On Brexit, England sees Ireland as both schemer and doormat
Brexit is unearthing some ugly truths about underlying British attitudes to Ireland
We will no doubt continue to be found lacking in obviously contradictory ways until the British ship rights itself. Photograph: iStock
It is with the utmost of pleasure that I can announce to you the details of the great Northern Ireland land grab. Drawn up in 1922, signed by Michael Collins himself and locked in a vault in Trinity College, plans for Irish unity are finally about to unfold. Dawn on March 30th atop the Hill of Faughart is when our siege begins.
From there we shall march north, armed with shovels and potatoes, to take back what was swiped from under our noses 96 years previously. Twenty-six shall become 32. Time has been allotted to stop for a few pints along the way, of course. They say the Guinness across the Border has a tangy flavour to it so strong that it has been known to cause lockjaw, and there will be many an Irish man who will eager to get a bout of it. Please arrive in good time for the pre-rebellion decade of the rosary. Éire abú!
Ridiculous? No doubt, but no more ridiculous than what some members of the English media have been asserting is really on the minds of Irish politicians of late.
For something like a year now, English journalists from both print and broadcast media have been asserting without any proof whatsoever that our Government’s motives when defending Irish interests are less than pure. Ireland’s demand for a post-Brexit trade agreement that avoids a hard border is motivated, they say, not by a desire to avoid bloodshed on the island but to achieve the Machiavellian end of reuniting the north with the south against the will of the people of Northern Ireland.
Our boy Simon Coveney might talk complete and utter sense on John Humphrys’s Today show on BBC radio but in Britain it falls on deaf ears because all the host hears is a maniacal leprechaun cackle.
Deceit is not the only accusation being levelled against us these days, but at least it is one that affords the Irish a level of agency in our dealings with others. There are other characterisations that give us less credit, such as the one on the cover of the Spectator this week. The headline, “How the EU used Ireland to take control of Brexit”, runs over a cartoon of EU leaders drawing lines around the UK on a map.
Apparently when the EU negotiators protect our interests it is not out of any solidarity with us but only out of a desire to punish the UK. They seem determined to make sure we know that Ireland is of no import whatsoever.
But how can we be both schemer and doormat at the same time? It would seem that on any day Ireland can be both a Machiavellian enemy intent on taking down the British empire and hapless fool doing the EU’s bidding. They project both Iago and Othello on to us depending on that day’s narrative of victimhood.
These digs at us seep out from Brexit discussions into other discourse. The host of the popular Women’s Hour programme on BBC Radio4 , normally a space for more considered words, this week betrayed a certain horror at new information that came before her.
During a discussion on their incoming Gender Recognition Act that will allow transgender people to self-identify, the presenter expressed surprise to learn that Ireland had been demonstrating leadership in the area of trans rights for some years now.
“Twenty years ago would we ever have thought we would be looking to Ireland as an example of progressiveness?” the host exclaimed aghast. A fine way to let us know that we had been dismissed as irrelevant. Of course, five years ago we would never have thought we would be looking to the UK as world leaders in xenophobic rhetoric, but here we are.
In Britain the Irish have always been the charming neighbours who can be counted on to do a turn any time a party needs livening up. Oh, the Irish are great social lubricant.
And we comply happily while it doesn’t harm us to do so. But now that Brexit has weakened Britain, and Ireland finds a strength in her allegiances that belies her size, there is a shift in the power balance between us.
And in our current, less than gay, political situation, which calls for a more sober Irish demeanour on the part of politicians, Irish people are finding out what happens when the story we tell about ourselves is not done for entertainment purposes.
Now that Ireland is showing that the craic doesn’t have to have top billing, it is as if there is a section within English media that is asking itself: “If they are not going to entertain us then what on earth are the Irish for?”
Of course, this is not a question that the Irish need concern ourselves with directly. However, we will no doubt continue to be found lacking in obviously contradictory ways until the British ship rights itself. In the meantime, every slippage of the mask here reveals a new unpalatable truth about how we are regarded.
Eleanor Tiernan is a comedian and writer based in London