Sunday 20 October 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Brits want to starve the Irish' is the definition of fake news'

Remarks about Ireland by a Brexit-supporting Tory MP did not justify the extreme reaction this side of the Irish Sea, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

ACCUSATIONS: Priti Patel kicked over a hornets’ nest. Picture: PA
ACCUSATIONS: Priti Patel kicked over a hornets’ nest. Picture: PA

Eilis O'Hanlon

A million Irish people died in the Famine. Another million emigrated. For hardline right-wing British politicians to use the memory of the Famine in order to blackmail Ireland into backing down on Brexit is shockingly reprehensible.

Or it would be - if it had happened. By now the consensus in Ireland would appear to be that it did. No ifs, no buts.

Journalists were tearing their hair out last Friday at comments by a former UK government minister allegedly threatening to empty Irish larders as punishment for lining up with the EU. Politicians were jumping on the outrage bandwagon. Social media was doing what it does best - or should that be worst? - which is indulging in splenetics.

It was Priti Patel, the UK's former International Development Secretary, who was deemed to have dangled the threat of another famine in front of the Irish, like an absentee landlord chuckling maliciously over starving tenants; but to anyone attempting to get to the bottom of what she'd actually said, it was all rather baffling.

All Patel had said to a reporter, when commenting on a leaked UK government document showing that Irish GDP could fall 7pc in the aftermath of a hard Brexit, was: "This paper appears to show the government were well aware Ireland will face significant issues in a no-deal scenario. Why hasn't this point been pressed home during the negotiations? There is still time to go back to Brussels and get a better deal."

That was it. In total.

As a result of that fairly humdrum statement, a battalion of Offendotrons on this side of the Irish Sea created havoc and let loose the dogs of rhetorical war, stoked by media voices in the UK desperate to find any stick, however flimsy, with which to attack pro-Brexit MPs. Priti Patel is a textbook Thatcherite Tory, and fervent Brexiteer. As such, she was just what was needed by Central Casting in this ludicrous political pantomime.

Is it really possible to take the words which she actually uttered and, hand on heart, assert that she was threatening Ireland with food shortages?

Did anything Patel said remotely justify making an explicit connection between her and those who inflicted a million deaths on Ireland? Did any words she actually used legitimise an explosion on social media which saw her - the daughter of immigrants - being described as "repugnant", "repulsive", "evil", "vile", "racist", "toxic", "cruel", a "cockroach", a "smug cow", a "c**t", a "scumbag", a "lying bitch", and "odious little slug"?

There were even demands that she be "removed from public life".

It cannot be said loudly enough - this is an insane overreaction. What she was being accused of saying was never said. It was the very definition of fake news.

Priti Patel never for one second suggested starving the Irish into submission, or anything like it, and was far too polite when, finally commenting on the backlash, said that her remarks had been "taken out of context". She would have had every right to call it out for what it was - a manipulative, sinister media-manufactured campaign of character assassination.

"What the f*** are they like?" declaimed celebrity economist David McWilliams of the Brexiteers. A more urgent question would be: What is the media like? The divide between fact and comment broke down entirely in response to Priti Patel's comments. What replaced it was shonky propaganda.

What's farcical is that the figure of a 7pc drop in GDP in the worst-case scenario appeared first in Irish government models months ago. It was, after all, fairly well established from the start that Ireland would be the most badly affected of all EU countries by Brexit.

The Government insists that it is prepared for all eventualities, and that's the least one would expect. Damage to GDP is harder to contain if exports are hit, but Ireland, as a net exporter of food, is certainly in no danger of food shortages.

Dublin is rightly resisting pressure to change its position on the basis of dodgy economic projections. But... isn't that what supporters of the EU have been doing all along? Using the threat of a shortfall in food, medicine and essential supplies in the UK itself as a bargaining chip? Brexiteers call it Project Fear, and those who want Brexit to fail have gleefully urged it on.

All that happened last week is that we got a small dose of the same tactic, as Patel suggested reminding Ireland of the risk to its GDP in the event of no deal. We didn't like it one bit, but isn't that just what you do in negotiations - use whatever leverage you have in order to extract concessions from the other side?

Dublin has been playing the border card pretty heavily of late, to almost universal approval back home. The EU can and must play hard ball, seems to be the message, but any reciprocal machinations from Brexiteers will be met with a frenzied, neurotic tantrum.

The result is that the week ended with EU Commissioner Phil Hogan stating that Patel's supposed threat in turn threatened the "starvation of the British people". It's silly on one level, but deeply disturbing on another. The Brits may have gone mad over Brexit, but that's no reason for us to join them in the asylum.

Sunday Independent

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