Monday 16 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'If Remainers were really serious about stopping Brexit, they'd unite - not fight'

Apologising to Ireland for Brexit is a meaningless gesture - especially when those doing so don't have a plan of action to stop it, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Anna Soubry. Photo: Yui Mok/PA
Anna Soubry. Photo: Yui Mok/PA

Anna Soubry is leader of a party, Change UK, which is currently polling at zero per cent in the latest YouGov poll. She is likely to lose her seat as MP at what looks increasingly set to be an early general election before Christmas. She still appeared on RTE radio last week to say sorry to Ireland after Prime Minister Boris Johnson's decision to prorogue the UK Parliament in the run-up to the October 31 Brexit deadline.

As she told Miriam O'Callaghan: "I actually feel the need to apologise to your listeners for what the United Kingdom is doing."

Did she, though? Really? It certainly takes some hubris on the part of a fringe politician to think themselves entitled to deliver an apology to an entire country on behalf of another country just because they both disagree with a particular policy being pursued; but incredibly, it's not even the first time that Anna Soubry has done it.

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Last December, when she was still a member of the Conservative Party and her fellow Tory MPs triggered a no-confidence motion in then Prime Minister Theresa May, Soubry also appeared on Morning Ireland to declare: "I can only apologise to your listeners for what my country and my party has been doing for the last few years."

What's even more astonishing is that this habit of apologising to Ireland for what its neighbours have chosen to do was greeted in Ireland as an entirely unremarkable, indeed admirable, way to behave, when it's anything but.

This is neither a pro- or anti-Brexit argument. It would apply equally if Irish TDs were to apologise in the British media for the positions taken by Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney in discussions on the withdrawal agreement.

It's one thing to debate one's own government's position. Indeed, it wouldn't be healthy to do otherwise in a functioning democracy. There's not even anything wrong with strongly criticising the Irish Government's position on the backstop. It's a free country.

But to actually apologise to Brexiteers for Ireland's stance would be laughable, absurd.

When it's the other way round, saying sorry is not just seen as appropriate. It's practically demanded. Some pro-EU Brits have talked about continually apologising, as they travelled round Europe on holiday this summer, for Britain's latest pursuit of a no-deal Brexit.

That's mad, Ted. Sovereign nations are entitled to make independent decisions and act on them without asking permission from their neighbours. As long as they're prepared to face up to the consequences of those decisions, then what they do is their own business. That goes for Britain, Ireland, France, the United States, Papua New Guinea, wherever.

There have been numerous occasions when political leaders have issued apologies for past atrocities.

When he was UK Prime Minister, David Cameron said sorry on behalf of the UK for both Bloody Sunday in Derry and the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919.

Tony Blair also apologised for slavery, and personally to the Guildford Four. It can be a healing event when genuine and appropriate acknowledgements are made at a State level for historic wrongs.

What good does it do, though, for a backbench politician to say sorry to Ireland for Brexit? It couldn't be more meaningless.

The mistake is to think that apologising to Ireland for Brexit is about Ireland or Brexit in the mind of the apologiser at all. It's always about them. It's another example of virtue signalling, a term which has been popularised in recent years to describe flagrant attempts to show members of a particular group that you're one of the Good Guys.

Czech novelist Milan Kundera had a better term for this phenomenon. He called it "moral exhibitionism", which another writer has defined pithily as behaviour which is "designed to advertise and broadcast moral superiority rather than accomplish any practical purpose".

In The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Kundera gives the example of a young German pop singer who had "already written 930 songs for peace and against war". The aim of these gestures, he said, was twofold. The first was "to unmask the world in all its irreparable amorality", and the second to "display its author in all his pure morality".

Exponents of this inane art are still all around us today. If anything, their ranks have only grown.

Anna Soubry is more than welcome to offer RTE her considered analysis of UK politics, but hanging it on the hook of a hammy collective apology to the whole nation reveals it to be mainly a performance. She just wants to unmask Brexit in all its irreparable amorality, and contrast that with a display of her own pure morality.

Kundera's stance was performative too, of course. He just chose to exhibit his particular morality in different ways. We're all guilty of it to a certain extent. What makes the Czech writer's argument relevant right now is how this moral exhibitionism gives people a get-out clause from any remotely useful acts. Just by saying the right things, they feel they've done enough.

That seems to be the position of many Remainers in Britain, among whom Soubry has attained a now legendary status by crossing the floor of the House to join the resistance to Brexit. She will apologise bombastically to Ireland, but doesn't actually intend to do everything in her power to stop Brexit happening. She has even flatly ruled out supporting Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a short-term caretaker PM to avoid no deal and extend Article 50. Why is anyone here taking her seriously?

It matters not whether handing Corbyn the keys to Number 10 is a good or bad idea. It's that there is something she could do, but she won't do it, she'd rather go on marches or emote to Miriam O'Callaghan on Irish radio.

The argument of Remainers who won't back Corbyn is that there's a better route to stopping Brexit, and they've hatched a cunning plan to make leaving the EU without a deal illegal when Parliament sits again next week.

It might work, though it may also be what Boris wants, leaving him no choice but to call an election. Equally it might not. All legislative and legal challenges have so far fizzled out to nothing.

If this one does too, then it could be that Soubry and others will row in behind Jeremy Corbyn as the last chance to stop Brexit; but again, it's just as likely that they will find another excuse not to do so. If that does happen, then Irish people who welcomed the Change UK leader's latest apology might well ask what those nice words actually meant in practise. The answer would have to be - not a lot.

Milan Kundera thought that what united these people was almost a desire to make some grand gesture whilst knowing that it's hopeless, and deep down even wanting to fail, because that would further confirm the moral corruption of the world and their own superiority to it. There's certainly a lot of that about right now, among Remainers and Brexiteers alike.

Both are half in love with the thrilling anticipation of being betrayed. It might even suit their short-term political interests, giving them an easy scapegoat for defeat. A strain of the same masochism has infected Ireland too, where the fantasies about the return of violence if there's a hard border are just the most extreme form of wishing the worst to happen so that you can be proved right.

That, Ted, is even madder.

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