Wednesday 16 January 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Brexit has made Brit-bashing socially acceptable once again'

Gratifying as it is to have the upper hand on the English, we should heed the lessons of history, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

'In State papers released last week under the 30-year rule, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is recorded in 1988 telling then Taoiseach Charles Haughey
'In State papers released last week under the 30-year rule, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is recorded in 1988 telling then Taoiseach Charles Haughey "the world's harshest battles are... between people who are like each other and who live beside each other, like the Greeks and Turks, Sikhs and Hindus, Arabs and Israelis."' Photo: PA

It was the year when it became acceptable to hate the English once again, but this time it's not drunken woollybacks down the pub singing rebel songs, but nice middle-class Irish people dismayed by Brexit who are leading the charge of the Anglophobes.

The Irish Times has become their official Brit-hater in chief. Last year began with the self-appointed newspaper of record denouncing Brexit as a "collective English mental breakdown", and ended with a London-based writer of Irish extraction describing her encounter at the Tory party conference with a "man in a boater hat and cravat, drinking champagne and smoking a cigar" as he "ignored a homeless woman asking for change and then chided me when I gave her some".

What bizarre wormhole has the country fallen down where this histrionic representation of a neighbouring island of some 66 million people is taken seriously, rather than derided as childishly superficial?

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Some of the stuff being churned out in that quarter is now the 21st-century Irish equivalent of those infamous Punch cartoons in Victorian times which reduced the inhabitants of this island to dehumanising caricatures.

As late as 1921, the magazine was still printing cartoons in which an Irish woman on her knees begs St Patrick to rid the country of the new snake of political violence. His unsympathetic reply: "The saints, my daughter, help those who help themselves." That's not much different in tone between that and Irish portrayals of the Brexiteers.

In The Irish Times, Britain has even been compared to a drunk trying to whip the cloth from a table and leave the crockery intact. Brexit has been put down to "pig ignorance - of the genuine hallmarked, unadulterated, slack-jawed, open-mouthed, village idiot variety". Drunk, stupid, possibly mad - does none of this sound vaguely familiar to opinion formers in The Irish Times?

There is undoubted satisfaction in this role reversal, but the sybaritic anti-English sentiment which has become commonplace in the Irish media is still founded on a stereotype, as hackneyed, stale and potentially pernicious as all the rest. It's blackly comic that we've gone in one step from being the victims to some of the worst offenders.

What's even more bewildering is that the English stand condemned as 2018 ends for not understanding Ireland. When did they ever? More to the point, why should we expect them to understand us? Big countries never take much notice of smaller ones.

Writing a few years ago, a former Singapore diplomat lamented the failure of even his educated, well-meaning Chinese friends to understand the asymmetric nature of the relationship their country had to its nearest neighbours, noting: "They may intellectually grasp the difference, but do not emotionally empathise with small countries."

God knows, it's exasperating, and any Irish person with half an eye on the British media could, within seconds, draw up a long checklist of similar cliches, inaccuracies and misrepresentations that have been perpetuated down the years. Partly that's why the Irish are so favourably disposed towards the EU. Membership allows us, for once, to be the larger country.

Much of the commentary on Brexit this year has illustrated that dynamic to a tee. English resentment at Ireland's influence within the EU, and Ireland's pride in the same, are a classic big country v small country drama, only with the roles reversed.

From a psychological point of view, it's been fascinating to see how that change in fortunes resulted in the almost immediate adoption of an attitude of innate superiority in those who now have the upper hand.

Politically, the greater interest is in how that led, arguably, to Ireland making the same strategic mistakes that all big countries make. The aforementioned South Asian diplomat quotes the Chinese philosopher Mencius, who said that, when dealing with small countries, big countries need to show magnanimity, and small countries, when dealing with big countries, need to show wisdom. Whichever part in the ongoing drama one ascribes to Ireland and the EU on one side, and Britain on the other, neither quality has been to the fore.

A far bigger, and more worrying, source of wonder than Britain not understanding Ireland, or Ireland not understanding Britain, is that the Irish don't really seem to understand each other.

The North doesn't understand the South. The South doesn't understand the North. Worse, neither seems to care that much about plugging the knowledge gap. This is our shared history - supposedly - but there's a hard border of misunderstanding running through the middle of this small shared space. It's been made more toxic by Brexit, but it wasn't created by it; but as with the Anglophobia of old, it's not as if we can pretend not to know where it can lead.

In State papers released last week under the 30-year rule, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is recorded in 1988 telling then Taoiseach Charles Haughey "the world's harshest battles are... between people who are like each other and who live beside each other, like the Greeks and Turks, Sikhs and Hindus, Arabs and Israelis".

Whatever one might think of Thatcher's hostile and condescending attitude to Irish unity, she wasn't wrong about that. At least Haughey and Thatcher recognised that they didn't understand one another and needed, at the lowest point in relations between the two countries, to continue efforts to overcome their mutual incomprehension.

Right now, everyone appears convinced they're justified in perpetuating such a low and facile opinion of those who represent the Other. It wouldn't matter so much if the exclusive target of this disdain was Home Counties toffs in tweeds, but the arguments in favour of Brexit are not being made on this island by arrogant English incomers, but by unionists in Northern Ireland in their own land who are bound to feel these blasts of ideological hauteur from Dublin as an icy cultural wind.

If thoughtless British disregard for Irish history is frustrating, this deliberate Irish disregard for our own history is unforgivable.

Sunday Independent

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