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23 Aug, 2019 08:23

Brexit has opened old wounds in Ireland — and anti-British sentiment is back

Brexit has opened old wounds in Ireland — and anti-British sentiment is back

Anti-British sentiment in Ireland was never healed completely, but in the twenty years since the peace process and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, it had sunk so low as to be almost negligible. Then came Brexit.

Britain’s decision to ditch the European Union and strike out alone has unleashed what feels like a new wave of anti-British sentiment on this island. The same is true in reverse. Anti-Irish feeling appears to be on the rise in Britain, too — and how could it not be? The Brexit dilemma, with which the Irish are inextricably entwined, have dominated the British (and to a lesser extent, Irish) national psyches for three years. 

Growing up in Dublin post-northern Troubles, you were seen as almost a bit odd if you still harbored outright bad feeling toward the Brits. Now, it’s not a bit odd to hear people complain about the “audacity” of the British, to the effect of: “The cheek of them, who do they think they are?” 

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There are no cold hard numbers demonstrating in statistical terms this rising animosity between the inhabitants of these isles — but it’s the kind of thing you can see and feel in society; on front page headlines and in daily interactions, on and offline. It’s there, bubbling away. If a wound is deep enough, it doesn’t take much to crack it open again. 

For many Britons, Ireland is viewed as a post-colonial upstart that should know its place. Indeed, Ireland should “know its place” were reportedly the exact words used by one anonymous Tory, quoted by the BBC last year — a comment which had hackles raised in Dublin.

On the other hand, for many Irish, Britain is viewed as the erstwhile colonizer, quick to resort to bullying to get what it wants (or current colonizer, depending on how nationalistic one is about the northern six counties).

The Irish Times recently asked Irish expats living in Britain if they had noticed any rise in anti-Irish sentiment. While some said no, many noted an uptick. One woman, who has taken the decision to relocate back to Ireland, told the newspaper it felt like being “back in the late 1980s” when being abused for your Irishness was “commonplace” in Britain.

These anecdotes are not surprising, coming as they do at a time when an undercurrent of anti-Irish feeling has been running through the pages of Britain’s right-wing media and Brexit hardliners have been spewing all sorts of ahistorical nonsense into the mainstream.

When Tory MP Priti Patel (now home secretary) pondered using the specter of food shortages in Ireland as leverage to force Dublin to concede on the issue of the backstop, it brought forth a kind of dormant Irish rage. Twitter was teeming with comments about the Great Famine of the 1840s for days.

Things only got worse when Northern Ireland’s former and notoriously inept Secretary of State claimed killings of Irish Catholics by British soldiers during the Troubles were "not crimes.” 

Before that, we had David Davis (it seems like a lifetime ago that he was in charge of Brexit, doesn’t it?) referring to the “internal border” with “southern Ireland” — implying that somehow the Republic belonged to London.

Let’s not forget Brexit Party MEP Ann Widdecombe, who had the nerve to compare Britain’s exit from the EU to "oppressed" peoples and "slaves" rising up against their masters and colonizers.

Comments from Irish politicians have taken on a surprisingly sharp tone in response to all this. This week, deputy PM Simon Coveney warned that Ireland would not be “steam-rolled” or bound by “red lines” drawn by any British prime minister.

In the fantasy version of events, our relationship with Britain had healed through deep reconciliation and true understanding of our shared traumatic history. The real version is somewhat different: With the passage of time and a few grand gestures, we essentially decided to sweep the past under the rug.

Brexit swiped that rug right out from under everyone.

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None of this is by any means to suggest that all Britons feel this way about Ireland or lack an understanding of the past. It is also not to suggest that many in Ireland don’t understand some of the legitimate grievances that the British had with Brussels which contributed to their decision to leave the EU. Many of us, this writer included, do.

Brexit has undoubtedly done damage to British-Irish relationship, but frustrated as one might be in times of uncertainty, it’s best to resist any temptation to tar all with the same brush. The worst of the nastiness, as always, is perpetuated by hardliners on both sides.

It might seem endless, but at some point in the future this Brexit debacle will be in the rearview mirror — and we’ll need to dust it off and carry on.

By Danielle Ryan

Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance writer based in Dublin. Her work​ ​has appeared in Salon, The Nation, Rethinking Russia, teleSUR, RBTH, The Calvert Journal​ ​and others. Follow her on Twitter @DanielleRyanJ