A Fond Farewell to the UK from an EU27 Citizen? Part III – politics, history and greatness


In part I, I discussed origins and in part II of this series three obvious differences between the UK and Ireland, which ultimately made Brexit more likely. The next three took longer to process:

  • Political Culture and Structures
  • Empire, WWII and Fake History
  • Big vs. Small Country Syndrome

First: Politically Ireland had a very different structure to the UK, with a written constitution, proportional representation, an elected upper house and President. The UK has an FPTP system, no codified constitution, an antiquated upper house and a hereditary head of state. Ultimately I thought it was the quality of the politicians, rather than structures, that dictated outcomes. I had no doubt that even if I disagreed with many of UK politicians, I believed, they genuinely had the best interest of the country at heart and ran it professionally.

Second: It is often said the Irish remember too much history and the English too little. With a mother who was a historian and father who used to drag me around battlefield re-enactments from a toddler to mid-teens, I was better versed than most. The historian and academic Dudley Edwards was a lifelong friend and colleague of my father’s and a Revisionist- someone who challenged the conventional Irish-Republican narrative that England was an immoral bully – a blood-sucking parasite with no redeeming features. I learned that every story has at least two different sides. It’s surprising that his daughter Ruth, a noted apologist for Ireland’s unionists, thinks in monochrome and makes Ann Widdecombe look like a sane moderate, balanced, centrist.

Third: “big country” syndrome was a shock. I had experienced this in the US where it was somewhat understandable, given its cultural homogeneity, size and power, and its relative remoteness from others. Knowledge of European democracies seemed minimal despite the historical connections and shared interests. But, as noted here before, the depth of ignorance in the UK about Ireland, the only country it shares a land border with, was surprising. As if any embarrassment about the UK losing one third of its land area in 1922 could be made to go away by pretending it hadn’t happened, or was so insignificant it hadn’t yet been noticed.

Political Culture and Structures

1980’s Ireland, as now, was dominated by Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG). Both were central right-parties, with FF normally positioning itself slightly to the left of FG. FF was, in general, the party of the aspirational, lower-middle-class people and small farmers. FG was the party of the professionals and large farmers.

David McWilliams argues in a recent podcast (14th Jan) that the division is not recent but goes back to about the 12th century. FG’s culture is rooted in the pre-reformation Anglo-Normans and that of FF in the old Gaelic clans.

FG portrayed itself as the party of professional competence, integrity, good governance, balancing books, but is considered as remote from the people. FF portrayed itself very much as the party of the people, constituency politicians par-excellence, who would attend every funeral, be full of handshakes and backslaps and excel at both what the American’s call “Pork Barrel” politics and what is known in Ireland as “Cute Hoorism“.

In the 1980’s this difference was personified by the two party leaders: Garret Fitzgerald (FG) and Charles Haughey (FF). In UK terms Fitzgerald resembled Dominic Grieve, a man of immense intellect and integrity. Haughey has been likened to a less principled version of Mr Berlusconi, an extraordinary political animal and wheeler-dealer.

Fitzgerald remained a visiting professor at UCD and I regularly attended young FG lunchtime meetings when he was there. He had a mind like quicksilver and was an excellent sparring partner for a young socialist.

Haughey was a UCD undergraduate with my mother. She disliked him immensely and often had to shake off his advances. He was also one of my three constituency TDs (MPs in UK terms) and very active at General Election time. At one election after Haughey came into our local pub and put £20 behind the bar and ordered drinks all round a solicitor friend of mine asked him “how did he justify his shady land dealings in N. Co Dublin?” (referring to the mysterious rezoning of agricultural land as construction land, making Haughey a large profit). Haughey replied “I didn’t come here to be insulted!” and stormed out. The barman smiled and asked, “what are you having?”

In passing, I should note apropos these personal and family connections that they are an everyday matter in Ireland, and probably in many small countries. People can and do run into govt ministers in the pub, church, supermarket, parent teacher meeting etc.

The extent of FF corruption at the time, very comparable to that involved in the current RHI scandal in NI, has been well documented and is entertainingly recounted books such Joyce and Murtagh’s “The Boss” and which even now features in theatrical productions that introduce the next generation to the strange recent past, an era in which Mr Haughey was a victim of the GUBU factor as it came to be known — events he described as grotesque, unprecedented, bizarre and unbelievable.

Another extremely low point was the hugely divisive 1983 Abortion Referendum covered in my previous blog The Brexit Referendum and the Irish Abortion Referendums. This was a textbook example of how not to do things – catastrophic mistakes were made on nearly every level (the parallels with the UK Brexit Referendum are uncanny).

Coming to the UK from the Ireland of the time was a relief. There seemed real Left-Right politics, very little obvious and venal corruption, and centuries of successful democratic rule. The UK had, supposedly, “The Mother of all Parliaments“, if not the first. I had, like many Irish people who grew up with the BBC and the Sunday broadsheets of both islands, been a follower of UK politics from my childhood, and I clearly remember every election since 1966. In the UK I’d have been a Labour Voter, unlike my father who was more of a Liberal.

I gradually fell out of love with the UK political system, in particular during the Thatcher years. Some reasons were:

1. The FPTP system ensured the vast majority of seats were so safe that a pig with a blue or red rosette would get elected. In Ireland, the proportional representation system ensured every vote counts. Frequent close results produced a high level of engagement in contrast to the apathy in the UK where many feel disenfranchised.

2. The idea of “us” is cast very narrowly. To many on the left, the very idea of compromising with your “enemy” or even the “Blairite” faction is an anathema. The inability to form even loose coalitions was all too apparent with the “Remain” parties over Brexit was very depressing. In Ireland, as on the continent, coalitions, formal or otherwise, are second nature.

3. A bigger blow to my belief in UK democracy, however, was the Brexit Referendum. It was not so much the cheating and dishonesty on an industrial scale but the sheer vacuity of the debate. I had anticipated such vacuity from the politically groomed Daily Mail-reading public, but not from supposedly well-educated politicians. It was as if it was all a game, an undergraduate debate in the Oxford Union with no lasting consequences either way.

4. It became increasingly clear that the UK was not a partnership of equals. As Prof Brendan O’Leary puts it in his Dalriada Document:

The United Kingdom is a multi-national state, a partnership of peoples, a country of countries, a nation of nations. It is neither an English nation-state nor a British nation-state. It is a union-state, not a unitary state.

It has however become increasingly clear that this is “romantic” fiction and that the UK functions according to a tyranny of the plurality. The fact that the “Johnson Deal” has been rejected by the Welsh and NI assemblies and by the Scottish Parliament shows that the UK is mere camouflage for greater England. In effect, an elected English establishment dictatorship with far too much power at the centre.

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) produces a Democracy index ever year. In the 2019 release (Fig. 5) the UK is ranked in 14th place.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is DemocraticIndex.png
Fig. 1 Democracy index 2019.

Empire, WWII and Fake History.

It’s a long time since Ireland was a major influence on Europe and one needs to go back to the “Golden Age” at a time around the 6th and 7th centuries, when Ireland was known as the land of “Saints and Scholars.” When much of Europe was descending into chaos after the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland was a place of relative tranquillity and learning — in modern terms providing a “cloud backup” for some of Western civilisation.

Recent quantitative archaeological evidence indicates that the Irish population may have peaked at over 3M towards the end of the 7th c., eclipsing that of Britain. The main outcome was the spreading of Christianity and learning through the foundation of monasteries. In Britain, most famously in Iona and Lindisfarne, and also dozens in continental Europe.

Life was precarious in the Medieval period and it was not for a thousand years, in the 17th c., that the population of Ireland again exceeded 3M, enabled by the new wonder crop: potatoes.

By about 1800 the Irish population was c. 5M and that of Britain c. 10M. There were few opportunities in Ireland, for whom the union was brutal and imposed, and it seems that the Irish made up a greater percentage of the British Army than would have been expected in population terms – probably around 40% rather than 33%.

It was not just troops. Arguably the greatest ever British Army general was Irish: Arthur Wellesley. My grandfather knew a very old veteran from Waterloo, as a child, who said that his accent was so strong that his English troops struggled to understand him.

If the British have airbrushed Ireland from the UK, the Irish have airbrushed themselves from any complicity in the British Empire and are more likely to view it critically. They are well informed about the reality of WWII having been won on the back of American capital and Russian blood (19 dead soldiers for every Allied casualty), rather than by the “standing alone greatness” of their former masters, the seemingly endless cinematic and other celebrations of which seem to underline the UK’s inability to move on.

The UK is a great country with no need to forever replay an imaginary Second World War, like crazed teenage boys high on Airfix glue, seeing Germans forever as Nazis. Ironically, it is Britain that currently resembles 1930s Germany, while Germany itself has been totally transformed to being a bulwark of Western civic values.

Big vs. Small Country Syndrome

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. Karl Rove in the build-up, to the 2nd Iraq war.

The post-invasion planning was a disaster. It should have been a useful reminder on the limitations of imperial power, but lessons have still not been learned in Trump’s US or, notwithstanding Rory Stewart having written a book about it, in Johnson’s England.

PM Johnson is intent on pursuing a Brexit strategy which only makes sense if, like Karl Rove, he thinks his country is so powerful that it can shape reality. This was not credible for the US at the time of the Iraq War and is far less credible for the UK in the context of Brexit.

There are only two states in the Brexit mind: “master” and “slave”, “coloniser” or “colonised.” As Prof. Nicholas Boyle writes in The problem with the English: England doesn’t want to be just another member of a team:

The trauma of lost exceptionalism, the psychic legacy of empire, haunts the English to the present day, in the illusion that their country needs to find itself a global role. Of course it is an illusion: do roughly comparable countries such as Germany or Italy or Japan have such a need?

Ireland comes from a completely different place. As Robert Emmet said at the end of his speech from the dock before he was executed in 1803 for treason: “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”

As a small country with no illusions Ireland absolutely wants to be part of a team and sees the EU as something that enhances its sovereignty rather than reduces it. The Irish don’t doubt that but for the EU, and of course, the US, where Irish influence is not small, the Tories would have ripped up the Good Friday Agreement as casually as they partitioned Ireland.


It is unlikely that the UK can survive in its current form. The likelihood of a United Ireland and Sottish independence is much enhanced by Brexit. Only real constitutional reform is likely to save the UK from break-up, something that may not necessarily be a bad thing.

The selective British version of history is a major weakness, preventing many from seeing the world as it is rather than as they think it ought to be, with the UK in charge and much of the map pink.

Britain needs to decide on a destination. Still!

If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

African proverb

Then it must come to terms with being what Prof. Boyle describes as part of a team. In reality, only the US and China are powerful enough to go alone in the modern world.

Part IV available here.


  1. Samuel Johnson -

    There has been an interesting spat on Twitter in the last 24 hours. An Irish MEP attempted a cheap jibe at the RTE journalist Tony Connelly who is widely regarded as one of the best in the business, someone whose ability to explain complex details of EU & Brexit politics, law, and much else, has made him a hugely well regarded source by a public with an appetite for detail. The pushback in favour of Connelly was quick and far reaching and the unworthy comments were withdrawn in a telephoned apology.

    What I hadn’t fully appreciated until seeing the rebuttals was the extent to which Irish journalists, Connolly in particular, and the Irish media generally have been hugely influential in framing Brexit for the English language reading audience on the continent. A great many of Europe’s key politicians and policy makers and journalists have been reading and been influenced by the Irish media. And funnily enough, while the joke about their being able to read English has been made many times, the self-awareness hasn’t extended to behaving in ways that would do anything other than confirm Irish narratives. Most famously, of course, the resistance to any “backstop” clearly demonstrated the need for it or for a functional equivalent.

    It seems the Irish lens may have played a more significant role in general than we may have thought. It wasn’t only Irish diplomats who, as Ivan Rogers put it, “played a blinder”. And it’s not only people on the continent who have started reading the Irish Times and other sources, a few in the UK have too.

    Interesting. Churchill ruminated on the “mysterious power” of the Irish in the past (see https://twitter.com/gavinsblog/status/1089922235832459264?s=19). It persists.

  2. Dave O'Neill -

    An interesting series of articles. I think your discussion regarding Your review of UK Engineering education and the Humanities vs STEM split at an early age seems very relevant to the evolution of the UK over the past half century. Obviously the UK has a formidable heritage in technology and engineering but that seems to be largely historical or confined to niche specialities these days.
    The last UK leader I can think of who was actively enthusiastic for technology and engineering was Winston Churchill. Of course his interests were in military technologies but they did have a spin off into the domestic economy.
    These days public perception of UK engineering expertise may be conditioned by the restoration of WWII Spitfires and the building of vulnerable aircraft carriers. I am as big a sucker as anyone for the sound of a few Merlin engines but I find it disconcerting that so much time is spent restoring old technology but not so much developing new technologies. For example apparently the Russians are experimenting with Hypersonic missiles which isn’t good news for aircraft carriers. But in what areas is the UK leading? And then there is the impact on national psychology of encouraging a backward, nostalgic view of past glories rather than focusing on how the future should look at both a social and technological level.
    Transport is an example of where you would expect the UK to lead. But most of the rail network is based on a 19th century base. Transport strategy is a mish mash. There is no effective structure to support innovation and allowing the market to run major infrastructure strategy was, I thought, shown to be a bad idea almost a hundred years ago. I worked on a Transport project in the UK a few years ago and was dismayed at the dysfunctionality I observed. Chris Grayling got a lot of stick but the problems go much deeper.
    I find the current Brexit approach of insisting on decoupling from EU regulations to be very strange. I recall the 70’s when the UK had a strong telecoms industry with household names like Plessey, Gec, STC and Marconi. They traded in an industry which was one of the first to globalise, at least as far as standards were concerned. However their largest customer, BT, insisted on a British approach to standards with a very jingoistic view of the rest of the world. All those foreigners would eventually realise that British was best. That was literally their attitude.
    Those companies declined through the 80’s while their competitors eg Ericsson, Siemens, Alcatel, who embraced European and Global standards thrived for many years. That’s now reduced to Ericsson and Nokia due to the fact that Hua Wei was allowed to “borrow” other people’s IPR and dump equipment into the global market.
    So recent UK governments (among others, Europeans included) have failed in social, market and technology domains to protect their national interests. It is likely that Brexit will compound the problem unless there is a very imaginative and competent government and culture.
    Lest this sounds like it is purely negative about British Governments I should be quick to highlight that the Irish government and its agencies are no great shakes either. While the tax regime has encouraged lots of multinational investment there is little nurturing of domestic companies with punitive tax rates for them. Many public services are a shambles and I would prefer not to get sick here. Public transport here is a very strange beast indeed. Maybe we should hire Chris Grayling to put it right!

  3. Dave O'Neill -

    There seems to be a much greater appreciation of technical skills and industries in countries such as France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

    Airbus is a good example. The French obviously placed a much higher value on leading in that consortium despite the fact that the UK had historically a stronger aviation industry. So UK is now a junior partner and risks losing even more of its aviation industry through Brexit. A sad time.

    Maybe its the Eton effect or the influence of too much global money in the City.

    Despite being a British citizen, today, for the first time in my life, I see the UK as a foreign, hostile, introverted, malevolent, country. The sight of the Brexit MEP’s sneering and gloating at their largely perplexed EU colleagues was shameful.

    Maybe Yeats poetry can apply to a new fanaticism. Just replace Ireland with England.

    “I RANTED to the knave and fool,
    But outgrew that school,
    Would transform the part,
    Fit audience found, but cannot rule
    My fanatic heart.

    I sought my betters: though in each
    Fine manners, liberal speech,
    Turn hatred into sport,
    Nothing said or done can reach
    My fanatic heart.

    Out of Ireland have we come.
    Great hatred, little room,
    Maimed us at the start.
    I carry from my mother’s womb
    A fanatic heart.”

  4. Graham -

    I said to my wife as we enjoyed our second month of Spanish sunshine and friendly hospitality some of the best commentary on our Brexit madness is from the Irish. Thanks Sean.

    My only comment is that Wellesley probably considered himself to be part of the English aristocracy – the misattributed quote about birth and stables. I believe the American leaders of the Revolution possibly thought the same.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      thanks. There has been some considerable debate about whether Wellesly thought himself Irish or English. I’ll see if I can get the historian Dr Anne Marie D’Arcy to comment.

  5. Anne Marie D'Arcy -

    I’m not a historian by profession, but a literary historicist, but I have done a fair bit of research on Wellington and his in that capacity, right back to the medieval period. Wellington, on both sides of his paternal family came from Old English stock, that is, the Norman families who arrived in Ireland in the 12th/13th century and became ‘More Irish than the Irish themselves’, while remaining loyal to both the monarch of England as lord, then later monarch of Ireland (Ireland remains a separate kingdom until 1800), and the Catholic church. With the Williamite penal laws, often the eldest son of these families became Anglican in order to inherit, while the rest of the family stayed Catholic, and this was the pattern in both the Colleys (Wellington’s original family name) and their cousins the Wellesleys. There is no question that Wellington’s father and grandfather regarded themselves as Irish, nor the man himself while living and working in Ireland. He refers to himself as Irish, and spoke with a Dublin accent, having been born at 6 Merrion Street (now 24 Merrion Street, part of the Merrion Hotel) on 1 May 1769, the family estate being Dangan Castle, Co Meath, now a ruin. He went to the local school in Meath and Whyte’s Academy in Dublin before being shipped off to Eton (which he hated) before becoming an aide de camp to the Lord Lieutenant at Dublin Castle, then M.P. for Trim in the Irish parliament in 1790. He was again returned for Trim in 1795, and hoped to be given the position of secretary of war in the new Irish government, but was turned down, which led to his time in India. Returning from India with a fortune, he marries an Irish woman, who always regarded herself as Irish, and becomes chief secretary for Ireland until 1808, promising to revoke the remaining penal laws, but decides to return to the army while maintaining his political appointments. However by1809, his focus begins to shift to England and remains there. He never denied that he was an Irishman, but became increasingly coy about the precise nature of his Irishness, perhaps because so many of his family had remained Catholic. It’s no accident he pushes through Catholic Emancipation in the teeth of royal opposition, having been previously accused by the Earl of Winchilsea of ‘an insidious design for the infringement of our liberties and the introduction of Popery into every department of the State’. (Wellington responded by immediately challenging Winchilsea to a duel). By the end of his life, his family history was already been rewritten to cast him as a member of the all Protestant, Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, which they never were.

  6. Graham -

    Thanks Anne Marie for your comprehensive and illuminating reply. Much appreciated.

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