Sunday 25 August 2019

Ellen O'Malley Dunlop: 'Our dignity and purpose has shone amid gloom of Brexit'

Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Ellen O'Malley Dunlop

Trying to make some sense of Brexit, lines from Yeats's 'The Second Coming' came to mind over and over again.

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre… Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world."

"Order," booms the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. The word is howled out desperately, every last micro-syllable sounded, giving it as much urgency as possible. This frantic plea is repeated in every news bulletin, echoing through homes, hotel lobbies, hospital waiting rooms, but all to no avail; the descent into chaos continues. "Unbelievable," the TV commentator gasps. "This can't be happening, not again."

Please log in or register with for free access to this article.

Log In

"OR-DER-OR-DER-OR-DER," commands the apoplectic speaker, while all around him, on the benches and in the pit beneath, his baying colleagues are "turning and turning in the widening gyre".

In 1936, 17 years after he wrote the poem, Yeats wrote in a letter to a friend referring to the poem as predicting the rise of a "rough beast" that manifested as chaos and upheaval in the form of Nazism and fascism. "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

Was the 'rough beast', those sinister political creeds which would, Yeats prophetically anticipated, bring Europe to its knees, just wounded - and not, as we have long since supposed, crushed? It would not be correct, indeed it would be very incorrect, to equate Brexit with political developments in the late 1930s, except perhaps in one respect. That is the risk it poses to the greater good, unity, harmony and co-operation in Europe.

History, they say, repeats itself, a process bound to happen if, in the course of our education, we are not given the opportunity to consider that history, the opportunity to learn from past mistakes, or to value positive initiatives. Take one such initiative, the successive bids for co-operation and unity, expressed in one EU treaty after another against a background of a war in which upwards of 70 million people perished. Should knowledge of the drive for unity and co-operation, which has given us 70 years of relative peace in Europe, be 'optional' for an up-and-coming generation?

Such is the lot, or rather potential lot, of students entering secondary education in Ireland last September. Though not directly comparable, this has been the lot of a whole generation of UK secondary students, many of them long left school.

It would be fanciful to link this deprivation with Mr Bercow's frantic efforts to impose order on the warring factions who represent these graduates in the House of Commons. On the other hand, it is difficult to ignore the possibility that ignorance of the evolution and ambition of the European Union project has contributed to the now all-too-familiar hysteria in the House of Commons.

The recently published ERSI report, 'Ireland and Brexit: modelling the impact of deal and no-deal scenarios', provides a sobering vision of what lies ahead for the economy, deal or no deal. Is it, we might well ask, all disastrous? Maybe not, maybe the remarkable performance of our politicians, particularly those at the front-line in negotiations, is cause for optimism.

How easy it would be to accuse, to take up an entrenched position and add to centuries of 'blame' rhetoric. But not so - pivotal negotiating skills, restraint, forbearance, patience, unity of purpose are evident in almost every move.

This could be seen as something of a commonly held skillset, a growing reputation for canny, productive negotiation, not sounded for the first time, but nonetheless encapsulated in President Mary Robinson's inaugural speech in 1990 when she spoke of "an emerging Ireland of tolerance and empathy".

Finally, and back to the notion of history repeating itself, attention could be paid, albeit ruefully, to the old adage 'England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity'. Those howling scenes, that mayhem in the Commons, those frantic calls for order, have afforded our politicians the opportunity to shine, to present as reasonable, intelligent and far-sighted, and remembering the line from Leonard Cohen's song/poem 'Anthem' from his album 'The Future': "There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in."

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss