‘The Irish should know their place’: Brexit exposes Britain’s colonial mindset towards Ireland
In fact, the ‘Irish question’ is a phrase that has been bandied about by the British ruling elite for hundreds of years to refer to the political challenges posed by its colonial entanglement on the island and the ‘problem’ of Irish nationalism and republicanism. In reality then, it is not so much an ‘Irish’ question as a British one.
When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, it brought a fragile peace to Northern Ireland after decades of sectarian conflict. That conflict had stemmed from Britain’s partition of the island nearly one-hundred years ago and the subsequent decades during which the Irish Catholic population were deprived of equal rights at the ballot box and in their daily lives. With the signing of the GFA, the Irish question was, in a sense — for both the media and political establishments — put to bed. But the Irish question has always been a light sleeper.Also on rt.com Explainer: Why is Northern Ireland such a big deal in Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations?
Brexit has catapulted the Irish problem back into the spotlight — and the ‘Irish border’ issue (a better term would be the ‘British border’ issue, since the border would not exist had Britain not imposed it in the first place) has been the biggest sticking point in negotiations. This has been much to the abject shock and horror of staunch pro-Brexit politicians in Britain, who have not wasted time in revealing a colonial mindset toward Dublin which should long ago have been consigned to history. Last week, the BBC quoted an anonymous senior Tory politician and former minister:
We simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this. This simply cannot stand. The Irish really should know their place.
Unsurprisingly, the astounding utterance provoked fury in Ireland — and more than a niggling sense that this kind of comment represents the opinion of not one, but many within the Tory party.
It is highly ironic, but also somewhat amusing to witness this seething disgust from British politicians at the realization that Ireland has held such sway over their political future for a change. Ireland, so far, has rightly not been willing to give a single inch on the issue of the ‘backstop’ — a supposedly iron-clad guarantee that there will be no ‘hard’ border imposed on the island following Brexit. For all of the EU’s own failings, of which there are too many to count, Brussels has at least steadfastly stood behind Ireland on this issue, even if only for selfish reasons.
But, as the anonymous quote above reveals, this turn of events has been almost like some kind of traumatic injury to the brains of Tory politicians who can’t quite wrap their minds around the concept of not being able to rule the roost and impose their will on smaller, less powerful nations.
Only a week before that comment, another Tory MP had suggested using the prospect of food shortages to force Ireland to capitulate on the backstop. If the food issue had been pressed, Priti Patel, said, Britain could perhaps have used it to go back to Brussels to “get a better deal.”
This didn’t exactly go down well across the water either, particularly given the fact that Ireland suffered a horrendous famine (or genocide, depending on how you want to look at it) under British colonial rule which killed a million people and forced another million to emigrate in the mid-1800s.
While the Irish starved, London looked on. After all, the more Irish Catholics wiped out, the better; it might help solve the Irish question, once and for all. So naturally, the suggestion from a British politician to use food to force Ireland to reverse on an issue of major national importance to please clowns like Boris Johnson was not going to be taken up well.
The latest tone-deaf comment came from a Labour MP, however. Northern Ireland-born unionist Kate Hoey announced to an audience at a ‘Leave Means Leave’ rally in London on Friday that unionists in the North “didn't spend 30 years suffering IRA killings of soldiers and civilians” just to “see a United Ireland imposed by a few jumped up EU bureaucrats and a complicit prime minister.”
There is so much wrong with this statement that it’s hard to know where to begin. Of course, to suit her own warped version of history, Hoey failed to mention murderous loyalist paramilitaries, the well-established fact of British state collusion in many of their crimes and the horrendous treatment of Irish Catholics as second-class citizens in the North for decades, which ultimately led to devastating sectarian conflict, the scars of which are still very fresh and far from fully healing. Steve Peers, a Professor of EU, Human Rights & World Trade Law at the University of Essex, called Hoey’s remark “one of the most dishonest, inflammatory arguments uttered by any UK politician about Northern Ireland.”
Theresa May herself has displayed shocking levels of ignorance when it comes to the border issue, too. Speaking to EU leaders in September, May reportedly asked them to imagine how they would feel if their countries were “carved” in two. A few days later at a speech in Downing Street she reaffirmed that any deal which “divides our country in two” would be a bad one. Her comments were met with a collective eye roll in Ireland for their sheer irony.
This is just sampling of the gross ignorance that has been on display from British politicians in relation to Ireland during the Brexit negotiations. Of course, some in Britain, including a number of politicians, have also been disgusted at this kind of staggeringly incompetent rhetoric.
In an interview on Irish radio last week, one Tory MP, Anna Soubry, actually apologized for the “terrible mess” being made with Brexit particularly as it related to Ireland.
“I'm acutely appalled by what is going on and I can only apologize. I can only apologise to your listeners for what my country and my party has been doing for the last few years,” she said.
But the fact that there has been so much of this braindead rhetoric has been enlightening for Ireland. Brexit has exposed just how little many of our British neighbors know — or care — about their history with this island. The unintended consequence may be that such displays of ignorance will stir feelings of nationalism in a section of the Irish population which was, before Brexit, happy enough with the status quo — a consequence of which could be the ultimate reunification of the island.
Perhaps the staunchest Brexiteers are lashing out at Ireland because the Irish issue had turned into a kind of symbol of their waning influence on the world stage. Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley wrote in November that the philosophy of Brexit was that “freed of EU constraints, the UK would take its rightful place in the world.” This is indeed what is happening, according to Shrimsley, it just so happens that Britain’s place is “not as the great power of their imagination.” Brexit, he wrote, has forced a kind of “national humbling.”
Well, it’s about time.
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