Thursday, December 14, 2017

Do the Irish really need to "get over themselves"?

In Derry, most people can't forget the past.
In Britain, some people don't even know it. 

Are the Irish an over-sensitive lot?

Is it really worthy of a national debate – and even a Twitter tag – when a British TV presenter goes on social media to tell us that some of us “need to get over ourselves”?

And all because he described a row between the British and the Irish over the impact ‘Brexit’ will have on the Irish border as a “kerfuffle” in an interview with the Irish Tanaiste (or Deputy Prime Minister)!

The online reaction to a Twitter outburst by Sky News presenter Adam Boulton might have been something of a storm in a tea-cup this week, but it comes at a time when Irish people are deeply alarmed by the attitudes they are hearing from some people on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Not to mention general disquiet over the impact Brexit will have on the Irish economy, particularly in border communities which were devastated by 30 years of The Troubles until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought wonderful changes to all of our lives.

The Republic exports €15.6 billion worth of goods to the United Kingdom each year and will have the only land border between the UK and the European Union once the Brexit divorce proceedings are completed.

As is often the case when a small country is located next to a much bigger neighbour, the Irish know far more about the British than the people on the bigger island do about the Emerald Isle.

Thousands of Irish people make the short journeys to Britain each week to cheer on the footballers of Liverpool, Manchester United, or Arsenal, often to the detriment of their local soccer clubs.

Thousands more love soap operas such as ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘East Enders’ and follow the gossip involving British celebrities through tabloid newspapers and magazines which circulate widely in Ireland.

It might be hard to believe, but some people even talk about the British ‘royal family’ around the water coolers at their workplaces.

Adam Boulton's remarks about the Irish kicked up a storm

The engagement of a British prince can generate headlines in Irish newspapers, without a hint of irony, whereas many people in the UK would struggle to identify the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, if his photo appeared in a glossy magazine.

Given the vast differences in population between the two countries, Britain has 65 million citizens compared to 4.7 million in the Republic, it is no surprise that British TV is widely watched on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Until the recent “kerfuffle” over the impact Brexit will have on the Irish border, it’s fair to say that relationships between the two countries were never better than we have seen over the past two decades ago.

The Good Friday Agreement brought peace, respect for diversity, and guarantees for the Unionist population in the north-east of the island that they won’t be steamrolled into a United Ireland against their will.

It also brought about the demolition of the hated border posts and checkpoints, opening up the joys of the North to tourists for the first time.

Until the mid-1990s, tourists were virtually unheard of in Northern Ireland. Now Belfast is seen as one of the best cities to visit in the world and thousands visit to explore the landscapes made famous by 'Game of Thrones'.

Times have changed since the only time Northern Ireland made the UK news was for bombings or shootings and people in London used to warn tourists to stay well clear of the province.

Relationships have changed beyond all recognition. How much things have improved was evident in the State visit by Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011.                         
Northern nationalists feel they have been
forgotten or abandoned post-Brexit

People were surprised, shocked even, by the warm welcome the British monarch received during her three day visit, given the symbolism attached to royalty throughout hundreds of years of colonisation.

But the relationship between Britain and Ireland has never been black and white and up to six million people in the UK have at least one Irish grandparent.

Like the US, Canada, and Australia, Britain has often provided a ‘safety valve’ for a land which has seen so many of its children emigrate to forge out brighter futures.

In the 1950s and again in the 1980s, when Ireland failed to provide hope to so many of its people, thousands upon thousands of Irish people poured into British cities in search of new lives.

Almost everyone on the island of Ireland has some family connections to Britain. In the European Union, the British were often the Irish people’s closest allies as two English-speaking islands on the western periphery of the continent.

But, since the shock of the Brexit vote in June of last year, many Irish people have become alarmed by some of the language they are hearing from across the Irish Sea.

Throughout the Brexit debate, there seemed to be barely a mention in the British media over the implications there would be for communities along the Irish border if the UK was to leave the EU.

A tabloid editor told our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, recently to “shut his gob” even though this issue has massive implications for Ireland for generations to come.

We have heard people wonder why Ireland does not also leave the EU, or even why we don’t rejoin the UK – as if they are totally oblivious to the terrible history of conflict, oppression, and suspicion between the two countries going back over 800 years.

We have been shocked to hear people celebrate our common language, with not a semblance of understanding of the way in which the British authorities went about killing off the Irish language over two centuries.

A graphic illustrating the decline of the Irish language.

Not many British people would be aware that, under the Penal Laws, it was illegal for Catholics to teach in schools between 1695 and 1782. Education through Irish was confined to 'hedge schools' until the 1840s, when the Great Famine took the lives of a million Irish people.

Just this week, 200 nationalists across Northern Ireland wrote a letter to the Irish News to express how alienated and abandoned they feel in the era of a Brexit vote which was rejected by 56% of voters in the province.

At a time when the Democratic Unionist Party holds the balance of power in London, their letter came as a grim reminder of the sectarian state which treated Catholics as second class citizens from partition in the 1920s until the eruption of the Troubles in the late 1960s.

Nobody wants to see a return to those dark days and perhaps it is true that the Irish cannot forget their history of famine, deprivation, and emigration.

But sometimes Irish people get the feeling that their counterparts in the UK are totally oblivious to their own country’s history of oppression and occupation in Ireland.

Respect works both ways. One land cannot seem to forget its past, and the other sometimes shows that it knows nothing about it.

A throwaway remark by a Sky News TV presenter might have generated an over-reaction and, yes, perhaps Irish people need to lighten up a bit and leave our sense of victimhood behind.

But the loudest Brexit supporters in Britain, who did not seem to have a concrete plan for life after leaving the EU, should not be so surprised that people in Ireland have massive concerns over the impact which their vote will have on all of our lives.

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

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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

Find Ciaran Tierney on Twitter,