Tuesday 15 October 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Brits may be ignorant about Irish matters, but they are seldom hostile towards us'

Meeting the people: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on a visit to Doncaster Market, in northern England. Photo: JON SUPER/AFP/Getty Images
Meeting the people: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on a visit to Doncaster Market, in northern England. Photo: JON SUPER/AFP/Getty Images
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

I've never bought into the narrative that the British are essentially anti-Irish, since it's never been my experience. I never did encounter those "no Irish, no coloureds, no dogs" posters back in the day, though I did see landladies' notices in Earl's Court of "no Australians" - since the Aussies partied a little too hard with the tinnies, keeping the neighbourhood awake.

On the contrary, I've always found it an advantage being Irish in Britain, and even to this day, I'm quite often told by total strangers "I love your Irish accent". Sometimes the coda follows - "it reminds me of my mother/my grandmother" and a conversation ensues about nostalgic family holidays in Mayo or Kerry.

Since the advent of Brexit, a new trope has been added to this discourse, as occurred with an old Cheshire friend who rang me up announcing "I've got my Irish passport!" - he had a Cork-born grandma, long departed - "now, how do I become more of an Irishman?"

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There is an opening here for some bright entrepreneur to start a service on "How to be Irish". After all, 25pc of Brits are entitled to do so.

Brexit has certainly stirred up animosities but, for the most part, this is a British civil war, between the Brits themselves, and seldom directed against the Irish.

As everyone knows, just as the English Civil War divided the population into Cavaliers and Roundheads ("wrong but romantic" versus "right but repulsive"), so the modern-day UK is divided into Leavers and Remainers - and they're at each other's throats. Marriages, families and social relations are all affected. "He's a ghastly Brexiteer". "She's a metropolitan-elitist Remainer". Dinner parties break down. Differences between siblings arise (as has emerged between the Johnsons, although admittedly, Jo Johnson was pushed into his resignation by his left-wing wife, Amelia Gentleman).

But here's the thing: the Remainers -who are probably now more than half the population - have become much more pro-Irish since the Brexit imbroglio.

They are the ones embracing Ireland's cause in this latter-day political civil war, stressing how important it is to respect Ireland's peace and integrity.

OK, some of them are using Ireland as a stick to beat the Brexiteers, but many are perfectly sincere. The 'Daily Mail' political columnist Peter Oborne, who originally voted for Brexit, has made a short documentary film (available on the internet) - in which he issues a heartfelt mea culpa - as an apology to Ireland.

And arguably the most impressive politician now emerging in the British political landscape is Jo Swinson, the new Liberal Democrat leader, who is attracting converts from Labour and Tory parties by the day.

Ms Swinson inherits the mantle of the best friend Ireland ever had at Westminster - William Gladstone. We can expect Jo Swinson's Lib Dems to dial up the pro-Irish position in the coming times.

Yes, Brexit has brought some rough exchanges on both sides of the Irish Sea, and that's understandable. Brexit is deeply disfavourable to Ireland as a whole, leave alone the Border issue - why wouldn't there be a rise in Anglophobia as a result? On the other side, Brexit voters in the UK feel they were promised their vote would be honoured, and they're angry and frustrated when it seems the political class is slithering out of the commitment. Working-class Brexiteers in the north of England are particularly bitter in feeling that "their vote doesn't count".

Cartoons often express a savage take on political and cultural conflicts - as we know from the 'Charlie Hebdo' atrocity - as does political invective (Boris Johnson was described as "an Albino pig" recently by the magazine he once edited, 'The Spectator'). But the point of a cartoon is to distend and exaggerate out of all proportion, and sometimes against actual fact, a particular polemic. They are not to be taken as a measure of majority, or even minority, attitudes.

The English view of Ireland is sometimes under-informed (I encounter English people who aren't aware that Ireland uses the euro), but seldom hostile or toxic, in my experience. Terry Wogan, Graham Norton, Maeve Binchy, 'Father Ted', Brendan O'Carroll and 'Riverdance' represent a popular view of Ireland, while Seamus Heaney, Edna O'Brien, Sally Rooney, and, yes, Leo Varadkar, the gay, mixed-race Taoiseach, are on the radar for what our genteel aunties might have called "the educated classes".

My English residence is in Deal, Kent, where just 30 years ago, on September 22 1989, the IRA bombed a marine band composed of young musicians, killing 11 bandsmen, mostly boys. No one has ever been charged with these murders, though there is a prime suspect, apparently in Ireland. Deal inhabitants might be justified in expressing anti-Irish sentiments in this regard, but they don't, because they accept that IRA bombers do not represent the Ireland that they know, often through their own family and friends.

Irish Independent

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