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Fintan O’Toole: Tories' appetite for farcical fodder is insatiable

Reversion to old postures of English belligerence is absurd but dangerous

Blessed are the makers of processed pork products, for they shall come to symbolise British pluck in the face of the foreign foe. The invention of the “sausage war” as a cover for the flagrant breach of an international treaty is absurd. But we have to remember that we are trapped in a nightmare where the more absurd the imagery is, the more seriously we have to take it.

To understand what is going on with the Northern Ireland protocol we have to ask: why sausages? Why did Boris Johnson confront Emmanuel Macron at the G7 summit over the weekend: "How would you like it if the French courts stopped you moving Toulouse sausages to Paris?"

The question, as it happens, makes no sense. The Saucisse de Toulouse is made all over France, so even in the unlikely event of a blockade, Parisians would have no trouble finding some for their cassoulets.

And as an emblem of the allegedly terrible deprivations inflicted on the plain people of Ulster by the protocol, the sausage seems, on the face of it, even less apt.


If we go back to February 2020, we will find a very different official story: that the protocol would be great for the Ulster sausage.

Why? Because Northern Ireland has lots of fine sausage-makers, including Karro Food in Cookstown, Cranswick in Ballymena and the wonderful Finnebrogue Artisan in Downpatrick.

Not only is the protocol not causing a sausage famine in the six counties, it is a great boon for these pork peddlers. Says who? Well how about the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, whose Minister is one Edwin Poots.

In February 2020, Poots’s department exultantly pointed to the great advantage that Northern Ireland sausage-makers would enjoy because of the protocol: unfettered exports to both Britain and the EU. There is in fact a huge opportunity for them. The UK was selling £17 million (€19.8m) of sausages a year to the EU, with almost half of that going to the Republic. Now, only Northern Ireland sausages can be sold to the EU. The protocol really puts the sizzle into this export trade.

So if you were going to pick out an object to epitomise the evils of the protocol, the last one should be the sausage. But the decision to bang on about bangers has nothing to do with ordinary logic – and that is precisely what makes this whole charade at once so ludicrous and so dangerous.

The “sausage war” tells us, firstly, that Northern Ireland matters, well, not a sausage. You can only pick on good news for Northern Ireland and turn it into an intolerable outrage if what is actually happening there is entirely irrelevant to you.

But if this is not about the decimation of the Ulster fry, what is it about? The bleak answer lies in the return to a habit deeply ingrained in English nationalism: the use of basic foodstuffs as weapons in proxy wars against nasty Europeans.

Before God Save the King was widely adopted, the unofficial national anthem of England was The Roast Beef of Old England: “Then, Britons from all nice Dainties refrain / Which effeminate Italy, France and Spain; /And mighty roast beef shall command on the Main.”

In 1996, when the European soccer championship was being played in England, a Tory minister Gillian Shephard objected to the use of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as the tournament anthem on the grounds that it is German. Britain was then engaged in a “beef war” with Germany because the nasty Krauts were refusing to eat British beef for fear of mad cow disease.

The appetite for this farcical fodder is, among the Tory base, insatiable. Serve any old piece of meat with some jingo sauce and they swallow it whole

Readers of a certain age may remember the Tory agriculture minister John Gummer force-feeding his own four-year-old daughter Cordelia a beef burger in front of TV camera crews and newspaper reporters, as an act of patriotic heroism. All that was lacking from the photo op was a cow with a red-white-and-blue rosette saying "I'm mad, me!"

The tabloid headlines ran throughout the 1990s: “Germans urged to call truce in ‘mad cow war’”; “Kohl’s beef blitzkrieg”, “French set to back down as Germans hot up beef war”; “Beef War: I’ll Bring Britain To Its Knees”; “Battle lines drawn for new beef war”; “Time to retaliate”. Substitute sausage for beef on this menu of red-blooded chauvinism and its’s once more with feeling.

The appetite for this farcical fodder is, among the Tory base, insatiable. Serve any old piece of meat with some jingo sauce and they swallow it whole. The “sausage war” was cooked up in the back kitchen because the smart boys know it will always go down well with the customers.

This reversion to old habits is a way of keeping the political benefits of Brussels-bashing even after Brexit. Phoney belligerence may have served its rational purpose but it is still far too useful politically to be dispensed with.

The rational thing would be for the Brexiteers to declare victory and move on. But reason is a poor substitute for the ancient pleasures of the patriotic food fight.

And of course the sausage wars help to distract from all the porky pies. Who cares if Northern Ireland chokes on them?