Bobby McDonagh: Decent Britain has not gone away

Ireland must not rise to Brexiteers provocations if strong relationship is to be maintained

When I was living in Brussels I often visited the first World War graveyards. It was always deeply moving to see “the crosses, row upon row”, so many of them inscribed with Irish names. A couple of times I visited the German cemetery at Langemark in the Ypres Salient. Very understandably, given the outcome of the war, it is quite different from the Commonwealth cemeteries. The crosses are far from being row upon row. Several of the plots are mass graves, one containing 24,917 bodies. On the horizon of the cemetery there is a haunting statue depicting four German soldiers waiting for their comrades to return home.

But the most poignant thing I saw at Langemark was something else. On one of our visits my wife Mary bent down to examine the wreaths which had been placed on the German graves. A majority of the wreaths that day were poppy wreaths placed by the pupils of British schools who had visited the cemetery.

I don’t recall the names of the schools. However, their messages were along the lines of: “In memory of brave men who died for their country” and “They will not be forgotten”. Some of the schools had gone to the trouble of writing these tributes in German.

A decade later it still touches me deeply to recall this gentle and generous willingness of British schoolchildren and their wonderful teachers to share in what the war poet Wilfred Owen called “the eternal reciprocity of tears”.

In these tense Brexit times we in Ireland must never allow ourselves to forget the deeply civilised and tolerant Britain which still exists. The wreaths I saw at Langemark were just one striking example.

This profoundly admirable Britain is evident in many other ways. In recent decades, for example, the UK has been one of the strongest supporters of multilateralism, human rights, democracy and the rule of law around the world.

Celebration of diversity

British governments of both left and right have been generous in support to the developing world. The spirit of the London 2012 Olympics was a self-confident outward-looking celebration of diversity. We should also remember in particular how communities right across Britain have embraced their Irish neighbours and made them feel at home.

The disturbing developments across the Irish Sea in recent times make it all the more important to remind ourselves that the decent Britain has not gone away.

This is not always easy. English populists have shaped a more dangerous and distasteful political agenda. Many politicians and tabloids refight past centuries’ wars because they lack the self-confidence to engage in the realities of the present century. A xenophobic minority has been emboldened. Foreigners are made to feel less welcome.

On top of this, Brexit has brought out the worst in the worst on our neighbouring island. These days you can’t glance at television or the tabloids without witnessing someone, often from Westminster, displaying profound ignorance about Ireland or disdain for our sovereignty or irresponsibility towards the delicate peace process which we built painstakingly with successive London governments.

The old condescension is alive and well. We are told alternately that Ireland is manipulating Brussels, and that Brussels is manipulating Ireland.

Many across the water find it impossible to understand the simple fact that Ireland and our European partners are rock solid in support of each other and of the peace process for which the EU itself provided the example, the necessary context and so much generous support.


Faced with such provocations we in Ireland must resist any temptation to respond in kind. We should maintain the mode of civilised and rational discourse because that is the only hope if the present Brexit negotiations are to conclude successfully. It is the only way to retain the long-term friendship which we want with our British friends.

The continued existence of the deeply civilised Britain which I describe is an additional important reason for choosing respect and restraint in our response to all attempts to turn back the clocks.

We must never forget the Remainers who are angered at what is happening to their country and ashamed at much of the public discourse.

Nor should we forget that many people who voted for Brexit still want a decent and tolerant Britain, and a close friendship with Ireland.

Above all we should recall the spirit of respect which characterised Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland. The queen recognised that the modern British/Irish relationship is based on equality; not equality in size but in sovereignty, not equality in power but in dignity.

The tone of our discourse in Ireland should continue to draw inspiration from the spirit of Queen Elizabeth’s visit rather than be influenced by the ignorance of those Brexiteers who are among the first to proclaim loyalty to the crown but who are prepared to treat the queen’s message of respect with contempt.

Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to the EU, Britain and Italy