Tuesday 19 March 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Backstop has rallied more to our cause than the shamrock'

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

I was travelling on a train to Liege recently when I espied a Belgian newspaper flagging up a photo of Tánaiste Simon Coveney at the top of the page. It concerned, predictably, editorial comment and reportage on "the Irish backstop", which has been the main focus of so much discourse in the EU over the past two years.

Say what you like about the travails of Brexit - and there are many - but it has greatly increased awareness of Ireland's identity, and the complications of Partition, in foreign fields.

Not since St Colombanus sent his monks to Burgundy and Bobbio has there been so much knowledge about Irish identity within continental Europe. "Der Irische backstop", "le filet Irlandais" and "il backstop Irlandese" is what has done it.

When I was a youngster in France, I sometimes had the greatest difficulty explaining to various officials that "Irlande" was not the same as "Angleterre".

In those far-off days before the free movement of peoples, you were apt to be asked for your "papers" by any passing gendarme, who would address you with the familiar "tu". "Tes papiers, alors? Britannique?" "Non, Irlandaise." "Meme chose." Same thing.

Only in Lourdes was there a genuinely high profile of Ireland. Because "the Irish give the best parties". Yes: Lourdes night-life.

Spanish taxi drivers also sometimes had an awareness of Ireland, because of "name recognition". "Si - si - De Valera!"

Then, during the Troubles of the 1970s, the Parisian cabbies made an explosion mime when Ireland was mentioned. "Boum!"

Yet small nations often are ignored or sidelined. How much knowledge would we have had about, say, Estonia? And it is not unknown for politicians from elsewhere to confuse Slovakia with Slovenia: perhaps thankfully for the Balkan nation, Melania Trump has now assisted its renown.

A hundred years ago, in 1919, although it was evident that we were emerging into independence, Ireland was refused a place at the peace conference which led to the Treaty of Versailles (and which also gave birth to the League of Nations).

Even some of the smaller nations which did attend, and had paid a high price for peace after World War I, such as Belgium itself, or Portugal, which still had the remains of an empire, complained that they were steamrollered and marginalised by the big powers.

All that has changed, and one of the achievements of the EU is that it has given a more equal voice to the smaller nations - even if Germany and France are still the dominant players. And it is extraordinary how the Border - and the Partition of Ireland - has become such a central focus of attention. Continental maps show with increased clarity the now celebrated Border, locus of the even more famed backstop, with Strabane, Belleek and Cullyhanna assuming unexpectedly new distinction.

In Britain, commentators are revisiting the long years when "the Irish question" was the obsession at Westminster, when Gladstone, Salisbury, Asquith and Lloyd George, in their various ways, tried to square the circle of appeasing, or "settling", Ireland while preserving the United Kingdom's constitution.

Repeatedly, a solution seemed in sight, but repeatedly, the issue arose again - the latest resurrection in the form of the Brexit backstop.

As Diarmaid Ferriter points out in his new book on the Border, there was always plenty of hypocrisy on all sides of this debate, with the British ignoring the problems and injustices within Northern Ireland for decades, while Dublin practised an Augustinian version of aspirational all-Ireland unification: "Oh Lord, make us united, but not yet."

Nobody would deny that Brexit is a headache, especially for the farmers, the traders, and the communities around the Border: and yet, by force of circumstance, it has highlighted issues that have haunted Irish history and politics for generations. It has, literally, put the Irish Border on the world map.

Those pitiful, misled republican youths, like Fergal O'Hanlon, tragically immortalised in the ballad 'The Patriot Game', or Sean South of Garryowen, gave their lives to draw attention to the ills of Partition: as things have turned out, they'd have been more successful if they'd trained as civil servants with a view to gaining a powerful place in the Brussels bureaucracy.

Indeed, Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker, in their pledge to stand by Ireland, forever, on the backstop and related matters, may well deserve a patriotic ballad from the Wolfe Tones - they've probably achieved more for the Irish cause than any passionate anti-partitionist of yore.

It's ironic that the high point of the backstop-Brexit drama kicks off this week - so neatly coinciding with the St Patrick's festival, when our politicians travel abroad to enhance Ireland's "brand".

Dan Mulhall, Irish Ambassador to the US, has been tweeting approvingly about the green, shamrock-shaped cookies already appearing at his local patisserie in Washington.

And North America has always been an enthusiastic participant in St Patrick's celebrations - as have many places where the Irish diaspora brought the emblem of the shamrock.

The shamrock represents the Holy Trinity, explaining the mystery of how three persons can be in one godhead: and if you don't believe that, well, you just have to take it on trust!

Perhaps the shamrock, with its symbolic meaning rooted in the acceptance of mystery and contradiction, could also be a metaphor for the Brexit backstop, which, for all its vexations, has much enhanced the fame of Ireland's "brand".

Irish Independent

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