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Brexit has emboldened casual anti-Englishness among the Irish

Finn McRedmond: Nastier impulses of nationalism are increasing in scale

Since Brexit established itself as a mainstay of political discourse, we have been treated to all manner of tedious diplomatic mudslinging. Barnier versus Boris; Dublin versus London; England versus Scotland.

In one strain of the British press, a consistent narrative emerged. Bruce Arnold wrote in the Telegraph that “little Ireland’s ridiculous leaders” were bought by Brussels; Ross Clark claimed in the Spectator that Leo Varadkar was “hung out to dry by the EU”; while a Sun editorial suggested his attempts to “wreck Brexit” had been a “suicidal failure of statesmanship”.

These arguments are a simple function of the erroneous belief that Ireland is to blame for the failure of the British establishment to produce an advantageous exit from the European Union: that if Varadkar and Simon Coveney were not so caught in the clasps of Brussels then Brexit would be the triumphant success it was always destined to be.

That this attitude belongs to a minority seems to have eluded many. And it has provoked an unyielding sensitivity in Ireland to any perceived criticism from the British press. Accompanying that sensitivity, however, is a sense that this style of criticism grants us an unassailable right to offer similar vitriol in return.


In 2018 Irish writer Megan Nolan wrote a piece in the New York Times headlined: “I didn’t hate the English – until now.”* She acknowledges that there has been a “tonal shift” in how the Irish speak of the English, catalysed by Brexit and Conservative politicians’ ignorance of our fractious history; before referring to the “pink-trousered, pink-faced dinosaurs” who perceive the Irish as “inferiors”.

She adds: “All around me [at a Conservative Party conference] were examples of the worst elements of the English ruling class: their solipsism, their hatred of the poor, their amazing rudeness.” As though cruelty and insolence are not only common features of the English, but traits unique to them.

It may be an extreme example. But it is sharply indicative of an increasing comfort with anti-Englishness; one that was not created – but certainly emboldened by – Brexit. It is, of course, not wrong to believe that Brexit has enabled a latent English nationalism to rear its head (Johnson’s comment that Scottish devolution was a “disaster” is the most recent incident that attests to this hypothesis). The mistake we are dangerously close to making, however, is in the wilfully blinkered assessment that it hasn’t encouraged some of our base tendencies for bigotry too.

We know what it looks like and we know when we are doing it. Mary Lou McDonald marching behind a banner that read “England get out of Ireland” on St Patrick’s day in 2019; using the IRA as a punchline; casually bandying about insults like “west Brit”; and the well-worn catchphrase “the Brits are it again” are all examples of varying severity. But together they form a picture that the nastier impulses of nationalism are increasing in scale and quality.

Though it is worth noting, as academic Etain Tannam astutely observes, that the majority of our politicians have been careful not to indulge in this type of rhetoric; citing Simon Coveney’s interview on BBC Radio 4 as instructive, when he emphasised “the close cultural and family ties between Ireland and the UK”.

Tannam is right: the problem we are facing is not one endemic to our political institutions. Ireland has rightly asserted its position on the international stage with decency. Rather, what is emerging seems a softer, casual flag waving, lazy acceptance of low-level bigotry across the board. And, amid this – accompanied by playground gestures to “well, they started it!” – is the formation of a troubling narrative that is feeding Anglo-Irish tensions.

Effort to understand

If it is critical that Britain makes a conscious effort to understand its history, treating our leaders with due respect – and it is – then it is equally incumbent on Ireland to make a conscious effort to treat Britain’s current political and media landscape with equal nuance.

There is a tendency to decry Brexit as a product of long-standing English nationalism, one that gives little heed to the fate of Britain’s oldest neighbour. In many senses that is true. The Brexit pursued by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his perennially eurosceptic friends is one laden with lofty gestures to Britannia unchained, saturated with romantic imperialism.

But the Moggite strain has always been a minority concern. The average Brexit voter is far more interested in the state of public services and the functioning of the National Health Service. It is easier, however, to justify anti-English sentiment if we refuse to acknowledge this critical nuance; instead believing Brexit to be a mere facet of Britain’s historic colonial tendencies.

Ironically it is an absence of a nuanced understanding of Ireland that we cite as one of the worst functions of English nationalism; and as the foundation of their alleged anti-Irishness. But so long as we revert to lazy pastiche of Brexit Britain and those who occupy it, the charge must go both ways.

The usual suspects in the British press, and plenty in the Conservative Party too, are wrong to treat Ireland with such casual disdain. But it should not be controversial to suggest that we ought to do a little soul-searching ourselves.

*This article was amended on November 19th, 2020