The apparent sudden realization among Brexiteers that the NI/ROI border is a problem is sad but not terribly surprising. NI didn’t feature as an issue in the Brexit campaign and any initial questions about the issue were waved away with dismissive comments. Now, in the run up to the December summit, the UK govt and various UKIP and Tory MEPs and MPs are out in force condemning Ireland’s view that there has not been “sufficient progress” on the NI/ROI border.
Of course when asked what the UK’s plan actually is, there are stupid statements like “well we don’t want a border there so if Ireland and the EU want one it’s their problem“. Plus there’s a strong and rather nasty undercurrent of indignation that the UK might not get its way because the Irish want something else – a real “who the f*ck do they think they are?” reaction.
Now whatever about the nastier UKIP and Tory Brexiteers, there’s still a real problem on both sides of the Irish sea and we’re seeing the impact of it in this context more than normally.
British people, and English people in particular, just don’t think about Ireland much. It’s their blind spot. If they ever do think about Ireland far too many people think of the “British Isles” and assume that the Irish are the same as the English, just stupider and with charmingly funny accents.
It’s natural for there to be an asymmetry between the levels of knowledge on either side. The UK is much bigger and richer than Ireland, so Irish people know a lot about Britain. We have to think about Britain, and British history is so world encircling that everyone knows lots about it. The British, on the other hand, don’t have to think about Ireland. Well, almost never. And British people know astonishingly little about Irish history.
Any Irish person who has worked in the UK or with British people will have stories of startling ignorance about Ireland. Yet here we are again. Ireland is causing political problems for a UK govt. You’d think they’d never read British history either.
My two most amazing experiences were with Oxbridge educated Brits. Great guys. I love them. But wow.
One case dates to the mid-90’s, when the movie Michael Collins was released. Over lunch with British colleagues I was asked how historically accurate the movie was. After initially getting into too much detail I realized that the guys didn’t know what I was talking about so I simplified and mentioned the War of Independence.
“What war of independence?” was the returning question. And yes, none of the internationally traveled Oxbridge graduates were aware that Ireland left the UK after a war between the two. Just never heard of it. That’s wow#1.
The second experience was on a multi-national field trip to Clare. Brits, Americans, Nigerians, Dutch. Twas great. One of the Brits repeatedly talked about the “British Isles”, despite me explaining that it wasn’t exactly a term that delighted Irish people. He insisted that the two countries shared a culture and history and that to avoid the term “British Isles” was a geographical, historical and cultural nonsense. Essentially I could either fight him or let him continue…so I let him continue.
The next day he noticed that there were flags on almost every house and pub in the area and asked what they were for. “Well we’re in County Clare“, I said, “and Clare is in the Munster Hurling final this weekend“.
His reply stuck in my head because it was such a perfect contradiction of his whole position on “British Isles” and such an illustration of his lack of knowledge about Ireland. “What’s Munster,” he said “and what’s hurling?”
Where could I start? In trying to explain this to him I could only approximate by suggesting it was like an Irishman asking an Englishman “What’s cricket?” and “What’s Manchester?“. That was wow#2.
So, take this level of ignorance in even the most charitable members of the British elite and then add the Brexiteer’s toxic hate of foreigners in general and dismissal of the Irish in particular and the reasons for the UK govt’s lack of preparation becomes apparent. Britain has always gotten in trouble in Ireland. Britain never bothered to understand Ireland and is merely repeating the mistakes of the past. Sad, but true.