Over the past 50 years, the image of Ireland and the Irish has been transformed in Britain. Thinking back to the 1970s, I cringe at the memory of the “Irish jokes” about “thick Paddies” that were a staple of my London school playground. When the Irish were not laughable, they were dangerous. The IRA bombing campaigns in the UK tarred the whole of Ireland as somehow linked to terrorism.
But in Britain today, Ireland is cool. The Irish are no longer the butt of jokes — they are the ones telling them. Entertainers such as Graham Norton and Dara O Briain are mainstays of BBC schedules. Dublin has the dubious privilege of being a favourite haunt for British stag weekends. And Anglo-Irish friendship is celebrated on the sporting field, with an Irishman, Eoin Morgan, captaining the England one-day cricket team.
The economic boom in Ireland and the passage of time have done a lot to bury old stereotypes. But so has joint membership of the EU. The danger now is that Brexit has reintroduced a dangerous strain of bitterness into Anglo-Irish relations, with the British and Irish once again harbouring resentment and anger towards each other.
Ireland and the UK joined the then European Economic Community together in 1973. Their joint membership helped to create a new kind of relationship, based on mutual respect and shared interests. European law also provided the legal framework for Dublin and London to work together on the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that effectively ended the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In the European single market, a hard border could be erased and binary questions of citizenship — British or Irish — blurred.
Within the EU, the British and Irish discovered that they have a lot in common. In Brussels, they were allies in the struggle against “tax harmonisation”. When the UK stayed out of the Schengen border-free travel area within the EU, the Irish did the same — in favour of preserving the common travel area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Both countries have felt a pull from the US, with Mary Harney, former deputy prime minister of Ireland, once remarking that the Irish were spiritually “closer to Boston than Berlin”.
This vein of Euroscepticism led the Irish initially to vote against the ratification of the EU’s Nice and Lisbon treaties (referendum results that anticipated Britain’s 2016 vote for Brexit). In the Irish case, the initial referendums were later reversed in second votes.
But this convergence of Britain and Ireland has been radically disrupted by Brexit. Many Brexiters are enraged by the Irish insistence on a “backstop” to prevent a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, believing this to be a largely invented problem designed simply to thwart Brexit. Many Irish people are, in turn, outraged by what they perceive as Britain’s high-handed dismissal of their concerns, believing this to reflect old colonial attitudes. It is an uncomfortable coincidence that the Irish war of independence started a century ago, in 1919, culminating in the creation of the Irish Free State.
At the moment, the British and Irish governments are locked in a game of chicken over the backstop. Unless one of them swerves, there is a clear danger that Britain and Ireland will go over the no-deal cliff together on March 29.
Both countries would suffer badly. The British are already transfixed by no-deal horror stories, involving bureaucratic chaos and shortages of food and medicine. The Irish face an economic rupture with their second-largest export market, after the US.
The implications for Ireland’s crucial agricultural sector are particularly grim, given that the British government has announced that it will impose tariffs on food imports; in the event of no deal, Irish beef farmers would be particularly vulnerable. Last week, the Irish government published emergency legislation designed for a no-deal Brexit; an idea that Simon Coveney, deputy prime minister, described as a “lose, lose lose” proposition.
Even a more orderly Brexit will damage Anglo-Irish relations. Having felt humiliated by Ireland in the negotiations, some Brexiters will want to demonstrate that Britain can still push around its smaller neighbour. At the same time there will be continuing paranoia in Westminster that Ireland may enlist its bigger friends in Brussels, Berlin (or, God forbid, Washington), to once again get one over on the Brits.
Negotiating new relationships on trade and immigration and a host of other issues will be a constant irritant. And the question of Irish unity will also be back on the table. The thought of “losing” Northern Ireland will enrage British nationalists, many of whom are also strong Unionists. But the prospect of a united Ireland could also be a big problem for Dublin, with alarming financial and security implications.
Ireland might also find itself newly vulnerable within the EU. There is already grumbling from some of the other EU members that Ireland must repay the “solidarity” it has been extended over Brexit, by abandoning its insistence on setting its own (low) corporate tax rates.
As the process of Brexit unfolds, we are discovering how many pleasant aspects of modern life in Britain are closely linked to EU membership. A good relationship between Britain and Ireland should be added to that list.
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