Fintan O’Toole: After Brexit, who will be UK’s Michael Collins?

No one in the British government has the courage to be a true patriot

British Prime Minister Theresa May confirms that she intends to trigger article 50 at the end of March. Video: EU Commission

Brexit is England’s Easter Rising – an unlikely event that allows a zealous minority to change the course of a nation’s history. But who, then, will be England’s Michael Collins? The grand gesture of national self-assertion must be followed, eventually, by a painful reconciliation with reality. After the rapture comes the reckoning. After their glorious resurrections, nation states do not actually ascend into heaven – they come back to Earth. Guiding that descent is the greatest test of political skill, of moral courage and of genuine patriotism. England’s tragedy is that there is no sign that anyone in power has those qualities.

On the face of it, the English nationalist revolution (which is what Brexit really is) should have a relatively easy comedown from the euphoria of that extraordinary night last June to the long, hungover dawn of messy compromise. By the standards of nationalist revolutions – standards we know very well in Ireland – the English have one enormous boon. The Brexiteers do not have blood in the game. The thing that usually makes the ultimate concession to reality so bitter is that people have killed and died for the idealist cause. As Patrick Pearse understood so well in 1916, the blood sacrifice is also a kind of historical blackmail. It forces those who come after to either match the intensity of its zeal or be guilty of betraying the martyred dead.

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