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Finn McRedmond: Brexit is not some sort of karmic justice

Many in Ireland maintain a particularly cruel proclivity for schadenfreude

We cannot in good faith kick Brexit as an English-nationalist project, while simultaneously leveraging our own nationalist arguments to justify delighting in this schadenfreude. Photograph: iStock

Five days out from Christmas Heathrow airport was thronged with travellers desperate to get home before travel bans came into effect. Millions more in London and the southeast of England were cut off from the rest of the country under new Covid-19 restrictions. Cases reached their highest reported levels. Concerns about food shortages abounded thanks to freight restrictions with France. And all of this was happening against the backdrop of the fast-approaching Brexit deadline, with no deal to speak of.

The prevailing narrative was, amid this catastrophe, how could the British government possibly fail to seek an extension for the Brexit deadline? How could it refuse to concede on its current (though often changing) red lines? There has rarely been so much at stake and if Boris Johnson’s team does not procure a deal they once claimed was oven-ready, what on earth is their function?

These are all fair questions. Few are in doubt that we are witnessing an economic and political cataclysm unfold before our eyes. Most understand it is, in part, the product of a uniquely low-calibre government and, premier, the mistakes of Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May and a pandemic that has occupied most of Number 10’s bandwidth. Not many would disagree that a no-deal exit will spell short and medium-term disaster, and plenty are realising that any deal to be struck will be so minimal at this stage as to not mitigate much fallout at all.

It is remarkable, then, that many in Ireland still maintain a particularly cruel proclivity for schadenfreude. “Didn’t we warn you!” is a sentiment passed around with glee. “Brits are at it again” is a well-worn phrase intended to expose the inherent foolishness of our neighbour. The term “800 years” is a more sinister attempt to cast Britain’s struggles as a historic justice in action.

Suffer consequences

But the consequences of a bad Brexit are no longer academic questions. And the years and months of diplomatic tussling, musing on the various impacts of the political project and political infighting have arrived squarely at Britain’s feet. Those who will suffer are business owners, employees of the car industry, most households of an average to low income, border communities, foreign residents, to name but a few.

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In the four years since the referendum it has often been easy to laugh at some of the hare-brained comments from the Tory party’s swivel-eyed Brexiteers (Steve Baker declaring his desire to “bulldoze” parliament if it passed May’s Brexit deal is perhaps a stand-out moment). So too has it been natural to balk at the more politically shocking moments (the Internal Market Bill and accompanying admission that it broke international law in a “limited and specific way”). And mirth has been directed at the purely facetious aspects of the entire process (who can forget the surprisingly febrile row over whether Big Ben should bong to mark Britain’s exit ahead of the transition period).

Yet for every gaffe by the politicians and advisers largely (though perhaps not totally) responsible for the mess Britain is embroiled in, there are millions of citizens and immigrants at the receiving end of whatever kind of fallout awaits. No matter how satisfying it is to decry the prevarication, brinkmanship and foolhardiness that became characteristic of the negotiation strategy, the impacts will still be felt.

Unfortunately indulging our base instinct for schadenfreude – that Britain had this coming all along – reveals us to be little better than those we are so quick to criticise.

Nationalist arguments

And we should resist the lazy impulse to refract these questions through the lens of British colonialism too: that Brexit is an imperial project; that the struggles Britain face are deserved thanks to historical indiscretions; that somehow whatever chaos ensues post-Brexit is merely karmic justice. Not least because we cannot in good faith kick Brexit as an English-nationalist project, while simultaneously leveraging our own nationalist arguments to justify delighting in this schadenfreude.

And, when we remove political posturing – from all sides of the negotiating table – what remains is the millions of British citizens and foreign residents facing impending hardship. Resorting to gestures about Britain receiving its just desserts reveals an abject dearth of humanity: it is a curious impulse indeed to feel satisfaction at the likely suffering of others.

From a practical perspective the maintenance of not just cordial but amicable relations is crucial to Ireland’s future with its neighbour. Ireland and Britain’s ties run deep, irrespective of our increasingly divergent direction of travel. Britain is home to a vast Irish diaspora and cultural exchange is a long-standing and rightly-celebrated tradition. What a shame it would be to tarnish all of that in exchange for a fleeting feeling of superiority.

Britain has long been welcoming to the many Irish immigrants who call it home. London is an outward-looking, multicultural city that – though temporarily – is home to a political establishment seeking to undermine that. It won’t be the case forever. And when things balance out we will regret not extending empathy to our closest friends.