Ignorance of Irish history means Brexit talks will not end well

British politicians should know Varadkar has no option other than the line he is taking

I'd heard of Michael Collins before I moved to Ireland through my Irish grandmother who, with a father from Clonakilty, was convinced she was related to someone who played a major role in the formation of modern Ireland. Hence, I was amused to learn of a family legend that claimed we were linked to a long-dead figure from Ireland's revolutionary past. It's only through living here for the past three decades that I began to know anything of the reality of Collins in particular and Ireland in general. One of the many things I learned is that Irish interest in Britain is not reciprocated. I was ignorant before I came here and most of my countrymen remain so today.

It is to the discredit of the British government that they continue a baleful tradition of assuming things about foreigners that have few roots in fact. It's partly about history. The fiction that Britain joined an economic union in 1973 and was subsequently shocked by the discovery of a political heart beating at Europe's core is maintained in every discussion of Brexit. There is no awareness either of history or the deeply held continental view that politics comes first. It's not a belief in politics versus economics but more that unless the politics are right, prosperity is always under threat. The political primacy of ever-closer union has always been visible and readily apparent to anyone who has ever read the first chapter of any European history book.

Every British negotiator in the run-up to 1973 knew about Europe's politics. They were confronted with reality every time they met their counterparts at the negotiating table. And they were properly briefed by the British civil service. Many high-profile British politicians, including (Tory) prime minister Ted Heath and (Labour, ex-communist) chancellor Denis Healey had distinguished second World War records and experiences that meant they had views wholly aligned with Europe's federalists. But too many of them, aware of the visceral hostility to Europe running through many members of the two main political parties, played down the political truth and spoke only of the economics.

Left also ignores facts

The British public was told, repeatedly, that Europe in practice meant only a free trade zone. All the rest, it was asserted, was continental waffling. The Tory right has campaigned against Europe for the subsequent 40-plus years, sinking ever deeper into an empire-centric nostalgia as rooted in historical fact as my grandmother’s blood links to Michael Collins.


Parts of the Labour Party have been as deluded, but from a different perspective: the EU is a capitalist conspiracy against workers. This thinking leads directly to the sight, this week, of Jeremy Corbyn voting alongside David Davis for departure from the customs union. The left also ignores facts: workers' rights enshrined in EU law and the awesome gift of freedom of movement (not least to where the jobs are).

An awareness of Irish history – even a nodding acquaintance – would help British politicians appreciate what happened to Collins, the first and last Irish politician to sign up to a hard border. The idea that Leo Varadkar, or anybody else in this State, would under any circumstances sign up to another hard border displays so much ignorance, so much arrogance, so much stupidity that I am left wondering about all those stereotypes of my fellow Brits – stereotypes that I have wearily tried to reject and counter over the past 30 years.

Brexit has poisoned British political life and it now threatens something similar for relations between the UK and Ireland. Being a Brit in Ireland has mostly been a smooth experience for this immigrant. The cultural differences between the two islands run deeper than many of us care to admit, but Ireland does a terrific job of assimilation. It may be coincidence but I was, for the first time ever, the other day told to “F*** off back to where you come from” (I never lost the accent). Was this a small Brexit effect?

Ignorance of history

Ignorance of history and zero appetite for the details of European law have combined to produce the current chaos. How can the British not realise that a customs union logically and legally necessitates a hard border between those inside and outside that union? It really is as simple as that. And how can they not realise what the re-emergence of such a border actually means?

There is a solution involving recognition of the economic union that currently exists between North and South. There already are regulatory differences between the North and Britain. This logic could be extended to include the North in a sort-of customs union with the Republic. Imagination and goodwill are needed, however.

We have heard so much in recent days about how the British have been taken by surprise by the supposed hard line taken by the Irish. Similar expressions of astonishment and disbelief are heard whenever the EU reiterates it’s negotiating principles. Somebody should explain to UK politicians about EU law and Irish history. There is no other option open to Varadkar other than the line he is taking. Explain to Davis and May what happened after Collins signed up to a hard border. This isn’t going to end well.