I have just returned from a short trip to Dublin to see friends and family and wanted to sound people out on what they thought about Brexit, writes Joseph Healy. Firstly, it must be said that the majority of Irish people think that the British, and more specifically the English, have taken leave of their senses. My brother, a fishing captain, continually asked if they were really going to go ahead and was convinced that at the last moment some highly intelligent people would save the UK from the rush to the Brexit cliff. Such touching faith in the inherent common sense of the English is touching, if somewhat naive.
An Irish historian I spoke to, who is a specialist in mid-19th century Irish nationalism, is convinced that Brexit is driven by sheer historical arrogance and selfishness on the part of many English people. He did not believe that any thought was given to the impact on Ireland either in terms of trade or free movement and that, more surprisingly, no thought was given to the impact on the highly sensitive issue of the Irish border. He characterised this as the small-minded nature of English nationalism which has no concern about the impact on any other part of the UK, let alone Ireland, of its atavistic urges. This rush towards Brexit is driven of course by the Conservative and Unionist party, which is now in bed politically with another Unionist party from Ireland. The fact that nationalist Ireland is not represented at all in the UK parliament for the first time since Catholics were allowed to sit in 1829 is a matter of total insignificance for your average Tory MP or Brexiteer. There was a real sense of anger from this historian about the willful lack of concern about the impact of Brexit on Ireland on the part of the UK government and its supporters. The irony is, of course, that not since Parnell in the 19th century, has Ireland been so central to UK politics with the DUP-Tory deal.
I asked this historian why immigration in Ireland, which is per capita higher than in the UK, had not become a touchstone issue as it had in the UK during the Brexit debate and still remained so. His view was that the Irish were traditionally an emigrant nation and that a friend of his from Donegal had told him of the historical memory there of thousands of Irish who had emigrated to the industrial cities of Scotland or had been seasonal labourers in Scotland. Every Irish family, even now, had a relative in the US, Canada, Australia or the UK and emigration and migration was woven into the fabric of Irish life. I remember a Greek friend telling me that the great emigrant nations were the Jews, Greeks and the Irish. But the relatively large influx of Eastern Europeans into Ireland has caused no visual problems.
Many Irish people put the blame for Brexit on English imperial nostalgia and the refusal to accept the position of the UK as a country without an empire. This rankles particularly among the Irish, who see themselves as victims of that empire, and who resent attempts by Tories and UKIP to suggest that it was a golden age of plenty and success, which emerges regularly in the language of leading Brexiteers. For the Irish the period of empire was a period of oppression and injustice.
And as regards Northern Ireland and the border there is disbelief with what is happening around Brexit.
Ireland faces a redefinition of its relations with Britain after Brexit. Once equal partners within the EU the two will be on different sides. Following the Good Friday Agreement, both peoples and governments commenced a new journey based on respect following centuries of colonial dysfunctionality. Now it appears the Tory British government is in denial, or has not fully understood the problems facing both countries. The question is can the Irish rely on the Tory Government to carry out this huge task? Because the legal and practical issues around what will be a land border between the EU and the UK, and how Irish citizens’ rights are protected, cannot be passed off with fuzzy detail and soothing words.
When I asked people how the person in the street regarded Brexit and if they were anxious about the economic impact, I was told that the experts and politicians knew but that the impact had not really sunk in. However, as the country whose trade with the EU goes mainly via the UK land bridge the effect will be enormous. This lack of concern about the economic impact is mirrored in many ways in the UK where the real impact of Brexit is just beginning to become apparent but where most people are not yet aware of it.
The recently departed Irish ambassador in London regretted that Anglo-Irish relations which had improved enormously over the last 10 years could face a huge setback after Brexit.
Brexit is reopening the wounds of Ireland’s experience over the centuries with British imperialism and now English nationalism. Many Irish people are of the view that English intransigence could wreck the peace agreement in the North, the Irish economy and relations between the two states. As for the prospect of Irish reunification following Brexit there are mixed views about its prospects.
One thing is for sure, that is that Ireland has no intention of leaving the EU and returning to being the UK’s vassal state both in economic and geopolitical terms. The Irish people, whatever their differences with Europe, see their future as an international and European one. The vast majority of Irish people regard the English as a people who have taken a historically wrong turn and found themselves in a cul-de-sac. Only time will tell whether they can find their way out and whether the relationship between both islands can be restored.
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