The British Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith's Brexit analysis provoked a bit of much needed hilarity the other night. He suggested on Channel 4 News that the Irish are playing hardball because "the presidential election is coming up. And of course the key point about that is that the present government is worried about Sinn Féin, so I think there's a lot of showboating going on in Ireland. "
Of course, Duncan Smith isn’t the only one grappling with the geopolitical realities of Brexit. On Tuesday, Channel 4 News asked a selection of people on the streets in England for their views on the Border as a Brexit stumbling block – starting with whether they actually know where the Border is. The results showed a grasp of geography and politics probably best described as Sarah Palin-esque.
A young woman redrew the Border so that it lopped the country right across the middle, suggesting that a hard border “would shut them off a lot I suppose”. By “them”, she meant the Irish living in the “Republic” – yes, that’s you, everyone south of Kinvara on one side and Dalkey on the other.
Three young people pooled their collective wisdom and came up with a border that started somewhere around Sligo town, slashed is way through the Midlands and ended up, roughly, in Howth. “Swoop it down,” they shouted at one another, demonstrating at least a peripheral awareness that the border was not a straight line.
The Irish are just making trouble because they lost
A slightly older man with a Scottish accent, who got marginally closer, but still ceded swathes of the country to the UK, suggested that “what would really be in everyone’s interest is if Ireland left.”
A woman in a red beret echoed this, suggesting that “the Irish are just making trouble because they lost. It’s a bit petty isn’t it, really? Yeah, the ‘Southern Irish’ just have to lump it basically. You can’t always have what you want in life.”
As a few people on social media pointed out after the video went viral, if you were to ask a random selection of the Irish public to draw the border between England and Scotland, the results might not be much better.
However, this is their own geographic border they are confused about. So yes, it is a pretty damning indictment of the British educational system.
More worrying for us is that the work done by the hard Brexiteers such as Duncan Smith on trying to position the border question as an Irish problem seems to be paying off, with several of the interviewees echoing that view. “How they’re going to get around it I have no idea,” one said, while another added that he didn’t think “they” had thought “it” through.
Of course, this was a vox pop for Channel 4. It was not a national plebiscite or a poll conducted among a representative sample. But it does still serve as a timely reminder of the level of delusion under which we tend to labour when assessing our relative importance in the global political landscape.
The reality is that there is a yawning chasm between the way we see ourselves, and the way the majority of the rest of the world regards us.
How we see ourselves is as a vibrant, relevant, culturally distinct country, rightly proud of our hard won independence; a global player possessed of not inconsiderable negotiating clout, with views and interests that demand to be taken into account by Britain, the EU, and the wider world.
How they see us is as a small, damp and slightly disobedient outpost of the United Kingdom. At best, we represent an occasionally useful negotiating tool; at worst a version of England with more rain, worse castles and more favourable tax rates.
None of this will come as a shock to Irish emigrants abroad, who spend too many waking hours explaining that no, Ireland is not actually in the United Kingdom or Great British and that no, the British Isles is not a political entity; no, we don't feel the need to carry guns when we visit Belfast; no, she's not our Queen; and no, we don't eat Lucky Charms or corned beef on St Patrick's day. Those who have spent time living in the UK describe being astonished by the lack of insight into our shared history. I have never lived in Britain, but when I lived in Australia and California, non-Irish friends – including British ones – would introduce me to someone from Richmond or north Yorkshire or Swansea with the words, "She's British too". It's not that the rest of the world isn't aware of Ireland, it's just that they don't really buy into the idea of it as a politically, socially and culturally discrete entity – or they don't care enough to form an impression either way.
At a moment when ignorance of our history has become a strategic political weapon – and even a badge of honour – for a particular class of British politician and sections of the media, we are faced with two choices.
Option one means we take the advice of red beret woman and lump it. We accept that there is – usually – no malice in the ignorance, correct misinformation in a calm manner, and become a bit more pragmatic about where we rank in importance on the world stage (which, let’s face it, is not on the stage at all, but somewhere down in the pit behind the Garda band.) We focus on the real issues and refuse to be distracted by a war of words that will play right into the hands of the hard Brexiteers.
Option two means we continue to rail loudly against those who seem blind to our interests, oblivious to our cultural identity, and insensitive about our past – and risk appearing to become exactly the kind of irrational, loudmouth, showboaters Iain Duncan Smith is warning about.