Monday 20 May 2019

Irishness means more than hating England

Next week's visit by Prince Harry speaks again to a positive change in Ireland's self-confident sense of itself, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

IRELAND’S ROYAL SEAL OF APPROVAL: Visits by the British royals, like Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markle, have come to feel encouragingly unremarkable and not controversial. Photo: Getty Images
IRELAND’S ROYAL SEAL OF APPROVAL: Visits by the British royals, like Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markle, have come to feel encouragingly unremarkable and not controversial. Photo: Getty Images

John Bruton's speech when he hosted Prince Charles at a banquet in Dublin Castle in 1996 has gone down in political legend. Unjustly, as it happens. The Taoiseach at the time did not say, as so many people now misremember, that it was the best or happiest day of his life.

But the Fine Gael leader's insistence that the visit of the heir to the British throne had done more "in symbolic and psychological terms to sweep away the legacy of fear and suspicion that has lain between our two peoples than any other event in my lifetime" was undoubtedly a bit over the top, if not downright cringeworthy.

Some hyperbole was probably forgiveable, though, given the efforts being undertaken at the time to keep the peace process on track. As Tony Blair's later soundbite would have it, Bruton felt the hand of history on his shoulder, and perhaps his delight at where it was guiding two neighbouring peoples got the better of him for a moment. That's hardly a capital crime. He certainly did not deserve the insulting epithet of "West Brit" which was tossed his way.

What a difference a couple of decades makes. It's unlikely that anyone will feel similarly bowled over by next week's visit to Ireland by Charles's youngest son Prince Harry. His presence is nowhere near as historic, for one thing. The Prince of Wales has come and gone across the Irish Sea a number of times since then. The Queen herself came on a hugely successful State tour. Flying visits by the British royals have come to feel encouragingly unremarkable. President Trump dropping in would be infinitely more controversial.

The fact that Harry's wife, American former actress Meghan Markle, who'll accompany him during the visit, is not English either also dilutes any risk of colonial angst. She's not a British royal coming to look round a former dominion, just another distinguished guest. The newlyweds will make the usual stop offs on the tourist trail during the two-day trip - Croke Park; Book of Kells; Famine Memorial - then they'll go home again. Everyone will have had a lovely time, fingers crossed, and that will be that until the next time, which, fingers crossed again, won't be too long. This is what a normal relationship looks like.

An ability to appreciate the benefits of a royal visit without angst is a sign of the country's maturity. Irish people always had amicable relations with the English on a personal level, and the cultural bonds couldn't have been stronger. It was only the political relationship that was strained. Other things have changed to dilute that tension.

Ireland is a very different place now. It's more at ease with itself, more confident. The Celtic Tiger may be much maligned in retrospect, but the self-assurance which that new prosperity brought in its wake survived the downturn.

That growing self-belief involved a refashioning of the ancient relationship with Britain in ways that were almost entirely positive. It used to be that being anti-English was an integral element of what it meant to be Irish. Mercifully, that's no longer the case. Irishness exists now in its own right, on its own terms, its own merits. It's no longer necessary to cling on to antagonistic defensiveness. The sense of being European alongside being Irish has also dimmed the edge of competitiveness with the English, and the inferiority complex that came from always getting the sticky end of the lollipop in the relationship, by helping Ireland not to feel so small.

The repeated refrain from Leo Varadkar that Ireland now stands in a block of 27 states is symbolic of that shift. "We're 500 million people, the UK is 60 million," was how the Taoiseach put it recently. The way in which "we" now means Europe together rather than Catholic, Gaelic Ireland alone is a radical redefinition of Irishness which has crept up on the country almost without any conscious decision.

The feeling of strength rather than weakness which this engenders means that we can welcome the royals without feeling undermined by their Englishness. One's sense of national identity would need to be extremely fragile for it to be threatened by Prince Harry.

Naturally, the decline in broader anti-English sentiment in the self-confident new Ireland has not eradicated all remaining traces of hostility. Online polls asking respondents whether they want England to win the World Cup suggest that, no, sorry, we still don't. Reconciliation only goes so far, and it's important not to be too po-faced about the persistence of an "Anybody But England" attitude. Perhaps that may be the last thing to go. Either way, the relationship between the two countries ought to be able to survive a little goading.

The greatest danger to rapprochement now is not those hackneyed "800 years of oppression", but a more contemporary assault on the Irish consciousness.

Fear of Brexit has undoubtedly prompted a sharp increase in negative feelings towards the neighbours. What's more worrying is that this mood is being encouraged by Leo Varadkar's Government, which is fully backing Europe's determination to punish the Brits for daring to leave the EU. The anti-UK rhetoric has been ratcheted up significantly in recent months.

Nor has it hurt Fine Gael in the polls. There is, after all, a certain giddy gratification in defying the Brits. The concern lies in the absence of an exit strategy to defuse tension if things go badly wrong.

There's no obvious resolution to that dilemma, and if it results in a no-deal Brexit, with all the damage that entails, then obstinacy might start to look less wise on Varadkar's part. There's already a backlash. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has dismissed scaremongering over the Irish Border as an example of "allowing the tail to wag the dog". Leading Tory backbench Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg has said that Britain should "call Ireland's bluff", arguing that fears over the Border are being deliberately exaggerated to thwart Brexit.

All of this may look deeply ludicrous and derogatory when viewed from our side of the Irish Sea, but the same retreat into knee-jerk patriotism is being dredged up in Ireland in response. The irony is that the most fervently anti-English sentiment is now being peddled by those who in the past would have sniffily scorned displays of nationalistic drum-beating.

Writing last year, Fintan O'Toole, oft proclaimed as an intellectual by people who think education means using lots of big words, put it explicitly, saying that, in the wake of Brexit, Ireland must become "the anti-England".

O'Toole did concede that defining Irishness as the opposite of Englishness had historically been a terrible idea, but suggested all the same that it was one which circumstances might now have transformed into a good one. He sternly denied that this was the same as anti-Englishness, but said that Brexit was making England an "angry, hostile, unlovable place", so Ireland had to demonstrate that it was the polar opposite - "open" and "enthusiastically pluralist", asserting our independence through "solidarity and cooperation" rather than old forms of 19th Century nationalism. In another column, he even compared Brexit to cutting oneself with the "jagged razor of incoherent English nationalism", and to a drunk man trying to whip the tablecloth from under a pile of plates and glasses, only to see them all come crashing down.

Is the smug sense of superiority that underlies those analogies really that great an advance on more traditional Anglophobia?

Hand-wringing ruminations on what it means to be Irish have been replaced by equally flowery celebrations of what it means to be European, but the underlying assumption remains the same - namely, that whatever being these things means, it has to be better than being English. Encouraging this mood could turn out in the long run to be far more dangerous than a few Irish nationalists denouncing everyone who disagreed with them as West Brits.

Sunday Independent

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