by Frank Schnittger
Sun Sep 15th, 2019 at 02:09:41 PM EST
I normally read Fintan O'Toole's articles, but when I saw the title of his latest piece "For the first time since 1171, Ireland is more powerful than Britain," I decided to give it a miss. Fintan going over the top again, I thought. But then in an idle moment I chanced upon the article again and got drawn in. It turns out to be some of Fintan's best work.
In considering his writing we must remember he is as much an art and drama critic as a political analyst, and while his political analysis can be a bit off the deep end - as when he suggested all Sinn Fein MPs should resign and allow themselves to be replaced by nationalist candidates not bound by an abstentionist policy - his colour writing on the subtle shifts and nuances of Anglo-Irish relations is second to none.
And far from the triumphalist Irish nationalist piece of guff I was expecting with a title like that, it is actually a very perceptive piece on how Brexit has changed the whole dynamic of Anglo-Irish relations. Essentially he is arguing that the polarity of the dominant-submissive mode of the post colonial British Irish relationship has been reversed: Partially in terms of Irish government policy and presentation, but more particularly in the mind set of Brexiteers.
Crazy as it may seem, they imagine themselves to be engaged in a post-colonial struggle for liberation against an oppressive evil empire (the EU) and cannot understand how Ireland would not be an automatic and natural ally in that struggle - but instead has taken on the role of cheerleader and chief antagonist for the evil empire.
Thankfully he notes that "There is far too much at stake to take any pleasure in this bizarre political reversal." The last thing we need to do is to replace an obsequious deference to our lords and masters with an obnoxious sense of superiority.
As the article is behind a subscriber only paywall I will reproduce what I can here within the bounds of fair use:
It is foolish to read too much into body language, but what we saw in Dublin on Monday morning was startling. The Taoiseach was calm, clear, sure of his tone, which was neither aggressive nor ingratiating.
Boris Johnson was deeply uncertain, unable to stand still at the podium, hesitating between tones - patronisingly matey or grandly demanding? He exuded, not the confidence we would usually take for granted in a visiting British prime minister, but an unease bordering on complete disorientation.
And it is in one way hard to blame him. In the long relationship between Ireland and England, we are on radically new ground. There has never been a moment since Henry II invaded in 1171 when Ireland had more political power than its bigger, richer neighbour. And it has now.
One of the key failings of the Brexit project has always been its reliance on an old paradigm of Anglo-Irish relations. Ireland did not have to be taken into account because in the end it would have do whatever suited England.
To the extent that the Brexiteers thought at all about Ireland during the 2016 referendum, it was to suggest that any problems with the Irish Border could be solved by the obvious solution of Ireland rejoining the UK.
Nigel Lawson, chairman of the Leave campaign, suggested before the referendum, "I would be very happy if the Republic of Ireland - I don't think it's going to happen - were to say we made a mistake in getting independence in 1922, and come back within the United Kingdom. That would be great."
Failing that, Ireland would simply leave the EU as it had joined in 1973, in lockstep with the British.
Anyone who had even the slightest notion that either of these scenarios was even remotely possible was being simply delusional. There is more chance of Ireland joining the USA.
Ireland and England have developed over many centuries ways of dealing with each other and none of them really work any more.
There's a whole array of modes - smooth condescension, raw bullying, sycophantic obsequiousness, violent hatred, chippy defensiveness, resentful hostility - that come naturally on either side. They are all now outmoded. In the great sea-change of Brexit, Anglo-Irish relations are taking strange new shapes.
Much of this strangeness consists in a kind of role-reversal. It is not just that, when we strip away the diplomatic niceties, Johnson came to Dublin essentially as a supplicant. (He needs a deal and knows he can't get one without the agreement of Ireland.)
This necessity is humiliating, and we have experienced over the last two years attempts at the standard response: rage at Ireland's failure to know its place and do what it is told.
The Sun's editorial of July 2018 (not in its Irish edition of course), ranting at "gobby Irish PM Leo Varadkar . . . the snivelling suck-up egging on the playground bullies", is at one level merely a repeat of old anti-Irish tropes. ("Gobby" contains the notion of an inferior who has no right to speak until spoken to, and then only with due deference.)
But the evocation of bullying takes us into new psychological terrain - not of the righteous anger of the master but the self-pity of the victim.
This is something much deeper - and much weirder - than a simple sense of affronted superiority. It has to do with the hyped-up psychodrama of Brexit itself, the way it imagines itself as a national revolt by an oppressed people against a foreign empire.
What is at work is not so much nostalgia for empire as a throwback to the binary mindset of imperialism, in which there are only two possible states: dominant or submissive. The normality of being one country among 28 is not possible.
What Fintan may be missing is how this narrative of oppression by the EU is an essential part of the internal English Brexiteer rhetoric. Perhaps it isn't really intended to be taken all that seriously in Ireland at all (who cares?) but is intended to convey a sense that (the overwhelmingly metropolitan) Brexiteers are on the side of the oppressed in the north and midlands of England who have been neglected by their betters, and to redirect their fury from the English ruling classes to "unelected bureaucrats in Brussels".
"Taking back control" was always about the Eton Oxbridge elite taking back control from meddling foreigners, but if a bit of bowdlerized Irish history can be used in support of a bogus internal UK argument, shure what's the harm?
When the room stops spinning and vision is restored, what can be focused on is the breathtaking nature of the shift in self-image. The British are now the people against whom they themselves once unleashed Oliver Cromwell and the Black and Tans, the gallant indigenous occupants of a conquered and colonised territory rising up against their imperial overlords.
When Boris Johnson talks, as he has done repeatedly, of the goal of Brexit, being "independent, democratic self-government", the suggestion is that Britain is not independent, is not democratic and does not govern itself - exactly what Irish nationalists would have said of their own country before 1922.
Once you start thinking like this, it is a short step to turning around the whole history of Anglo-Irish relations and imagining England as the victim, Ireland as the big, bad bully. The myth of Perfidious Albion is replaced by the myth of Perfidious Hibernia.
The word that is used over and over in media and political discourse about the backstop is "trap". The Border is not a reality but a clever conspiracy - to which Ireland is a willing and vital party - against an innocent England.
It is worth noting that, in this narrative, there is another reversal of the old stereotypes. The Irish Celt was supposed to be passionate, dreamy, impulsive but conversely not much good at rational thought. The English Saxon was, by contrast, cool, calculating, wily and therefore destined to rule.
Both sides, to a large extent, bought in to this trope and even the idea of the English as innately perfidious carried a rueful admiration - they were treacherous but very good at it.
Now, the stereotype is being turned upside-down. Johnson repeatedly evokes the idea of Brexit as a matter of passion and impulse, "courage and self-belief". The Brexiteers, meanwhile, see Ireland as treacherously scheming to stop this romantic upsurge of faith, hope and bravery by trapping it in infuriating matters of pointless detail.
The strangest shift of all is one that is both entirely obvious and entirely unacknowledged: the erosion of English identification with Irish unionism. If Irish nationalism is the imagined model for Brexit's overthrow of EU imperial tyranny, where does that leave the long tradition of sympathy for Irish nationalism's internal enemies? In no-man's land.
In 2011, when Queen Elizabeth visited Ireland and performed an exorcism on Anglophobia by acting out a recognition of equality, it seemed that Anglo-Irish relations had become what they had never been: normal. Decades of working together in the EU and on the peace process had worn away the legacy of condescension on the one side and defensiveness on the other.
But neither of those joint experiences matters to the Brexiteers. They approach Ireland instead though a strange swamp of contradictory impulses: rage and envy, thwarted superiority and indulgent self-pity.
Ireland cannot afford to reciprocate. There is far too much at stake to take any pleasure in the bizarre reversals we are experiencing. But it may be quite some time before we can hope to return to the apparently settled normality of 2011.