One of the less remarked-on truths about Ireland is that it seems incapable of not belonging to an empire. Obviously, it did not choose to be part of the British Empire, though many of its people eagerly and often profitably participated in the rule of Pax Britannica. The Easter Rising in 1916 (the clue is in the name) was the first step in Ireland’s next imperial adventure, into the Roman Catholic Empire, in which Catholic holidays—“holy days of obligation”—became state holidays, restaurants would not serve meat on Fridays, and Catholic laws were feverishly incorporated into state law. After independence, it became illegal for an Irish newspaper even to mention the words contraception, divorce, abortion and even menstruation—the last not being used in Irish newspapers from the 1920s to the 1970s.
In the 1970s Ireland joined its next Roman empire, this time that of the Treaty of Rome, the legal basis for the European Union of today. The Irish political and media classes rapidly embraced the new moral and financial order, which initially seemed to be greatly to Ireland’s advantage, as (largely) German money was pumped into the Irish economy to help build an infrastructure of roads and expectations, but also, to create an obedient client-caste. Being “European” became (according to the language of the time) cool, modern and with-it, especially as Irishness was so welcome within the EU: anglophone, articulate, yet refreshingly not British. As the Irish economy boomed in the first decade of this century, thanks largely to absurdly low interest rates that suited German needs, but absolutely not Ireland’s, Irish property prices began to mimic those of Japan in the 1980s: a terraced house on a working-class street in Dublin would quite literally cost the same as a chateau in Normandy. And though the Irish property market now resembled weeping gelignite, German banks were jumping the queue to join this idiotic bonanza.
This dispatch appears in December’s Quadrant
The world economic collapse of thirteen years ago exposed Ireland’s rotten and unregulated banking system for the greedy shambles that it was. A bailout was arranged by the troika of the European Commission, the European Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This deal obliged the taxpayers of Ireland to borrow squillions to reimburse the German banks for every single pfennig lost in their insane venture into the Irish property market. Each man, woman and child in Ireland now owes the world’s banks €34,000. In financial terms, the troika’s bailout was the equivalent of the peoples of the countries of Eastern Europe waking up one morning in 1945 to discover that they had just been liberated by the Soviet Army.
But here’s the thing. The Irish remain devoted, abject Europeans. Even in the rich history of imperial predation, Ireland’s continuing emotional attachment to the EU is surely one of the more exotic examples of the slave servilely thanking his master for his fetters. For being seen to be “good Europeans” is not merely another way of rejecting the former imperial master, Britain; it clearly counts more for the Irish elite than decent, old-fashioned self-interest.
In any modern democracy, the population of a small metro-bubble—namely the political, academic and media elite—define the norms and limits of any national conversation; what you may and may not say. However, over the past four years in Ireland, the national conversation has taken a particularly unpleasant form, as the domestic fevers resulting from Brexit have authorised all sorts of atavistic emotions. Many of these are of the kind that optimists in Ireland thought had been banished for all time with the exchange of state visits by two Irish Presidents and the Queen.
Such optimists had forgotten the role of divide-and-rule in any imperial system. The Tsars of the EU have been using their anvil upon which to hammer the Republic of Ireland into becoming their trusty anti-Brexit sword, even though this duty profoundly conflicts with the country’s historic self-interest. The complexities of the existing Irish border between the Republic of Ireland, which is remaining within the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom and therefore leaving, would test the combined wisdom of Solomon, Leonardo, Einstein and Bismarck. This is before we consider a putative new trade frontier in the middle of the Irish Sea (and therefore right down through the United Kingdom) as well as the vast human, cultural and trading relationships between the two islands. These varied and vital aspects of Brexit have been subsumed into a simplistic Euro-narrative of noble Irish and vile British, where Anglophobic caricatures once again strut the Irish stage.
The British, of course, make it hard to subvert this narrative, with an ignorance of Irish affairs and sensibilities that is quite astounding, particularly since Northern Ireland has barely left British newspaper headlines for the past fifty years. When a British government minister recently (and airily) announced that the British government intended to break international law with its own legislation concerning Northern Ireland, this could only reinforce Irish perceptions of British pathological ill-will. In fact, rather than malevolence, it is yet further evidence of muddle-headedness of almost supernatural proportions. A previous English Secretary of State for Northern Ireland even admitted that she had arrived in the province not knowing that Catholics and Protestants tended to vote differently.
The Irish are long used to such British ignorance about them. However, the degree of malice towards Britain in the Irish media today marks this out as a new era. The prophet of this oft-articulated prejudice is the Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole, whose words about the English, if offered by an English pen about the Irish, would probably land the offending journalist in the dock.
But he is not alone. One of his Irish Times colleagues recently castigated the legendary English comedian John Cleese for his anti-Irishness. It would need a truffle-hound of rare skill to find the fungoid justification for this, but the journalist was up to the task: he cited the single character of Mr O’Reilly from one episode of Fawlty Towers as proof of the accusation, with “its portrayal of Irish people as shifty and incompetent—disreputable pixies with a malicious twinkle in the eye, cunning peasants who’d only just learned to walk upright”. Cleese was not portraying “Irish people”, but just Mr O’Reilly. Otherwise Macbeth is an indictment of the people of Scotland, Hamlet of those of Denmark, and Julius Caesar the people of Rome. Moreover, the program that reveals Cleese’s villainy was made in 1975. This is like associating the British defeat at the Dutch town of Arnhem in 1944 with the outbreak of war with Dutch settlers in South Africa in 1899. The only connecting tissue here is a pathologically contorted memory and a desperate hunt for grievance, even amid the many other national caricatures that already infested Fawlty Towers such as Manuel, Basil, Sybil and The Major.
The same columnist returned to the 1970s to praise the Irish state broadcaster RTE for showing the film Unquiet Graves, one of the most disgracefully biased programs ever made about the Northern Ireland Troubles. That it was broadcast by a government-regulated organisation, which is charter-bound to tell the truth and not to utter falsehood-as-fact, is even more appalling. Unquiet Graves was unashamedly Brit-bashing propaganda, while the central truth about John Weir, the prime prosecution witness, a self-confessed murderer and former police officer with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was concealed throughout.
Weir was part of a loyalist/Protestant murder-gang in the Tyrone-Armagh area in the 1970s that managed to suborn a handful of the British Army’s locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment and the RUC. But the film did not mention that Weir was born and raised in the Republic, not Northern Ireland, and was educated at an elite boarding school in Dublin. His declaration that the approval of his gang’s murderous activities “went to the very very top, and crossed the water [to London] with the attitude, you’re doing a great great job boys, but just don’t get caught”, is a product of his own fetid imagination. One of Weir’s most preposterous allegations was that British Intelligence had concocted a scheme for loyalist paramilitaries to massacre an entire Catholic school, a project which even those gallant worthies declined to undertake. What the British government hoped to gain by such bloodletting was not made plain; though the subtext was that such purposeless slaughter was simply second nature to the British. Certainly, the BBC would never have allowed such a film about the Irish government to be transmitted. The key truth about Weir was that he was caught by the very police force he had accused of colluding with terrorists and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of an innocent Catholic shopkeeper.
By the documentary’s own inflated assessment, the rogue group at most totalled some thirty-eight men out of the tens of thousands of locally recruited security force members. This clearly did not constitute systematic “collusion with the British state” as alleged, especially since the head of the RUC through much of this time was himself an Irish Catholic. Moreover, Unquiet Graves managed not to mention the fact that throughout their campaign, republican terrorists had murdered over 500 locally recruited members of the security forces and maimed thousands.
It’s not just a matter of truth but of tone: the single-note sneer in which so much Irish commentary about the British—or rather, the English—is uttered. Even a program commemorating the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain—a not unimportant event in twentieth-century history—was greeted in one Irish television review with these words: “And then, if I know you [that is, the English], after watching the programme, you woke up on the chalk cliffs of Dover, draped in a Union Jack, a saucepan on your head, a cricket bat in your hand, shouting racial epithets at seagulls …”
There is no stomach for any such criticism in the other direction. After the Spectator published a single article ridiculing Ireland’s application to join L’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie while stalwartly remaining aloof from the Commonwealth, the Irish ambassador to London, Adrian O’Neill, waded into the fray. He issued a public statement denouncing the article as “a particularly egregious example of anti-Irish bias”. He added, with a particularly egregious example of epidermal imprecision, that he “was not unduly thin-skinned”, but had noticed “a rising anti-Irish sentiment which we had all hoped had been consigned to the past”.
He did not, however, provide any examples. The Spectator’s editor replied drily that if the UK’s ambassador wrote to the Irish Times every time one of its columnists went for the British government the postage bill would be considerable.
COVID-19 has provided yet further opportunities for the Irish to sneer at British ineptitude, though both governments seem engaged in a neck-and-neck race to drive their economies over a cliff. The imminence of a financial Armageddon has not, however, prevented the Irish government giving its public servants and elected politicians a 2 per cent pay increase. Dublin city centre now resembles downtown Chernobyl a week after meltdown, and meanwhile, the Irish education system enters a virtual reality all of its own. Ireland this year abandoned its final examinations for secondary school students, and teachers were asked to give their assessments on which of their students merited university places. What a surprise: they seemingly all did. Not merely did a record number of students qualify for tertiary education, the Department of Education later revisited the already generous results and decided that they hadn’t been profligate enough. It then magicked another 5000 university places out of the ether. Oh lucky, lucky Ireland, that in 2024 we shall have so many thousands more sociology graduates to flip burgers while grumbling about the evils and iniquities of capitalism, but almost no native plumbers, electricians, joiners, glaziers, nurses, welders or mechanics.
Ireland’s problems are compounded by a profound, almost existential political insecurity. The coalition government of the two main traditional parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael—whose ancestors fought a bloody civil war a century ago—is threatened by the electoral might of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA that brought so much misery and bloodshed to Northern Ireland from 1970 to 1996. Logically, its record should have caused Sinn Fein to be banished to the moral hinterland of Irish political life, but the endless propitiations and compromises of the Peace Process created two ethical systems: a fairly exacting one for the traditional parties, and quite another for Sinn Fein, which has used its immunity from the rule of law to engage in a wide range of criminal activities, including extortion, fuel fraud and smuggling, enabling it to create a huge financial war chest.
Sinn Fein is now the richest single party in both parts of Ireland. It is also the most popular, especially amongst young people, who believe its airy promises of endless jobs, cheap housing galore and free medicine for all. Meanwhile, the great and abiding fear of the security forces in the Republic is that if the present coalition government fails, Sinn Fein will come to power. Sinn Fein remains merely a political manifestation of the IRA. Its policies are those of the IRA, which is still run by an unelected, unaccountable and wholly secret army council. Sinn Fein in government (and hence the IRA) would have access to all the secret files that the Irish police, An Garda Siochana, and the Irish Army, have compiled about Sinn Fein-IRA—including the identities of informers within both organisations—over the past half-century. A delightful thought indeed.
No country in Western Europe since 1945 has been so threatened by the possible arrival into office of a party which is both the electoral face of terrorism and which historically has been the enemy of the institutions that it would now control. For the Troubles are not mere history for Sinn Fein. The party still unashamedly exults in its role in a twenty-five-year war that cost thousands of lives and many billions of pounds. Its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has even lamented that she was too young to join the IRA during its campaign. Well might the Irish wonder about the chronic British failure to remember much about Ireland—but is this any more reckless and inexcusable than the pathological Irish inability to remember much about themselves.