Friday 20 September 2019

Fergal Keane: 'Take no notice of the patronising asides - we have moved on'

British Prime Minister Theresa May shakes hands with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Brussels Picture: Sky News/AP
British Prime Minister Theresa May shakes hands with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Brussels Picture: Sky News/AP

Fergal Keane

"The one political conviction that our business has rubbed into us is that frontiers are hindrances and flags confounded nuisances [...] I want Ireland to be the brains and imagination of a big Commonwealth, not a Robinson Crusoe island." - 'John Bull's Other Island' George Bernard Shaw.

I know my place. It is here, there and everywhere. Yours might be somewhere else entirely. Good luck to you. Mine is London, Cork, Ardmore, Johannesburg, Beirut, Addis Ababa, Paris, Kiev and countless other places where I am glad to feel at home. Some places are more home than others of course.

Nothing and nowhere says home to me like the feeling I get walking through the old English Market in Cork in the week before Christmas. The memories of place and people swarm around me there.

But wherever else it may be, my place is not the one assigned to me - or any other Irish person - by an anonymous 'Tory grandee' during last week.

This gentleman - too brave to be quoted by name - was quoted by a BBC colleague as saying that the "Irish should know their place" when it came to Brexit and arguments about the border. From historical experience we can guess at what that place represents to this type of individual.

It is one where the rights of the big island next door are always paramount.

For Irish diplomats and ministers to lobby so effectively on the border backstop was an unconscionable affront to the archaic mentality in which his world view is mired.

He holds a certain view of the Irish, not exclusively uncharitable but always patronising. The Irish are all well enough in their place. In his more sentimental reveries he will remember that trip to Dublin for the rugby and quaffing pints of 'the black stuff' while chortling merrily at the loquacious but ultimately incomprehensible banter of the locals. Or that fly-fishing holiday in Co Mayo which satisfied his ancestral longings for a simpler world where the Irish RM rode out to hounds through a landscape of rascally peasants.

I exaggerate and I stereotype. But there is more than a grain of fact in the portrait. The Brexit mess has brought about a revival - one hopes for a limited run - of the caricatures who once rioted across the pages of Punch magazine. From a few loudmouths we have had a late 19th-century imperialist re-casting of people and place.

My first instinct upon reading the quote about the Irish and their place was to seethe. The nerve of it. The historical blindness. And so on. Coming hot on the heels of Priti Patel's modest proposal for the starvation of the Irish it was more than usually hard to consume.

I thought to myself: surely we have moved beyond that stuff?

Then I got a grip. We have moved on. So have the vast majority of people on the bigger island. The voice of ethno-feudalism is a tiny minority.

In any case, Britain is so divided over Brexit it would be impossible to construct a united attitude towards Ireland and the border backstop.

There is a troubling absence of a sense of history on the part of some politicians. Consider the recent admission by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, that she was unaware that nationalists did not vote for unionists and vice versa. Entering into that divided place she faced a learning curve of Everestine proportions.

Priti Patel complained that her words had been taken out of context. But it was precisely the context of the Great Hunger that made them so offensive in Ireland. It is hard to believe she would have contemplated the use of food as a weapon in Brexit negotiations had she had the remotest awareness of the Famine and its legacy.

I have spent a good part of my career trying to explain Ireland and its history to people in Britain. There are many other writers, broadcasters and historians engaged in the same task.

I think, too, of Irish ambassadors like Daithi O'Ceallaigh, Bobby McDonagh and the current incumbent Adrian O'Neill, who have tirelessly striven to explain our changing nation to British politicians and journalists.

Have we all failed? I don't believe so. The overwhelming majority of British people I encounter bear goodwill towards Ireland. Even ardent Brexiteers I've met are careful to separate their anger over the backstop from any more general resentment of the Irish.

It is important for Irish people to remember this. As the Brexit saga drags on there will be more patronising comments. Not every British politician who speaks about Ireland will have a sense of history. But do not take any of this to mean we are back to the bad old days of Paddy and Punch magazine or the tabloid anti-Irishness that flared during the Troubles.

I opened this diary with a quotation from Shaw which I usually commend to British friends when I am explaining Irish attitudes towards the EU. Loyalty to the European Union has nothing to do with malice towards Britain.

It speaks to that desire to be part of a 'bigger commonwealth' in which Ireland is not dominated by any single power.

I also tell my friends that Ireland's links to Europe go back many centuries.

In history it was the place to which we looked - often forlornly - for salvation. The French and the Spanish, and even a luckless Italian force, were our failed rescuers through successive rebellions. Now that the Europeans are rallying around Ireland there is naturally some sense of relief.

But when the Brexit saga has run its course, as it will, the Irish and the British will still find themselves the closest of neighbours. Nothing shifts our physical geography. We will still be trading and travelling and sharing. And most of us will still wish to regard each other as friends.

Feargal Keane is a BBC special correspondent

Sunday Independent

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