We can be a strange, perplexing little country at times.
On the one hand, we like to pride ourselves on the notion of being the ‘fighting Irish’.
That’s not just our perception of ourselves, it’s an international phenomenon. We have a reputation abroad of being rebellious, independent and stubborn. For instance, it wasn’t until I first went to America that I heard the phrase ‘don’t bring out the Irish in me’.
In a way, it’s actually quite flattering. After all, I don’t think other countries have as defined a national identity as we do. Nobody says ‘don’t bring out the Welsh in me’, or ‘don’t bring out the Scottish in me’.
But I’ve never really believed this myth that we have so successfully managed to sell to both ourselves and our international friends. Joe Biden has made great hay out of the fact of his Irish heritage and that’s fair enough – all of us, regardless of our political affiliations, realise that an American president who wants to be a friend of this country is the kind of friend who should be welcomed with open arms.
But while Biden and many other American politicians like to wear their Irish heritage as a badge of honour and a sign that by dint of their ethnic background they won’t be pushed around, I’m not so sure the reality matches the mirage (speaking of Irish American politicians, I reckon the senator from Texas, Pat Fallon, will make a run for the White House in a few years time. Keep an eye out for him, he’s an interesting guy).
While GK Chesterton may have famously remarked that all our wars are merry and all our songs are sad, the truth is that we seem to be more inclined to tug the forelock than engage in open dissent.
It’s a well-oiled trope at this stage that we seem to have spent our history under the yoke of foreign influence – and were grateful for it. First, obviously, there was perfidious Albion. Then we had nearly a century of Rome Rule, which has only recently receded into the darker corners of our national history. Now? Well, now we seem to tug our forelocks in the direction of the EU and are happy for whatever crumbs of comfort they throw our way.
Opinion poll after opinion poll has consistently placed the Irish as among the happiest, most loyal members of the EU.
We are, as many Irish diplomats have ruefully noted, seen as the best boys in the class. We’re grateful for the roads, for the grants, for the subsidies, for the sense that we finally have a place at the grown-ups table. But how long will that attitude prevail?
Those of us who have consistently pointed out that the EU is a genuinely wonderful and inspirational concept which has now, sadly, grown far too big for its boots are used to being insulted and dismissed. But we’re now seeing the first sign of serious rumblings and grumblings about our relationship with Brussels.
There was a broad sense of pro-EU solidarity during Brexit, when many Irish people decided that if the likes of Nigel Farage was against something, then the obvious choice was for us to be for it. Understandable, for sure, but that was more instinctive than analytical.
Now, however, as the vast disparity between the efficiency of the UK vaccination programme compared to the hapless confusion of the EU model becomes increasingly stark, even the most committed Europhile will admit that this vast institution has been left floundering in the British wake. We’re due an announcement today about further details of vaccine roll-out, which will be interesting, to say the least.
It is pure folly to suggest, as some have done, that this fiasco has sounded the death knell for the EU – but the omens aren’t great, either. Many of us thought that Brexit would be the greatest test of the EU. But we have learned in recent weeks that, ultimately, it is the response to Covid that poses the gravest threat to the future of the institution.
The triggering of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, which would have effectively installed a border between the Republic and the North was quickly rolled back on by EU president Ursula von der Leyen, who issued profuse apologies for the ‘mistakes that were made’ – but the fact that such a decision was even taken in the first place put the cat amongst the pigeons.
Is the EU our friend or are we just seen as a relatively minor vassal state on the far end of their western border?
The idea that this country could ever leave the EU is just a fever dream for Eurosceptics. Frankly, if we were ever to make the self-destructive decision to leave, a la UK, then the next order of business might as well be applying to become the 51st state of the USA. Fault lines are opening all across the EU. France and Germany are currently at each other’s throats about the distribution and production of the vaccines.
The Italians are furious with the Germans following Angela Merkel’s decision to block the exportation of ventilators from her country to her southern neighbours. Hungary and Poland must wonder why they ever bothered to sign up to the EU, seeing as their leaders seem to hate the idea of even being in the ‘club of 27’.
What this pandemic has proven to many sceptics is that it’s not really a club at all, but a vast, bureaucratic octopus which is run by the northern European countries of France and Germany with all other countries seen as little more than an afterthought.
The EU is a wonderful concept that, for all its faults, has been a power for good.
But the next few months will see it face its greatest threat since the first founding of the Council of Europe in 1949.
The EU is simply too big to fail – but the growing sense of division between the member states may require a complete recalibration of how it operates.
After all, few things can concentrate the national mind quite like a global pandemic.