‘A new book on Brexit illustrates our great problem with Ireland: our ignorance of its self-pity’
Books tell you very little about things that happened to you but a lot about the people who write them. It’s not a very original thought: I first heard something like it as a teenager watching Sir Geoffrey Howe on Newsnight after the first televised dramatisation of Mrs Thatcher’s fall. “Ah,” the great man sighed, “so that’s how it was, you think, when you see how it was in a room you weren’t in. But then you see yourself and realise, no, it wasn’t like that at all.” Journalists are rarely in written-about rooms, but, poor social eunuchs, are cursed forever to write about them. And by some distance the most baleful consequence of Brexit has been all the books about it.
The fleetest of these was Brexit Revolt, written by staff at this magazine. It being the first Brexit book launch party, I went: it was also the last I could bear. The late Helen Szamuley, a Brexiteer schismatic of the finest sort, came up to me and said, “Oh, you were a director of Vote Leave.” Eye-narrowing pause. “You didn’t deserve to win.” Only one sorrowful lot suffer more from Brexit having won than other Brexiteers and that’s the Most Oppressed People Ever. And no book is more lamentable than Brexit And Ireland (Penguin, £9.99) by RTE’s Europe Editor, Tony Connelly.
Imagining a banshee keening in your ear, forever, is an improvement on the experience of reading this dreary, repetitive book. But it, and its Northern Ireland-born author, illustrate our great problem with Ireland: our ignorance of its self-pity. It’s impossible for all but the most determined Briton to comprehend the passive-aggressive neurotic skulking to our west. But if forced to finish this book, you will benefit from yet another of Brexit’s miraculous boons and see quite how odd the Irish view of reality is.
For example, did you know that during the referendum Ireland’s European Commissioner, by his campaigning in the UK, “made a real contribution [to Remain]. He might even have swung quite a number of votes”? Since you struggle to name our own Commissioner a nagging doubt troubles you about this eccentric claim. But there’s more. Phil Hogan, for it was he who swung the votes, was not the only Irish official to campaign in our referendum: their ambassador and six ministers did likewise. Who am I to say whether this was happily counter-productive in addition to being markedly unwise, but the fact is that they did it.
The Irish desire to meddle inside the UK is a curious small-country variant of the Russian idea of the near-abroad, in that nothing could be felt more legitimate at home, but woe betide anyone foreign who imagines the reverse might apply: that what happens inside the Republic is a legitimate concern of the UK’s. This is what gives the patronising British coverage of all things Irish its peculiar tone. For the Irish sense of themselves is indulgently, uncritically adopted wholesale. We persist in treating them like children and holding that none of their assumptions are worth serious study. We thus miss out on some rare treats.
In Connelly’s Ireland, the country’s a world-beater. If you want export statistics, you’ve got them. You might puzzle at Ireland’s ability to trade all over the earth but not next door after Brexit, but there are deeper mysteries yet. Take the aforementioned Phil Hogan. So blinkered and doctrinaire an instance of Europhilia is he that when his own government suggested during the Brexit talks that the UK and Republic should simply, sensibly, have a bilateral agricultural free trade agreement, Hogan, the EU Agriculture Commissioner, refused to countenance it.
But Europe’s an odd thing. There’s racing. The British Isles is one “single epidemiological unit” for bloodstock (an otherwise impossible derogation from EU rules about animal transit). In other words, you can race at Cheltenham or Galway and you needn’t worry your head about the EU’s “sacred legal order” because it’s been dealt with. And the funny thing is, horses, unlike other livestock, have a habit of mostly coming back from the journeys they set off on.
Then there’s the paranoia of Irish officials. Connelly regurgitates their fantasy that “[the British] will try to pull us out of the EU. They’ll make it hard for us to stay in.” There was no evidence for this delusion, nor has there been a solitary instance of hardball since the referendum. It’s hard to think of another country in Britain’s position which wouldn’t mull over its energy-dependent neighbour’s weak spots, but we haven’t. This is the stark divide: official Dublin’s resentful, bogeyman conceit of Britain versus mundane reality. The fracture, inevitably, stems from nationalist poison.
In their diplomacy in Brussels the Irish have adduced invisible annex after unknown codicil to the Belfast Agreement. This culminates in their self-image as defending “what was agreed” and plays to a toxic combination of self-regard and self-pity. Thus, “there can be no border” between north and south, although there is a border, on tax, currency, immigration and so much else, all the way up to being the political, national border the Agreement confirmed that it was. This was the Agreement’s point: that the Republic recognised the legitimacy of the border and stopped giving succour to terrorism by laying claim to the north.
Connelly, in his reporting, unwittingly personifies nationalist solipsism. For while imaginary achievements of the Agreement are touted solely from an Irish nationalist viewpoint, they’re ignored from anyone else’s. So northern nationalists must have “assurances” (about things which weren’t agreed) while unionists must be discounted in things they may well hold equally dearly to (say, international treaties recognising the border they’re quite attached to, and maintenance of the state they’re by agreement in).
If one detail alone sets out Irish myopia in full, it’s that RTE’s Europe Editor writes a book about Brexit which turns on the border and doesn’t mention smuggling. Not once. For to do so would be to show multiple things which can’t be contemplated: that there is a border; that it hasn’t gone away; that problems are habitually fudged; and that solutions are easily coped with.