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Jennifer O’Connell: ‘Watching the Brits self-destruct’ is high-risk fun

We’re no better than Boris if we can’t resist our own version of obsession with the past

‘Boris Johnson seems determined to weaponise unionist disquiet to put pressure on the EU, a dangerous game to play under the heat of the July sun.’ File photograph: Getty

The most dire warnings about Brexit are coming to pass. There's a shortage of Marks & Spencer Best Ever prawn sandwiches in Ireland.

Under EU customs rules, sandwiches typically require three vet certificates, and so the retailer has dropped half its range in Ireland, chairman of M&S Archie Norman told BBC Radio this week. Leaving aside the question of why, on a burning planet, we need to import sandwiches, this is being seen as a portent of things to come. People on both sides of the Border face the "very, very serious" spectre of a festive season without beef and bone marrow pie, or a Christmas-themed Colin the Caterpillar cake.

Norman suggested that this is a product of "Byzantine and pointless and pettifogging" enforcement of customs union rules, which has resulted in more than 20 per cent of its product lines being discontinued in Ireland. "You can't think of a more visible demonstration of how you're no longer a full part of the United Kingdom than [when] you can't get your favourite Christmas products, you can't buy M&S chicken," the former Tory MP railed, a blatant dog whistle to those who consider Percy Pigs fundamental to questions of British identity.

Faced with gaps on supermarket shelves, British prime minister Boris Johnson has fallen out of love with the "brilliant" deal he negotiated with Brussels to keep trade going between Britain and Northern Ireland, and now seems determined to renege on the international treaty he campaigned for and signed. The Financial Times quoted Whitehall insiders who say he wants to "wish it all away". European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told him there would be no renegotiation.


But there's more at stake here than prawn sandwiches and Percy Pigs

As an Irish person, it takes a heroic effort to avoid a degree of schadenfreude at the sight of all these Marks & Spencer free-range chickens coming home to roost, only to find themselves landed at the Border with 7,200 pages of paperwork. But there's more at stake here than prawn sandwiches and Percy Pigs. If M&S were to decide that doing business in the Republic is not tenable, up to 2,500 jobs could be at risk, as Joe Duffy reminded Liveline listeners this week. "Dunnes or Penney's" would give them a job instead, shrugged Greg the lorry driver, in a tone that left listeners in no doubt that he would see this as a significant improvement in their prospects.

For some, 2,500 jobs seems a reasonable price to pay to be proven right about the English. “Your man’s blaming the Irish customs . . . but if the English got their act together and did their paperwork right, there wouldn’t be a problem,” said Greg. “Why should we buckle because they can’t do their paperwork right?”

No surrender on the pettifogging, lads. We work ourselves into a sweat of indignation at the latest Brexity headline in the Express or the Sun, but Brexit has unleashed something ugly here too, simmering resentment that had been more or less contained since the Belfast Agreement. It reached its apogee during the days leading up to the Euro 2020 final, when English people in Ireland described on social media how the veneer of “I don’t like the English, but you’re alright” had given way to “I don’t like the English”.

“One thing brought home tonight is how the Irish still absolutely despise the English. I live in Ireland and people haven’t even been hiding it the last four weeks,” said one man on Twitter. Another English father living here described overhearing one child telling the other to “keep quiet about her Dad being English”.

The truth is that there has always been an acceptance in Ireland that the English are fair game, a view emboldened over the past year by the US president Joe Biden. "The BBC? I'm Irish," he famously quipped when asked for a quick word with the Beeb. In his first full speech as US president, he described how his grandfather had "left because of what the Brits had been doing".

“Should every English person be made to feel responsible for 800 years of history?” one friend of mine who grew up in Ireland with an English mother has wondered. The answer, according to some, is yes.

"The general feeling is that it's funny to sit back and watch the Brits self-destruct. They're our neighbour but historically they're our oppressor, so it's all very bittersweet," said Ben Quinn, an administrator of the Irish Simpsons Fans Facebook page, explaining the appeal of Brexit memes to Buzzfeed a couple of years ago.

If we're going to call our neighbours racist, we'd better get our own house in order first

At the other end of the spectrum is the more thoughtful commentary that is not anti-British, but still guilty of writing it off as a place, as Fergus Finlay put it in the Irish Examiner this week, “awash with ignorance and squalor . . . riven by racism”. If we’re going to call our neighbours racist, we’d better get our own house in order first. A 2019 research report Being Black in the EU found that one-third of people surveyed in Ireland faced discrimination because of their skin colour. Of course, the most socially acceptable kind of discrimination in Ireland has always been that directed at the English.

Yes, but we're entitled, the argument goes. Eight hundred years and all that: Bloody Sunday; Brexit; Priti Patel's food shortages; the Border; ongoing ignorance of Irish history, politics, culture; amnesty for British soldiers; and co-opting of Saoirse Ronan's identity. Maybe "sitting back and watching the Brits self-destruct" is more entertaining summer viewing than Love Island or the Olympics. But who does it serve? Ireland is the country with most to lose – not least because Johnson seems determined to weaponise unionist disquiet to put pressure on the EU, a dangerous game to play under the heat of the July sun.

We’re no better than Boris or the most rabid Brexiteers if we can’t resist our own version of the misty-eyed obsession with the past and bitter identity politics that led directly to Brexit.