Fintan O’Toole: Ireland’s love triangle

When the UK triggers article 50 Ireland will have to do the thing it hates most: pick a side

The map of the world is changing – literally. For 500 years the atlas has represented the globe in two dimensions by using the Mercator projection. It shows the northern hemisphere as much bigger than the southern, and the western continents as far more prominent than the eastern.

The Mercator projection is pretty favourable to Ireland. The island looks both rather large and quite central.

But this old map is being rapidly replaced by the much more accurate Gall-Peters projection, which shows land masses in proportion to their actual size and does away with distortions that owed much more to history than to geography. The result is quite alarming: Ireland looks smaller, more northerly, more insignificant.

This change in the way we see the world is the result of big, long-term shifts, particularly the gradual ending of a centuries-long period of western domination.


This leaves us with Europe and a profound and awkward question: are we ready to be Europeans?

But it also seems to resonate with more immediate uncertainties. Next week, when Theresa May triggers the article 50 mechanism to begin the process of extracting the United Kingdom from the European Union, Ireland will have to get its head around many political and economic side effects.

Behind all the detailed anxieties, however, is a much greater insecurity. We have to think about our own map of the world, and where we place our small island within it.

The three relationships

Since 1973, when Ireland and the UK joined the EU, Ireland’s place in the world has been defined within three contexts.

One is what used to be called the British Isles and increasingly came to be referred to as “the archipelago” or simply “these islands”. For good and ill, Ireland, north and south, had to see itself as sharing a space and a history with England, Scotland and Wales.

The second was the anglophone world, a wider space in which Irish people spoke a shared language and, through Ireland's vast diaspora, imagined some kind of common genetic and historic heritage. In practice this anglophone world was mostly Anglo-American: our modern culture was shaped by The Beatles and Hollywood, by Manchester United and The Sopranos, and our economy depended on US investment and trade with the UK.

And the third context was the EU itself and a sense that we should try to be good Europeans. Broadly speaking, the Irish sense of a place in the world was triangulated through these three relationships.

And now two of them are up in the air.

“These islands” are in a state of flux. Anglo-Irish relations had been at their most settled and cordial in recorded history until Brexit came along and unsettled everything again.

No one knows what kind of border will be imposed on Ireland or what kind of union will survive after a new referendum on Scottish independence.

And the Anglo-American sphere is also in turmoil – on both sides of the hyphen. Under Donald Trump the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world is no more stable than the United Kingdom’s. So this leaves us with Europe and a profound and awkward question: are we ready to be Europeans?

This might seem a rather odd question: surely we answered it in 1972, when Ireland voted by a large majority to join what was then the European Economic Community. But we didn’t really.

Membership of the EU will define the Republic of Ireland in a much more fixed way than it ever did before. The Border will be much more of an international boundary than it has ever been.

For one thing the EEC was much smaller and less integrated than the EU is now. The question of its identity and how Ireland might relate to it was much simpler. And for another Ireland proved to be very adept at operating on the borders between different contexts.

In some respects EU membership actually enhanced the other two dimensions of Irish identity. Being members of the same union carried Anglo-Irish relations through some extremely difficult times and eventually allowed “these islands” to seem, for all too short a time, like a local version of the broader European polity of shared space.

EU membership also greatly enhanced Ireland’s practical relationship with the United States, whose transnational corporations were happy to invest in an anglophone country with direct access to European markets. Far from having to choose between the three contexts, Ireland was, broadly speaking, able to navigate around them.

Britain is having its Sinn Féin moment

Those navigational charts now have to be redrawn. If an external border of the EU is to run between Newry and Dundalk and between Lifford and Strabane, Ireland will figuratively drift eastwards, away from its cosy Atlantic archipelago and towards continental Europe.

Membership of the EU will define the Republic of Ireland in a much more fixed way than it ever did before. The Border will be much more of an international boundary than it has ever been.

There is a theoretical parallel in 1948, when Ireland left the British Commonwealth and the Border thus marked, in principle, a line between one vast geopolitical entity and a land that was suddenly outside it.

But in practice the Commonwealth was already a much looser and less important entity than the European Union is today, and the theoretical divide made little difference to day-to-day life.

And the situation is now ironically reversed. Back then it was Ireland that was leaving the bigger transnational organisation for relative isolation. Secessionist Britain is having its Sinn Féin moment.

Eyes glued on John Bull’s navel

In some senses Ireland has always been European. It may not have been part of the Roman Empire, which shaped the idea of Europe, but it became Romanised when it adopted Christianity.

It has not felt all the shocks of the continent’s history – being spared, for example, the Mongol and Ottoman invasions and the direct effects of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Nazis. But it has felt many of them: the Viking and Norman expansions, the Reformation, the intra-Christian religious wars, the French Revolution, the rise of nationalist ideology in the 19th century, the catastrophe of the first World War.

John Synge noted, in the early 20th century, of some of his Irish contemporaries that “with their eyes glued on John Bull’s navel, they are afraid to be European for fear the huckster across the road will call them English”.

But there is a long Irish tradition of seeing Europeanness as a counterweight to British domination. If we go back to the 12th century, and the influential pseudo-history The Book of Invasions, we find Irish mythmakers desperately anxious to avoid the obvious origins of the Irish people – that they almost certainly came from Britain – by concocting elaborate stories that trace them back to Spain. (The mythic forefather of the Milesians is Mil Espáine, which translates as Soldier of Spain.)

In the 16th century Irish Catholics looked to Counter-Reformation Spain as the source of salvation. In the 17th century they looked to the French monarchy. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, when that monarchy was toppled, they looked to revolutionary France and Napoleon.

In the early 20th century, when France was unfortunately allied with Britain, militant Irish nationalists looked to the rising force hailed in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, in 1916, as “our gallant allies in Europe” – the German Reich. Even under Hitler the lunatic fringe of Irish nationalism continued to look to the same source for support.

A United States of Europe

This is, of course, something that English nationalists like Nigel Farage, puzzled by Ireland’s reluctance to follow their lead in throwing off the Brussels yoke, fail to understand. Most Irish nationalists in the turbulent years leading up to the foundation of the State embraced the idea of a United States of Europe. The idea was especially appealing when “Europe” was considered (wrongly, of course) as a synonym for Catholic Christendom.

In May 1948, when the International Committee of Movements for European Unity held its first big meeting, in The Hague, it was supported by the fervently Catholic Irish foreign minister (and former IRA chief of staff) Seán MacBride and by no less a figure than Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin.

Culturally Europe was also long seen as a sphere in which Irishness could thrive. Irish monks helped to rebuild western European Christianity after the fall of Rome. Seminaries in Spain, France and Belgium were centres of Irish learning during the era of the Penal Laws.

WB Yeats met his great counterpart John Synge not on the Aran Islands or in Sligo but in Paris. That same city became, with James Joyce, Eileen Gray and Samuel Beckett, the great hub of Irish modernism.

And something of the same process also worked in reverse: Europeans played a central role in studying and preserving the Irish language and mythology: German scholars like Kuno Meyer, Ernst Windisch and Heinrich Zimmer and French scholars like Henri Gaidoz and Henri D’Arbois de Jubainville underpinned the Gaelic revival.

More European. Less European

It might, therefore, seem logical to suggest that Ireland’s Europeanness has very deep roots and that they have been driven even deeper by the experience of EU membership. But the reality is not so simple.

It is certainly true that middle-class Irish people know at least western Europe far better than they ever did before, and that migration from central and eastern European countries has transformed everyday relationships within Ireland itself in ways that would have been unthinkable even in 1973.

Poland, Lithuania and Romania no longer seem like faraway places of which we know nothing. Pastas and espressos are no longer even vaguely exotic. Students often take it for granted that, through the wildly successful Erasmus programme, they will spend part of their time at a European university.

Barcelona and Bayern Munich may now be almost as well known to Irish fans as more glamorous teams like Burnley and Blackburn.

Ideologically Ireland has never sat easily with the social-market model that is supposed to underpin the EU and embody European values.

Yet there are also ways in which Irish culture is actually less European than it was for much of the 20th century. Irish writers and artists don’t look to Paris any more: their welcome ability to make a living in their homeland has made Irish art in some respects more insular.

At a different level the most European of Irish institutions has lost much of its potency. The Catholic Church in Ireland may have been rather narrow minded, but it was still very Roman. The sense of affinity with France, Spain and Italy (even at times with Poland) that came through Catholicism was by far the most visceral idea of the European realm for most Irish people.

For many it remains so – but for most it has faded. And with it has faded the older sense of a common European culture that was founded above all on Latin and Greek.

If we think even of a nonbelieving Irish writer like Seamus Heaney we can see how deep the impact of both Catholicism and of classical European culture goes. But neither of these forces has anything like the same impact on the contemporary generation. Latin, once the lingua franca of educated Europe, has all but disappeared from Irish schools.

Closer to Boston than Berlin

Ideologically Ireland has never sat easily with the social-market model that is supposed to underpin the EU and embody European values. Although it might be flattering to credit Irish politics with a coherent ideology of any kind, appeals to US-style individualism, and to that great American myth the free market, tend to ring more bells than calls for State-led development and social solidarity.

Especially when the Celtic Tiger was on the razzle-dazzle, and our leaders were deluding themselves about the great dynamism of the new Ireland when compared with the sluggishness of old Europe, a notion that Europeanness didn’t suit us at all became quite explicit.

The then tánaiste and leader of the Progressive Democrats, Mary Harney, spoke of how “Ireland was spiritually closer to Boston than Berlin”. The minister for arts, heritage, Gaeltacht and the islands, Síle de Valera, in a speech welcomed by the then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, complained that “directives and regulations agreed in Brussels can often seriously impinge on our identity, culture and traditions”.

Harney, when Ireland’s crazed budgetary policies were rebuked by the European Commission, went on radio to say that “I hope everyone wears the green jersey on this and stands together to defend our economic success”, implying that the green jersey, as a symbol of Irish national identity, was a coat of armour against the assaults of the hostile Europeans.

Those bubbles burst pretty fast, but what followed was, to say the least, complicated. It is certainly notable that Ireland accepted the sovereignty of a European-dominated troika, led from Brussels and Frankfurt, more meekly than it ever accepted rule from London. As a gesture of defiance the banner proclaiming “Angela Merkel thinks we’re working”, at the European soccer championships in Poland in 2012, wasn’t exactly as potent as “Erin Go Brá”.

But it is also true that the experience of being in thrall to the European Central Bank was a nasty one, not least because “our gallant allies in Europe” adopted a stance that was considerably more punitive than that of the once-feared International Monetary Fund.

The imposition of a version of austerity with few regards to the long-term social costs did little to make the notion of a Europe based on justice and solidarity more credible to those on the receiving end of “tough” medicine.

The ghost of the British Empire

And in those bad years where did the new emigrants, the ones who had grown up in a deeply European Ireland, go? To the old anglophone refuges: the United States if possible, London, Australia, Canada.

In part, of course, these choices were determined by economic opportunities. But Germany, for example, was still booming in those years. The flight paths told their own story about where Irish people felt they might belong – and for the most part it was not in continental Europe.

The Irish are good at ambiguity and at turning contradictions into the best of both worlds. But what happens when the contradictions cannot be evaded?

If, under pressure, we show our true selves, the Irish self still contains the ghost of the old British Empire. The anglophone world it left behind still calls us in times of distress.

So long as the UK was in the EU and the US was, at least in principle, the “leader of the free world”, these conflicting impulses could be managed with relative ease. The Irish are good at ambiguity and at turning contradictions into the best of both worlds. But what happens when the contradictions cannot be evaded? In those cases the impulse has been to assert Ireland’s place in the Anglo-American sphere against the claims of Europe.

Our fragile Europeanness

The most obvious case in point is the reaction to the European Commission’s ruling that Ireland had breached competition law and unlawfully favoured the giant transnational corporation Apple.

The directive that Apple should pay the heavily indebted Irish exchequer €13 billion might have been a cause for celebration. Instead it was treated as a national crisis. Why? Because it forced the State to choose between the EU on the one hand and the US-led world on the other.

And the Irish establishment was pretty much of one mind: the choice was barely a choice at all. A State that had been largely supine in its dealings with the commission when austerity was being imposed turned into the mouse that roared.

Ireland mobilised all of its remaining resources of national self-assertion in defence of Apple and against the commission, whose desire for transparency in the taxation of giant corporations had us reaching again for the green jerseys. Our Europeanness seemed very fragile indeed.

The status quo has a sell-by date

It is perfectly possible that Ireland will not be forced after all to pick a side. Perhaps, in the end, Brexit will meander off into an endless series of fudges and “transitional arrangements” before the English nationalism that fuels it is stifled by sheer boredom.

Perhaps Trumpery will turn out to be a short-term phenomenon, a shock that re-energises the more progressive traditions of the United States.

Perhaps, to go to the other extreme, the EU itself could implode as reactionary populism, already in the ascendant in Poland and Hungary, sweeps Marine Le Pen to power in France, and Ireland’s identity crisis is subsumed into a much more consequential chaos.

It is also possible, however, that an Irish Border will separate not just two parts of an island but two ideological and economic spheres.

If post-Brexit Britain is sucked by its desperate need for new trade deals into an aggressive “free market” zone centred on Trump’s United States, the European Union may well respond by seeking to deepen and speed up its own processes of political and economic integration.

The front line in a war between two ways of looking at the world, one hypernationalist, the other hypertransnationalist, could run through our little island.

It is a nightmare scenario, not just because of its ugly economic and political implications but also because it would force Ireland to do the last thing it ever wants to do: to be clear about which side it is on.

It means figuring out whether we really are closer to Berlin than to Boston, not just geographically but psychologically and ideologically.

The almost automatic assumption is that Ireland will stick with the EU whatever happens. That may well be the right choice, but it has to be just that: a choice rather than an assumption. Just because we are in the EU and don’t want to leave does not mean that we can enjoy the luxury of a status quo.

The status quo has a sell-by date, and it is next Tuesday. Staying in the EU means that we have to plan for a future in which the archipelago we inhabit is drifting apart, with England going one way, the Republic of Ireland going another, and Scotland and Northern Ireland in an uncertain middle.

It means figuring out whether we really are closer to Berlin than to Boston, not just geographically but psychologically and ideologically. It means the embrace of social and economic models in which the market is not God.

And it means that “European” becomes not just an added twist to our ambiguities but a description of where we live.