John McManus: English deserve a break over Brexit
Irish smugness about UK folly must be tempered by memory of independence
Irish Volunteers and one Irish Citizen Army member inside the GPO in 1916: behind both the Rising and Brexit vote was desire for a return to a halcyon age. Photograph: Defence Forces Military Archives, Cathal Brugha barracks
Judging by some of the more colourful recent commentary, the incomprehensible nature of Brexit is giving rise to a degree of self-satisfaction on this side of the Irish Sea. Watching the people against whom we measure ourselves above all others commit an act of monumental economic and political stupidity pleases us in some strange way, whether we care to admit it to ourselves or not. Our smugness is tempered only by our fear of the consequences for Ireland of this act of madness.
Ireland is the one country that should best appreciate the atavistic urge driving the English on to blow up their economy. And we should make no mistake it is the English, not the Scots or the Welsh, that want Brexit. The reason we should be a little more sympathetic is the parallels with Brexit of our own moment of destiny: the Easter Rising and all that followed. The similarities should not be overstated but they exist all the same.
Lurking behind both events was a a powerful sense of national exceptionalism that made participation in a larger entity unpalatable. In the case of Brexit it is tied up in the notion of Britain’s’s imperial grandeur and in the case of Ireland our own unique history.
Led by idealists who rode a populist wave of their own creation, both movements also held out the prospect of some sort of economic renaissance – once control of the country had been taken back from foreigners.
Obviously, in the case of Ireland, we can say pretty definitely that no such economic renaissance manifested itself and and it’s pretty hard to see one happening in a post-Brexit England.
Not only that, in Ireland we actually condemned ourselves to 40 years of economic stagnation, falling living standards and general misery.
Economic necessity required us to continue trading with our largest neighbour and forced us into what we now call “regulatory alignment” with an empire we had just fought a vicious war with. This included a common currency areas that persisted up until 1979 and a common travel area we are still holding on to.
In another peculiar parallel with Brexit, the process of disentangling the economy of the independent Irish State from the British economy was a decades-long nightmare and some might argue was never really completed. The disproportionate exposure of the Irish economy to Brexit serves to confirm this.
Like it or not, Irish independence can be viewed as a catastrophic economic misstep on a par with Brexit. And you would have to suspect many knew it at the time, just as many in England who voted for Brexit know it .
Living standards fell, pensions were cut and many in the the Irish Free State must have quietly questioned the wisdom and price of independence. As they watched their sons and daughters emigrate, even the most committed must have felt a tinge of doubt.
There are, of course, as many differences as similarities between Brexit and the emergence of an independent Ireland. An important one being that Ireland’s drive for independence was very much in sync with what was going on elsewhere, as the end of the first World War heralded the demise of the British, French and Russian empires. Not so Brexit.
Lenin and his communist comrades apparently looked on in admiration as Ireland struggled to escape the clutches of the British Lion. With hindsight and taking into account the economic disaster that Soviet-style communism proved to be, this was really only confirmation that Irish independence was going to be a massive economic mistake.
But here we stand some 100 years later and the whole thing looks like a gigantic success. We are finally where we wanted to be. A politically sovereign and intermittently economically successful nation. Hopefully it will not take the English quite as long to achieve the same result.
None of this in any way makes Brexit a good idea. It is in fact the opposite: a salutary lesson as to what awaits the English. And in absence of the wave of resurgent national sentiment that accompanied Irish independence, you would seriously doubt England’s ability to stay the course
And it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything in our power to persuade them not to go through with it, although that horse seems to have bolted. Neither does it negate the imperative for Ireland to act in its own interest in the coming negotiations. But what it does mean is that we don’t really have any right to be so smug about it.