Thursday, December 7, 2017

Bluster over Brexit shows many wounds have yet to be healed

Irene from Manchester, England, was very upset.                                 
Nobody wants a return to border checkpoints

She thought it was terrible that a small little island has been holding up those important Brexit negotiations.

She wrote to a newspaper this week to say that the island next door to Britain was “too small to have a border” and “causes everybody a headache”.

In her opinion, Ireland “should never have been split”.

She said it was about time the Irish made up their minds, to decide whether they were “in or out” of the wonderful United Kingdom.

It seemed to have escaped her attention that the Irish pretty much made their minds up about the British Empire a long time ago.

They spent hundreds of years trying to break free; issues such as the Plantation of Ulster, the Great Famine, the Penal Laws, and the attempted destruction of their native language might just have helped the pesky peasants to “make up their minds”.

Irene was quite shocked to discover that this little island to the west had a border, the only land frontier between the departing Great Britain and its former partners in the European Union – apart from that wonderful piece of Britain down on the Rock of Gibraltar.

Presumably, when she voted for Brexit last year, Irene did not think too much about the niceties or the consequences for the farmers or commuters dotted along the border in Tyrone, Fermanagh, or South Armagh.

She wasn't alone. How many times did the 300 border crossings feature in the Brexit debate in Britain last year?

It might have been news to Irene that few of the Irish were too happy about the border when it was invented back in 1922.

She had probably never heard of Michael Collins, sent to London to negotiate a peace deal for the Irish ‘terrorists’ at the cost of a border, a terrible civil war, and the loss of his own life.

The editor of The Sun was pretty upset last week, too.

His newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch, has longed for the day when “floods” of immigrants would no longer be able to access Great Britain via the port of Dover.

The tabloid campaigned vigorously for Britain to leave the European Union and how darn annoying it was in recent weeks to see a former colony delay the Brexit negotiations because of an inconvenient land border.

Papers like The Sun and The Daily Mail were gung-ho in their calls for a Brexit vote last year and one of the London tabloid’s columnists, Katie Hopkins, compared migrants to cockroaches at the height of the debate.

It's pretty hard to have a rational debate with someone who compares human beings fleeing wars to cockroaches.

“Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants,” was the headline on one of Katie’s pieces, before she referred to migrants who try to board trucks heading to Britain as “a plague of feral humans” in The Sun.

The Sun in 2017 is the modern equivalent of the 18th and 19th century British publications which referred to Irish people as less than human, even as a million of them starved under the British Empire and poverty drove a further two million to emigrate to North America.

Irony and respect for the neighbours is lost on The Sun, who advised the Irish Taoiseach to “shut your gob and grow up” when he expressed concerns over the impact a ‘hard’ Brexit would have on communities either side of the Irish border.

An Taoiseach: told to "shut his gob" about Brexit

The Sun let An Taoiseach know, in no uncertain terms, that 17.4 million people voted for Britain to leave the European Union and reminded him that British billions “stopped Ireland going bust” as recently as seven years ago.

Arlene from Fermanagh was also upset.

On Monday, she put a spanner in the works of the Brexit negotiations.

Arlene is more British than Irish and the party she leads, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has the balance of power at Westminster.

She found a deal which made a distinction between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, to prevent a hard border, unacceptable.

She’d rather have massive inconvenience for people in her region who regularly cross the border than any “divergence” which might separate Fermanagh from London or Liverpool.

Many people in Ireland find it ironic that the DUP see themselves as more British than Irish, yet do not want to bring in the kind of legislation which would bring the province’s abortion or marriage equality legislation in line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

When it comes to the relationships between the two islands, perhaps Irene is right after all and the smaller island really does “cause everybody a headache”.

Always has.

Murals in Belfast depict the long struggle
for Irish freedom from the British Empire
In 1847, for example, 15,000 Great Famine refugees were deported from England back to Ireland. Even though Ireland was part of the British Empire, it was made very clear by the authorities that the deaths of over a million people were an Irish – not a British – problem.

Relations have improved considerably between the two islands over the century which has passed since the 1916 Easter Rising and the executions of the Irish rebel leaders which eventually led to independence for most of Ireland.

Things have particularly improved over the past 20 years, since the Good Friday Agreement brought peace, joy, and prosperity to both parts of the island and the removal of the despised observation posts and military checkpoints along the border.

The ugly tower blocks have been removed and there are no longer British Army soldiers pointing guns at passing motorists but, clearly, less visible wounds remain.

Prior to the Brexit referendum in June 2016, when 51.9% of UK voters chose to leave the European Union, there was a long and lengthy debate about issues such as immigration, free movement, trade deals, and British sovereignty.                                             

Looking back now, the Irish border and the implications for people living and working in border counties barely featured in the debates across England.

If Ireland isn’t causing everybody a headache, it’s pretty much an afterthought for voters throughout Britain - pretty much how it has always been throughout centuries of animosity, misunderstanding, occupation, and suspicion.

Thankfully, the dispute over the border has been resolved and Irish people are delighted they will not see a return to British Army checkpoints when travelling from Letterkenny to Derry or Dundalk to Newry.

In standing up to the sabre-rattling Unionists this week, and achieving a deal which will not plunge border communities into disarray, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has done Ireland proud.

But, if nothing else, the tempestuous ‘hard’ Brexit negotiations managed to remind Irish people that there are still some appalling attitudes to Ireland and the Irish among some politicians and commentators on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway. Ireland. Find him on Facebook at

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