispiriting has been the knee-jerk reaction of Sinn Féin to recent events. Mary Lou McDonald's call for a Border poll to advance the cause of a united Ireland is singularly counter productive in the current climate. It only serves to fan the flames of self-justification among Ireland's critics. In any case the era has surely ended when numbers alone will advance the cause of Irish unity.

Varadkar and the Government have had to brook criticism at home, from those insisting their backstop positioning is too unyielding. The argument is it could precipitate a hard Brexit - by provoking the DUP not to support Theresa May's middle-ground plan. But the reality from a Dublin perspective is that regardless of its approach there was never a guarantee May's deal would get through parliament.

Yet, despite much macho posturing, we can still be reasonably confident the UK will not 'crash out' of the EU. A cross-party majority in the Commons will simply not allow the extremists to set the agenda. Inadvertently, one of the things which has held the hardliners in check has been an Irish involvement in the whole process. This has provided an outside dimension to what they would like to see as an exclusively British problem. In that sense Ireland has forced other considerations on to the agenda, other than the narrow interests of the Westminster parliament.

So that extremist cabal, with its dormant anti-Irishness, remains boxed in. That's good for us. But it is even better for 'ordinary, decent English folk', plus kindred spirits in Scotland and Wales, who prefer the middle way. We are doing our bit keeping the malcontents in their corner - putting a halt to their gallop - while protecting the best of Britishness from the unnecessary and the unsavoury.

Irish Independent

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