Brexit has exposed profound ignorance, indifference, and retrograde beliefs towards Ireland in the United Kingdom.
There was the description of Ireland by the UKIP MEP Gerard Batten as “a tiny country that relies on UK for its existence”. There was MEP Daniel Hannan’s paternalistic dismissal of Irish sovereignty.
Conspiratorial tabloid pronouncements about Fine Gael courting Sinn Fein voters – an obvious absurdity to anyone familiar with Irish politics – leaked into Westminster chatter. Ian Duncan Smith jarringly pronounced that the election of an Irish president – a largely ceremonial head of state – could affect the policy of the government. There was the suggestion by Lord Kilclooney that the proudly Irish county of Donegal should join the United Kingdom to make the border more convenient.
And there was the strange insistence by the Telegraph that the border between Ireland and the UK is “an entirely internal matter”.
‘Internal to what?’ Irish readers wondered, since our unhappy union ended in 1922, and the British Empire’s last claims to dominion were thrown off in the following decades.
Swathes of the British elite appeared ignorant of much of Irish history and the country’s present reality. They seemed to have missed that Ireland’s economic dependence on exports to its neighbour came speedily to an end after both joined the European Economic Community in 1973. They seemed unacquainted with Ireland’s modern reality as a confident, wealthy, and internationally-oriented nation with overwhelming popular support for EU membership. Repeated descriptions of the border as a “surprise” obstacle to talks betrayed that Britain had apparently not listened, or had dismissed, the Irish government’s insistence in tandem with the rest of the EU since April that no Brexit deal could be agreed that would harden the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The British government failed to listen to Ireland throughout history, and it was failing to listen still.
That many British people do not know basic facts about Ireland was not news to many Irish people. We commonly trade anecdotes about it. Some tell of their shock at discovering, on their first day of university or in a job in England, that their peers do not know that Ireland is an independent country, or that Northern Ireland is part of the UK. Others recall the puzzlement of British visitors to Dublin realising they need to change their Sterling into Euros.
The story I tell is my realisation during the Brexit campaign that not only have the British public been failed by their education, but that this ignorance extends into the ranks of those upon whom the most prestigious educations in the world have been lavished. Privately schooled Oxbridge graduates who make their living in politics and who can chat confidently about the geopolitics of North Africa or Eastern Europe were not embarrassed to confess to me they knew nothing of Northern Ireland, and to ask me to remind them one more time which side was which.
Now that Westminster has been forced, with much bafflement and resistance, to once again grapple with the frustrations of our little country as part of an international negotiation, the rest of Europe has had a glimpse of this ignorance too.
Such ignorance is all the more puzzling since it indicates a low level of knowledge about the UK’s own borders and history. This is not an option that Ireland has: apart from the cultural familiarity that comes from having a larger country broadcasting media in the same language just next door, Irish politicians do not have a choice but to contend with Britain. Our knowledge of each other is lopsided.
Unfortunately for Britain, not to know Irish history is not to know the Irish.
History imbues Irish culture. It runs through our music, our jokes, and our literature. Our most popular sports, the Gaelic games, were born in their modern form in the 19th century cultural revival that fuelled our quest for independence.
The border too is not just a geographical line, but a fissure that runs through Irish society. The spectrum of Irish political parties does not run right to left, but according to positions once taken on partition.
Fine Gael, the party of the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, grew out of the faction that decided to stop fighting our War of Independence for a compromise: the partition of the country into 26 counties with self-rule, and six counties that would become Northern Ireland.
Their rival large party, Fianna Fáil, is descended from the faction that refused to accept that deal, and carried on fighting in the name of a 32-county republic. The divisions of our parliament are inherited from the civil war fought between those two sides.
Sinn Fein, the third-largest party, is of the faction that refused to put down arms against partition even later still.
Imagine, in this context, reading the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg article entertaining the idea that Ireland’s insistence on guaranteeing an open border to protect the peace was only a bluff. That we were only pretending to care.
Such a thought can only be entertained in the absence of basic familiarity with Ireland.
It displays ignorance that the preference of almost the entire Irish parliament is that the border shouldn’t exist at all, with disagreement only on how, and whether, that preference should be pursued.
Imagine, in this context, reading the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg article entertaining the idea that Ireland’s insistence on guaranteeing an open border to protect the peace was only a bluff. That we were only pretending to care. Such a thought can only be entertained in the absence of basic familiarity with Ireland.
It has been obvious since before the Brexit vote that British absent-mindedness was headed for a collision course with reality.
Northern Ireland was hardly mentioned during the campaign, and if so only with platitudes.
Journalists from Northern Ireland have been sounding the alarm since before the referendum with increasing urgency, while ordinary people who live along the border wait unheeded to hear whether heir lives will be thrown into upheaval.
I founded a podcast, The Irish Passport, to explain Irish history and its relevant to current affairs when it became clear that Britain was heading blindly into a border crisis.
I investigated the English and Welsh history curriculum to compare it with what Irish school students learn. In Ireland, a far greater percentage of students learn history until the age of 15, and half of what they study is our national story: the long tale of British rule, resistance to it, independence and partition.
In England and Wales, it is entirely possible even for those who study history to avoid learning about Ireland altogether. Our traumatic secession is strangely minimised, I discovered, though it meant the UK lost a large chunk of its landmass, and had to change its name.
Here are the facts I have been urgently telling British people, so often they have almost become rote.
That many people along the border don’t recognise it as legitimate. That people’s houses and farms are built on top of it. That people’s lives are lived straddling it. That Northern Ireland is in a delicate post-conflict situation, is the poorest part of the UK, and is set to be economically worst hit by Brexit. That paramilitaries are still active, still recruiting, and many would love a chance for glory. That a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. That the entire Brexit saga has been a long morality play demonstrating to those with qualms about Northern Ireland’s place in the UK that Britian knows little about the province, and cares less.
I explain that the options are either to have an open border, or a deeply dysfunctional border that is probably violent and definitely a smugglers’ paradise. This border has about 300 crossings over its 300 miles. It is the deeply impractical result of political logic, designed in the 1920s in the interests of preserving a unionist majority within its confines. That in the worst years of the troubles, a fifth of the British Army’s manpower in Northern Ireland was dedicated to trying to police the border, and they were unable to do it.
“Experience has shown that because of the length and nature of the Border, the Army, no matter how many men they deploy cannot ensure total security,” the Northern Ireland Office warned in 1974.
My experience of making the podcast has been to discover that many ordinary British people are curious, open to learn, and embarrassed about how deeply their history education has failed them.
Yet this sadly does not extend to many of their political representatives. They appear not only not to know, but not to wish to know.
Two mass cultural moments happened in 2016 on opposite sides of the Irish Sea.
In Ireland, we commemorated the centenary of 1916, the rebellion that is our founding myth. Archives were opened; street parades marched, films were commissioned, exhibitions opened, restorations launched, theatrical interpretations screened on national television. It was a mass open-air festival of history perhaps unrivalled anywhere in the world. It was coordinated by a Fine Gael government deeply uncomfortable with the legacy of pursuing political aims through force, and overseen by a culture minister of Ulster Presbyterian stock. Its emphasis was on exploring and embracing the pluralities, complexities, and diversity that Ireland has always contained. A copy of the proclamation of independence was given to every school: children were invited to examine whether Ireland had fulfilled its original radical, pluralistic promise of “cherishing all of the children of the nation equally”.
Britain had a very different cultural moment in 2016. It was the year when the desire to stop immigration took over its politics and drove a referendum in which a mass of voters expressed their desire to close the borders, reject their neighbours, and embrace a harder, narrower understanding of what Britain means.
“I personally think the whole issue of the Irish border is wholly exaggerated,” the Conservative Brexiteer MP Owen Patterson explained in a disdainful drawl on Irish national radio in October. “I think this has all been blown up out of all proportion.”
He went on to refer to the “British Isles”, a term the Irish government doesn’t recognise.
How a person so unequipped to deal with the common affairs of our nations could have held the position of Northern Ireland Secretary under David Cameron is indicative of the broader failure of political leadership in the United Kingdom that Brexit has left so exposed.
Over the past two years, Brexiteers have repeatedly mistaken their own wishful thinking for reality. It’s a state of mind only made possible by ignoring of Ireland’s present and its past, and by ducking a broader reckoning with the legacy of the British Empire. Such ignorance is the luxury of a powerful nation, and one that Britain can no longer afford.