Monday 19 August 2019

Liam Weeks: 'British culture loves the Irish but our politics are a different sort of reality'

'Love Island' has been good for Ireland but in politics little love is lost between us and that other island across the pond

‘Love Island’ winners Greg O’Shea and Amber Gill. Photo: Matt Frost/ITV/REX
‘Love Island’ winners Greg O’Shea and Amber Gill. Photo: Matt Frost/ITV/REX

Liam Weeks

This should have been the week of Love Islands. The week when it was confirmed how much the Brits love us. (Given our consumption of their media, culture and sport, they need little affirmation of our affection for them).

Greg O'Shea from Limerick won the ITV reality show Love Island, and Longford's Maura Higgins emerged from the same programme as the unofficial winner.

They were not the first Irish stars of British reality television shows, with the likes of Brian Dowling and Anna Nolan on Big Brother before them confirming how being Irish had become a popular brand.

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But it was not always that way.

Remember the "no Irish, no blacks, no dogs" signs of post-war Britain?

And the illustrations from 19th Century magazines that depicted the Irish as an almost simian-like, inferior race?

It was also not that long ago when being British was not cool on this side of the pond.

In 1972, a mob of 5,000 marched on the British Embassy in Merrion Square and attacked the building - and the 200 gardai protecting it - with petrol bombs.

Contemporary newspaper reports of that event are chilling to read. "Burn, burn, burn," the crowd chanted as the embassy burned to the ground. Three coffins had been placed on the steps of the building, and an effigy of a British solder set alight. Demonstrators blocked the fire engines from getting through and cut their fire hoses.

That same night staff at Shannon airport refused to handle luggage coming from Britain and to fuel British aircraft. We thought those days of a poisonous atmosphere between the two nations were long gone, but in recent months the poison has been seeping through again.

On last week's Sunday Game on RTE, former Cork goalkeeper Donal Og Cusack was particularly critical of those bemoaning the use of sweeper tactics in hurling. What attracted attention, however, was his claim concerning the source of these complaints. Cusack said: "I actually believe that type of accusation of disrespecting the traditions of the game is part of the last remnants of British culture on these islands."

It's unclear why Cusack felt the need to talk about British culture in this negative context, but he clearly needs to take his head out of the sand if he thinks a defence of traditions is all that remains of our closest neighbour's culture in Ireland.

This was the kind of language we would have heard in the heat of the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s, and is similar to the general disdain and mockery we have heard towards the British since the Brexit vote of 2016.

Many sections of the public and most commentators in this country seem unable to fathom why Britain would want to leave such a great institution as the European Union. The pro-Brexiteers are portrayed as a bunch of liars and racists, and the masses who bought their argument as ignorant and stupid.

This invective is not one-way. The decision of our political leaders to back Brussels over London has unleashed a wave of animosity in certain British quarters.

"Varadkar can blame Britain all he likes - but he is the real threat to peace," wrote Nick Timothy, Theresa May's former chief of staff, in The Daily Telegraph on July 28. "He doesn't understand the Good Friday Agreement and he's jeopardising the peace process," Timothy claimed.

In the same paper, Bruce Arnold three days later wrote of "the ridiculous behaviour of the Taoiseach and his foreign minister, trying to destroy, like wilful children, relations with an ancient and friendly neighbour".

This follows on from The Sun editorial of November 2017 that "Ireland's naive young prime minister should shut his gob on Brexit and grow up'."

A similar type of language has been used in other British media outlets, and it has fallen primarily on The Guardian to fulfil its title and defend Ireland's interests. However, that newspaper has a circulation of just 135,000 in the UK, less than one-twelfth of that of The Sun and Daily Telegraph combined.

What should be especially worrying is that this negativity and these types of contributions are reflective of the attitudes held by many politicians on both sides of the water.

When the public is polarised we hope that political leaders can act responsibly and calm tensions with conciliatory language. But in this case there seems little evidence of polarisation between the British and Irish public. Certainly, I don't expect any violent march on the Irish embassy in London in protest against our Government's stance on the backstop.

This time it is rather the elites who are ratcheting up tensions. And we don't know where it will go.

In a previous era, a number of years after our elites had chosen to leave a large union in 1921, negotiations about the terms of the Irish withdrawal continued long after our Eirexit from the British Empire.

This was because we didn't fully leave. After gaining independence, Ireland remained a dominion of the British Commonwealth. The King remained our head of State, our members of parliament took an oath of allegiance to him, Britain retained control of a number of strategic ports in Ireland, and the Irish government continued to pay a proportionate part of the British exchequer's debt, including land annuities arising from the land reform acts of the previous century.

This all came to a head when a new government didn't like the terms of the withdrawal agreement negotiated by the previous incumbents. Sound familiar?

Although in 1925 Cumann na nGaedheal had successfully convinced the British government to relieve the Irish State of its contribution to the UK's public debt, it continued to hand over the land annuities that were perceived as a private debt.

When de Valera and Fianna Fail took office for the first time in 1932, they were having none of this, and withheld the annuities from London, while still collecting them from Irish farmers.

A series of talks between the British and Irish governments ensued, with de Valera demanding the British pay back all previous land annuities, as well as an additional £400m for an over-taxation of Ireland back to the Act of Union of 1800.

Not surprisingly, the British government didn't agree to these demands and an Economic War ensued, which lasted for almost six years until the Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement of 1938.

Both sides imposed stringent tariffs on each other, with the Irish economy particularly affected as 90pc of its exports were to the UK. Coming in the middle of the Great Depression, the timing of the trade war couldn't have been worse, and Irish agriculture was especially badly hit.

In spite of this, the Irish government played the green card and called on the public to rally around the national policy of protectionism, with de Valera famously espousing that we "burn everything British except their coal".

We should hope that no one wants a return to such an era, but it would be wise to pay heed to how corrosive language can result in an outcome that neither side wants.

It is plainly evident that a greater understanding and level of conciliation from both sides is needed to prevent tensions from escalating.

Perhaps we should lock away the political leaders from these islands into a foreign villa and hope that harmony will ensue with some sun and sangria.

Now that might be a series of Love Island worth watching.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government & Politics at University College Cork

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