The Irish should take care not to write off Brexiters as a basket of English deplorables.


The Irish Times writes in the term “English nationalism” almost automatically now as the key factor to explain of Brexit.  Even for the British they don’t doubt  it’s wholly a bad thing, based on distorted memories of empire and English delusions of national sovereignty, not a bit like our own dear sovereignty won in a struggle for freedom. But this is  too pat and shields Ireland from some awkward questions about its continuing relationship with the EU. Star columnist Fintan O’Toole is its most eloquent advocate, writing here in the Guardian a year ago.

When you strip away the rhetoric, Brexit is an English nationalist movement. Over time, the main political entity most likely to emerge from Brexit is not a Britain with its greatness restored or a sweetly reunited kingdom. It is a standalone England. Scotland will have a second referendum on independence, this time with the lure of staying in the European Union. Northern Ireland will be in a horrendous bind, cut off from the rest of the island by a European border and with the UK melting around it. Its future as an unwanted appendage of a shrunken Britain is unsustainable. Wales is more uncertain, but a resurgence of Welsh nationalism after Brexit is entirely possible, especially after a Scottish departure from the UK. After Brexit, an independent England will emerge by default.

As usual O’Toole makes a powerful case. He speaks for an Ireland which has always had good reason to recoil from English notions of exceptionalism. Today Ireland can see no good at all in Brexit. It projects its own fears onto the British.  It therefore writes Brexit off entirely as an aberration, a false consciousness embedded in English delusions over past greatness they will live to regret. Plenty in Britain warmly agree. But there are flaws in the argument. There’s a risk here of falling into Hillary Clinton’s  great error in writing off people with legitimate grievances as a basket of deplorables.  

First   voting exercises show that Brexit opinion is far from being an almost wholly English phenomenon. Indyref 1 was actually lost. The Tory revival in Scotland can hardly be explained in terms of English nationalism. It is registering a preference for the British internal market over the European and it may impose at least a check to the breakup of Britain. What is certainly new is that the survival of the British state, once unitary and entirely unquestioned, is now devolved and as much open to review as anything else. And this is taken for granted. I have my own fundmental reservations. But these are not delusions; they are challenging but democratic developments.

Again there is too little acknowledgement from O’Toole and the Irish Times school here that for Britain, the EU has not been a universally happy experience.  British objections were rooted in the expansion of EU powers deep into domestic affairs without explicit democratic approval and in trauma over shadowing the D-mark in advance of the creation of the single currency. There were decades of frustration over the key British aim of developing the internal market, the very creation which ironically, they now seem determined to leave. These experiences had echoes in Ireland over the bailout – none more loudly than Fintan O’Toole’s. Yes, Ireland may have illusions about sovereignty too. The difference perhaps is that while it may well live to regret it, Britain is big enough to cut free: Ireland is not. Try this for size from July 2015, one among many.

If we put these three moments together, we have a perfect working model of arbitrary rule: a high-level group that does not consider itself bound by European treaties (those treaties that we went to such trouble to insert into our Constitution in multiple referendums); a second group that nobody ever elected but that has acquired the power to bankrupt an entire country and effectively expel it from the euro zone ( Greece); and a set of governing laws that are impenetrable, not only to citizens but even to professional politicians and to most of the experts whose opinions shape public discourse.

These realities amount to something that those (like myself) who have always supported the European project have to face: the project has taken a decisive turn away from democracy. It is conventional wisdom that the EU is in danger from below, with the rise of eurosceptic parties. But it is in even more danger from above.


According to the historical stereotypes, Irish nationalism is good as a movement of the oppressed.

English nationalism is bad as a movement of the oppressor  and an expression of automatic dominance  – even in today’s UK where Northern Ireland and even Scotland and Wales are seen as remnants of an essentially English empire.

In history, alien Catholic French and Spanish influences over  the arbitrary power of the Crown were replaced by an English revolution  extending  the rule of law developing parliamentary government.

The attempts to  impose the  English Protestant  character of that revolution on the Irish were no more successful than royal subjugation earlier.

In Ireland the Catholic Church represented the nation coping with alien English rule.

Today, old instincts die hard.  The  Catholic tradition in Ireland probably created a greater affinity with European institutions  than Protestant Britain, which affected to steer clear of continental entanglements until absolutely forced to  intervene to meet a military threat.

Today the Conservative party, while they’d hesitate at the English nationalist label, see themselves as  the democratic check on the pressures of uncontrolled immigration and the champions of a traditional English identity within cultural diversity. So far the British are accommodating a growing ethnic population  better  than the French, who chose not to recognise the characteristics of  diversity because of their particular  versions of secularism and equality. As champions of parliamentary sovereignty the Conservatives see themselves as  having “ taken back control”  from  the unelected foreign bureaucracy of  the EU, an organisation which  purports  to be the level playing field for 27 very different states  but is in reality in the view of many of them,  a veil to cloak German domination achieved by peaceful means.

For Ireland the EU (with some hesitation over the role of the troika) buttresses Irish independence against any threat of British dominance and offers routes to the wider world and the destiny of unity.

Brexit is now polarising into familiar stereotypes. Remain equals liberal, progressive, Irish nationalist (SF formerly anti EU, has jumped on the bandwagon). Leave, traditional small c and cap C conservative, British, Scottish and Ulster Unionist (although Ruth Davidson is careful not to tack too far to the right).

What actually is English nationalism? John Denham former Labour cabinet minister and now running the Centre for English identity at Winchester University argues for a Labour populism to counteract global finance and control, not as an explicit nationalism. One for next time, perhaps?

Now that UKIP seems to have been killed off, the natural home for a more explicit nationalism with right wing baggage has reverted to the Conservative party.  Qualms about the implications are felt by the Tory columnist Matthew Parris in the Times today.

How very comfortingly English.

With Theresa May spouting chauvinist fantasy about some imagined Brussels conspiracy to manipulate our general election, should we be pleased or sorry that after this weekend you can travel as far to the right as you like in British politics and still be in Tory territory until you fall off the edge of the world?

How many among that swathe of opinion once at home in Ukip can make the Tory party their new nest before Tories of my type begin to feel edged out by the lodgers?

The Conservatives have yet to explain to themselves, never mind the rest of us, how the party of the pro-Europeans Macmillan and Heath became the party of Brexit May. For the   instigators of the British project, Europe would amortise remaining British power and shock the economy into growth through greater competition. The former worked better than the latter. This and the implications of ever closer Union were never explicitly acknowledged because the politicians of the day thought they could muddle them through more or less unnoticed.

In the old days the party membership provided the deferential patriotic chorus to very different solos by the leaders. The Tory rank and file are deferential no longer. Democracy lives in the Conservative party and reminds us that it cuts both ways.

  • El Daddy

    I’m fairly flabbergasted. The IRFU symbol for Ireland is shamrocks. They’re a plant like. They don’t represent nationalist Ireland or republican Ireland either… they’re literally a plant, representing the island. What more could you want? How is it not equal respect?

    Yes, Irish Republic is anachronistic. The name of the country is Ireland, and if you need to distinguish the name of the state with the name of the island, say Republic of Ireland, or “the Republic”, but the official name of the country remains simply “Ireland”. “Irish Republic” was a 32-county entity (ish) in place during the War of Independence, followed by the Irish Free State after the treaty, and followed by Ireland as it is now presently.

    Please do enlighten me how the sports establishment here is stuck in the past and how any identity is discriminated against.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I already have. No anthem or flag for NI players, except one acceptable to the southern Irish. It’s like us only letting you have the St Patrick’s Cross as your flag. Yet the Republic’s flag and anthem are used.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Yes, Buddhism should be a bit more tolerant. That’s a lot of ‘anti’s for someone detaching themselves from human struggles and seeking oneness with the universe. But good luck with the Buddhism, that isn’t such a bad choice. I’m quite sympathetic to it myself but am just wary of the detachment thing. I think ultimately human attachments even with the pain they bring are worth it. I worry the path to enlightenment is ultimately a process of emotional numbing. But otherwise I really like a lot of the Buddha’s insights and there’s a lot in it. Most people, even most nice people, basically take themselves way too seriously – and he was onto that.

  • El Daddy

    But as I have said.. NI doesn’t have its own unique flag, or anthem. How can something be given if it doesn’t exist?

    Don’t forget either that plenty of the NI players are quite happy to use our flag and anthem, and consider it theirs as much as ours, as it is.

    Our anthem is only used in games in Dublin. Most games have only Ireland’s Call.

  • mickfealty

    Unionism has problems, certainly. But so too does nationalism. I used to hold the idea expounded that the Republic was a foreign country as a sure sign of political madness on the part of some unionists, not least it was always an unconstitutional position to hold under UK law.

    Now very few unionist representatives actually hold such views, the political psychosis appears to have switched sides. Despite the constitutional directive of Articles 2/3, it’s still a widespread belief disunity of the people is fine until ‘we’ get the numbers.

    That doesn’t even endure under the poetic aegis of the original Proclamations. In narrative terms excluding those who feel and act British is a profound act of self undoing for Irish nationalism for over a century and more.

  • John Devane

    It’s non sensical. The UK post Brexit is even more committed to free trade post Brexit.


  • Nevin

    “Like I say”

    gom, Gerry Adams words speak for themselves as do the words of Dick Spring, Patrick Mayhew and Hugh Annesley. You will have noted that the operation of the conspiracy commenced in 1994, the year that the Provisional Republican Movement morphed from ‘armalite and ballot-box’ to ‘attrition and ballot-box’. You won’t find the Dick Spring briefing in the relevant BBC and CAIN archives.

  • grumpy oul man

    Very good Nevin you have it all worked out, So the OOs behavior has nothing to do with the formation of resident groups.
    Always nice to be told that history doesn’t matter

  • Nevin

    There was nothing to work out, gom, an SDLP rep had previously described to me how the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council Joint Secretariat functioned.

  • The Living End

    I’m not disputing the Britishness of British people in Ireland (though they may dispute their Irishness).

    However, British people living their whole lives in Ireland doesn’t make Britishness indigenous to Ireland. Britishness has not originated in, nor did it occur naturally in, Ireland. It’s a colonialist import.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Absolutely nothing wrong with the argument that I can see. Are you going to refute every aspect of Marxism in your posts here? It might take a long time, and still not be very convincing in the end.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Nice to hear that you don’t take yourself too seriously. I feel the same about your arguments. 🙂

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Well, you are a lot closer to it, and more informed of the detail than I am – it’s just a remnant of the empire waiting to be tidied up to me. Possibly some of the Irish based posters here can give you a better answer.

    I find the thinking behind Unionism to be a mystery both in Ireland and in Scotland, although in Ireland I can see some past reasons for it. In Scotland it’s beyond all fathoming, like the associated adulation of royalty.

  • mickfealty

    You’ll find my latest post interesting in that regard…

  • Kevin Breslin

    The hell they are.
    Actions speak louder than words.

    Free Trade is just a platitude, the UK’s commitment to free trade will be betrayed by their government’s actions.

    Which is fair enough, I feel the public does not want to change the UK into a free trade nation yet. There are valid reasons for rejecting free trade in practice.

  • grumpy oul man

    whatever that means,
    a bit cryptic mixed with “a man in the pub told me so it must be true” as proof!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’d refute an awful lot of them. Though not writing off the big insights of Marx into class and how society tends to work for the benefit of the status quo without intervention.

    But ultimately I’m a social democrat, not a Marxist. Actually I’ve never been that impressed by the Marxist idea of how society should work. It’s not that it’s fantasy, it’s that it doesn’t work in its own terms – and I’m not sure I’d even want it if it did.

  • Nevin

    gom, it’s not my fault if you don’t know how the Joint Secretariat functions. Why don’t you do some research?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Even if it started its life as an ‘import’, when it took root and grew in Ireland, then flourished over many generations, it became indigenous. Indigenous means “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native”. Britishness is native to N Ireland and it occurs naturally there, through the people who live there and whose ancestry there goes back four centuries and more.

    The concept may have originated elsewhere in these islands but like its peoples, ideas move around the British Isles. It seems odd to me that the idea of Britishness would not be regarded as belonging in part of the UK where many people are proudly British.

  • grumpy oul man

    Again Nevin claims and no proof, as i have said before you must prove your musings it is not up to others to do your work for you.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    And when Ireland A played in Belfast in 2009, the IRFU objected to the union flag and GSTQ:
    Still convinced these guys don’t have a bias?

  • Nevin

    I know how the JS functions, gom; I’ve done the work.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    It’s always a delight to keep you entertained Nevin.

    I’m actually glad poor Tom did not live to see his own perfectly sincere principals contemptuously set aside by the cynical cabal of half rate clubmen who ran what became their private fiefdom into the ground and marginalised any thin remnant of Liberalism which the Liberal Unionists they sardonically marginalised once their own private northern version of “Home Rule” was a reality.

  • El Daddy

    Yep. It’s not the NI anthem – it would be as relevant as Ode to Joy for the other Irish players. Why not make Danny Boy or something the anthem? Lovely northern song.

  • Nevin

    Seaan, Hamilton Davey threw in his lot with the IPP cabal – AOH/Mollies [Joe Devlin], Bishop O’Donnell and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. So not a great era for Liberals, especially under Gladstone.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’d be up for Danny Boy.

    But you dodged the point a little.

  • El Daddy

    Is the point that you feel there is a lack of representation of people who play for Ireland who identify as British, or is it that you want GSTQ?

  • Angry Mob

    It still seeks FT regardless of whether it gets FTAs or not which is a separate issue. I guess this is the most of an admission I will ever get from you.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Look the United Kingdom is not some hive mind, I’m sure there are Brits who support free trade and other Brits who do not.

    The important thing is The Conservatives cannot quite outline how they are going to do it, when and how much it will cost.

    As far as I’m concerned a few Brits think the UK will promote free trade in theory.

    There’s been no costs made for implemented it, so my instincts are that it’s not going to happen for some time now.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I want some recognition that there are two nationalities coming together to play for Ireland, so when national flags are flown or anthems are used for one, they should be done for the other. I’d be happy for no flags or anthems at all for Ireland, or only neutral ones.

  • El Daddy

    What flag or anthem so? I already said that the flag of Ulster is up beside the tricolour at Irish matches, but you wrote that off as overly nationalist.

    As for anthems, Amhrán na bhFiann is only played in Dublin, and for every other match it is the very neutral Ireland’s Call. For matches played in NI, of course the NI anthem should be played, if one existed.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Amusingly, Nevin, when Major William Hamilton Davey (whom I’d mentioned as Editor of the ‘Ulster Guardian’ in one of my earliest comments above) stood as a protestant Liberal Home Ruler in Duncairn during the 1918 election, his opponent Carson brazenly claimed he was a Sinn Féiner, for which attempt to misinform the voters, Davey successfully sued! Perhaps with your own implication above that any northern Liberal who unaccountably opposed Unionism was mendaciously preparing the red carpet for Benedict XV’s triumphal procession to his new home in Dublin Castle, pulled through the streets by jubilant Hibernians in full regalia accompanied by a few bomb carrying shady types as march stewarts, you are perhaps simply falling easy prey to this old canard of hyperbolic Unionist propaganda!!!

    Of course Unionism’s “not an inch” on the eminently sensible all Ireland Home Rule Bill of 1911-14 successfully ensured that the real separatists, rather than soft moderates such as Joe Devlin and the Ulster Liberals would seize and hold the centre stage, which is the core point I’m trying to get over.

  • Nevin

    I understood Hamilton Davey stood as an IPP candidate. Is that incorrect?

    I don’t think there was anything soft about Joe Devlin and Bishop O’Connell; they blew the Redmond-Midleton ‘no-man’s land’ proposal out of the water.

    ‘Implication’ is a very weak claim; it permits you to display your own prejudice/waffle/flight of fancy.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Redmond gave an important speech about the manner in which the IPP would dissolve into labour, Liberal and Conservative groupings as it moved from constitutional issues to normal politics. Many northern Liberals employed the IPP as a medium of moderate constitutional change and in this continued to support mainstream Liberalism in a manner in which the Liberal Unionists, tied to a self interested and highly reactionary UUC could never really do. As I understood it, the Major stood as a Liberal Home Ruler on the IPP ticket.

    Regarding “waffle” Nevin, I’m still awaiting some real “meat” in what your posting to set against my quite irrefutable claims. Telling me that Ulster Liberals somehow were not Liberals does not cut the mustard.

    If you had perhaps researched the Irish Constitutional Convention beyond a few misleading propaganda squibs from Lord Cushendun, you’d have encountered Joe Devlin’s support for Redmond and moderation both before and after the moment you latch on to. The real problem with how the Convention developed was the untimely death of Sir Alexander McDowell, whose fine negotiating skills had painstakingly built bridges between Unionism both north and south and an all Ireland settlement, a delicate embryonic deal which collapsed finally under the consequent non-engagement strategy of the northern Unionist delegates following his death in October 1917. It was their destruction of this deal which poor Joe was reacting to. The actual trajectory of our history is nothing like as simple a pattern as your terse comments often seem to suggest. A careful scrutiny shows very few white hats evident in the Unionist camp at this time.

  • Angry Mob

    Of course the UK is not a hive mind, but the evidence points towards the fact that the UK favours free trade and has done for the last 170+ years.

    Or to put it another way the UK would be considered a capitalist society, a reasonable statement as the evidence points towards that, yet there are exemptions to the rule such as NHS.

  • Kevin Breslin

    What evidence is there on free trade over that 170 years?

    The opinions on free trade have probably been strong for that long, obsession with the Corn Laws and all that.

    The U.K. may be free trade on a few things but it’s anti-free trade on many more.

    I would also suggest for the foreseeable future the UK will have less free trade over the next ten years than it has currently.

  • Angry Mob

    See my earlier post, covers the basics.

    On a sliding scale, no one is claiming that the UK is a 10 on free trade but it’s definitely over the half way mark and again the fact that free trade is not reciprocated doesn’t make the UK any less free trade oriented.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    again, a dismissive tone towards the idea that British identity ought to be represented. Can you not just concede we have a point here?

    Personally I would like to see a new flag and an anthem (maybe Danny Boy) for N Ireland instead of just using our national anthem. But failing that I think using our national anthem (GSTQ) and flag (union flag) is reasonable – and would be an amazing sign of things moving on to see that respected in Dublin at Ireland games. I would certainly shed a tear.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Every European nation is over the halfway mark. The problem Angry Mob is that people aren’t really scientific about the short term and long term costs of free trade.

    Until the Conservative free trade plans are actually audited and we get a fair public reaction about the cuts to subsidies need to implement them, this idea of an economic hive mind with popular support being genetic or memetic to people of British birthing is dubious.

  • El Daddy

    Oh I agree that British/NI identity should be represented somehow – I just don’t feel GSTQ would be appropriate.

    Hopefully we’ll have something sorted out for when/if we get the World Cup in 2023. Now that would be a great example of cooperation. The craic levels would be through the roof.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    craic and crack both I hope 🙂

  • El Daddy

    Never knew there was a diffefent spelling. Either way – the levels would be through the roof.

  • Angry Mob

    “Every European nation is over the halfway mark…”
    Exactly and that includes the UK so the UK pursues free trade is an entirely reasonable statement.

  • Reader

    Kevin Breslin: The U.K. State naturally pursues free trade? Sorry I can’t stop laughing….Give a historic example not an egotistical one.
    Surely you cannot have forgotten the discussion we had on cheap Chinese steel just a few months ago? For all your scathing criticism of the successful UK opposition to punitive EU tariffs, now you have forgotten all about it.

  • Reader

    BonaparteOCoonassa: But as long as the “Britishness” is linked to “Unionism” and all it’s associated trappings it won’t be regarded as indigenous.
    Twins standing side by side in a pub in Belfast. One of them is indigenous and the other is not, because one of them is a nationalist and the other is a unionist?

  • Kevin Breslin

    You ignored what I said on that matter.

    When it comes to the things the elite care about we’ll see the UK’s protectionism emerge quite fiercely. Every nation has their sacred cows.

    Brexit will merely expose what the UK’s own sacred cows are. May even be cows for all I know.