Regular readers of this site will be aware I’m Irish. As an anti Brexit Remaniac its a good time to be Irish. I treasure my Irish passport as it will give me guaranteed EU citizenship and I was able to get dual citizenship for my English born teenage son without any difficulty (it took 3 working days).
One thing that surprised me when I came to England in 1981 was the lack of knowledge about Ireland. This was to some extent understandable as Ireland is a small country, and has little impact on England. The ignorance seemed so extreme that it was a bit bewildering at first but I to some extent got used to it over the decades. Knowledge of even Northern Ireland, part of the UK and the location of the only UK land border, was also surprisingly poor, as highlighted in this recent Channel 4 clip. In contrast the Irish tend to know England very intimately. This contrast is to some extent understandable as England and Britain as a whole has been of extreme importance to Ireland. Knowledge of the US for example is quite good within Britain and there is a similar asymmetry in that knowledge of the UK from within the US is extremely poor among the average citizenry.
With Brexit however, Ireland has become of major importance to the UK. In particular the external EU border will run between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, which has brought 20 years of peace to Northern Ireland depends on an open border. It was obvious to anyone knowledgeable about Ireland that this would be a major sticking point from get go. Even otherwise excellent commentators such as Simon Wren Lewis and David Allen Green took a lot of time to catch up. David Davis of course famously thought that the Irish border was an internal border within the UK, which was extraordinary. Tory politicians and the right wing UK media commonly display an arrogance and near contempt towards Ireland, which is quite amusing as it is often paired with near absolute ignorance.
The lack of knowledge should worry the UK as the Irish technique of believing in experts, putting your best people in charge, an in particular acting as a team player in the EU is paying off. Ireland has had an extraordinary level of backing from the EU; indeed the EU position on the Irish Border has essentially been dictated by Ireland. Much to my horror in the UK, experts seem to be out of fashion and anti-intellectual populism seems to be ruling the roost. The UK seems to be rapidly becoming a Kakistocracy. There sadly has never been a more appropriate time for Orwell’s observation of England being “a family with the wrong members being in control”. One of the cardinal rules in any negotiation, as laid out by Chris Kendall of the excellent CakeWatch podcast, is know your negotiating partner. The current UK governments knowledge of the EU is poor and of Ireland apparently almost non-existent.
For those wishing to know more about Ireland, and starting from a fairly low knowledge base, I would strongly recommend the Irish Passport podcast, created by Tim Mc Inerney and Naomi O’Leary. Tim is a lecturer in British and Irish cultural history at the Université Paris VIII, where he researches the links between race and noble tradition. He lectures in 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century history, and is currently working on the production of a monograph. For more information on Tim, see here. Naomi is a journalist who has reported from Ireland, Italy, France, the UK and the Netherlands. Her specialty is in-depth reporting at the point where politics and economics hit the lives of ordinary people. Her recent short documentary, Granite and Chalk, won the ‘Spirit of 1916’ prize at the Dublin Animation Film Festival. For more information, see her website.
The Irish Passport team tackle the strange lack of knowledge about Ireland and Northern Ireland from within the UK here. They argue that much has to do with the way history is taught in the two countries.
Another difference between Ireland and the UK is that Ireland, on many issues, is the most pro-EU country in the entire EU28 block, while the UK is least pro-EU. I have made an economic case on Progressive Pulse Why is Ireland so Pro EU, but Naomi and Tim come at it from a different angle, even if their podcast also features Ray Basset, the prominent Irish Eurosceptic (singular) so beloved of the Today programme. (Naomi doesn’t find him very credible). This podcast is available here. Of all the discussed statistics the attitude towards inward immigration is most stark. Inward immigration numbers are similar in Ireland and the UK in terms of percentage of foreign born nationals (most statistics put Ireland with a slightly higher percentage of immigrant population than the UK). Because nearly all the foreign born nationals have arrived in Ireland in the past 20 years, velocity based arguments might suggest that the Irish should be more anti-immigration than the UK. But this is not the case. A staggering 81% of Irish people think inward immigration is a positive. I’m not sure what the UK figure is but as much of the Brexit Leave campaign was based on anti-immigration rhetoric I suspect it is very much lower.
The Elites episode starts by focusing on the old Norman Irish aristocracy who have sent their children in rapidly decreasing numbers to Ampleforth College (called by some the Catholic Eton). One of its most famous alumni is James O’Brien (we are a big fan of his on PP). It finishes by looking for real power in a country which prides itself on Republican egalitarianism. A cliche in Ireland is that everyone knows everyone else, or at least there is only one degree of separation between everyone. Naomi’s observation of real power being invisible and that such intimate association could be abused, chimed exactly with PP’s own powerful article by Ivan Horrocks power is at its most effective when it is least observable.
The Great Hunger is of course about the great famine of 1845-48, which was a tragedy of such biblical proportions that ripples are even felt today. The Irish population of 8-9M dropped by about half to 4M by 1900. Even today the Irish population has not recovered, with about 4.75M in the Republic and 1.8M in Northern Ireland. The jury is still out as to whether it can be called genocide.The Irish Passport coverage reminded me of my Mother’s advice after my disastrous first marriage and divorce to and from a beautiful psychopath. Very often the worst things ever that happen in life have unexpected benign consequences later. The Opera isn’t over till the fat lady sings. The oversized diaspora footprint, particularly the 40M or so Irish Americans has indirectly lead to Ireland independence and at the current time being one of the richest and fastest growing countries in Europe.
The Catholic Church episode ambitiously tried to cover the Church from the Island of Saints and Scholars days in medieval times where Ireland was a backup copy for western civilisation after the fall of Rome preserving such masterpieces as the Homer’s Oddesy and Iliad and playing a major hand in rechristianising Europe to the present day. The unprecedented fall from grace of the Catholic Church from the high point of 1979 when the Papal visit attracted 90% of the population and subsequent effects (covered in detail by the economist David McWilliams in The Pope’s Children) to the Gothic horror of the Tuam babies unfolds like a Shakespearean tragedy. Hartley’s observation that “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” could seldom have been more appropriate. My mother who taught Sinéad O’Connor Religious Education in Maryfield College decided she had failed when Sinéad famously ripped up a picture of the pope on live TV.
Naomi and Tim have been informed that their podcast will feature on Progressive Pulse and have agreed to answer any queries which may arise. Thanks Naomi and Tim.