Brexit has turned British, Irish and continental stereotypes on their heads, historian Arthur Aughey has observed in a brilliant essay in the Belfast Telegraph
One long-standing explanation is that the British and continental Europeans (especially the French) approach political problems with very different mindsets…
On the one hand, Michel Barnier’s style – and the European Council’s – considers British reluctance to define principles as either proof of poor preparation or as inability to clarify its objectives. That, more or less, was Jean-Claude Juncker’s rebuke of Mrs May in Brussels.
On the other hand, the British find this approach inflexible, if not deliberately obstructive…
We now have romantic, nostalgic Anglo-Saxons up against efficient, competent Celts, certainly a commonly held view among Irish intellectuals. The first badly misjudges the UK’s position. The second, though, has undoubted merit. Ireland’s EU diplomacy (to use cricketing terminology) has knocked the British around the park.
But after forty years of the UK as members of the EU and thirty years of the Troubles followed by progressive reconciliation and mutual understanding both sides know each other all too well. So why haven’t they been able to sort out the problems of Brexit?
One reason is that the co-operation engendered in the GFA did “not fit with the framework of European law.” Another, “It was the new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who announced that the Irish state is “not going to design a border for the Brexiteers”. Why should it indeed?
The romantic Celt and the business-like Anglo-Saxon – no longer fits reality. The engagement of Dublin and London to settle the Troubles, their transformation from antagonism to co-operation, has been read by scholars as a model of positive inter-state relations.
What would both sides not know about the other? And yet there was another major British miscalculation about the Irish position on Brexit.
The cross-bench peer and Irish historian Lord Bew spoke of that disordering in House of Lords debates. Shortly after the referendum he acknowledged the Irish Government’s resentment at being placed between “a rock and a hard place”. But the sensible option, he argued, was for the British and Irish Governments together to “work out an appropriate solution with the European Union”.
Why was this not happening? He thought that, that very inflexible approach Tombs had written about. For a year after June 2016 Bew was still confident that good relations between Irish and UK officials would deliver….
(He then) admitted that things had changed, but of one thing he was sure. The model built up by negotiating the Belfast Agreement, ending ‘the cold war between the north and the south’, is definitely not the model in the backstop. What had changed in Dublin’s response?
It was the new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who announced that the Irish state is “not going to design a border for the Brexiteers”. Why should it indeed?
Unlike the UK, the Irish had done their preparation properly and spoken of EU principle cleverly. That goes a long way to explain why the backstop stays as it is and Mrs May continues to score a duck at European Councils. Now what?
The most striking British mistake was to assume that somehow – how? – the Irish would row in behind the British version of their mutual interests and discreetly plead their case with EU 26. They are now in a deep sulk which is damaging to both and specifically to the North.
Looked at closely, the UK’s Brexit problems began and continued from the very start, when the EU insisted on the two stage process required by EU law, to withdraw first and then as a third country although a very special one, to negotiate a new relationship. If the British had got their way, there still would have been massive problems on the way but there would have been no “temporary” backstop. Instead David Davis fell at the first hurdle – inevitably I’d say.
Not that all Irish criticisms of Leavers is fair. The great colour writer Fintan O’Toole works up fresh flows of rhetoric every other day. When he is not slating them for indulging in neo-imperialist fantasy he is mocking them for fighting Dunkirk style retreats. This from a writer who not so long ago was lamenting Ireland’s loss of sovereignty to the global moneybags of the EU and the IMF at the expense of ordinary Irish citizens who found themselves saddled with much of the bill. English nostalgia for the way we never quite were is part of the story but it ignores more contemporary and substantial reasons; a rejection of the idea of European integration, the end of free movement for immigrants within Europe and beyond and neo- liberal impatience with slow growth caused they claim by over regulation and an overvalued currency.
Whether you agree with it or not, this is a serious case. It is no more appropriate for a liberal-minded Irish nationalist to dismiss the English variety as a false consciousness, than it was for the English imperialists of a century ago to persist right up to the Treaty in 1921 in believing that all the peasant nationalists of Ireland needed was the smack of regular coercion laced with a little of “killing Home Rule by kindness.” This was the last hurrah of the British ascendancy coined by a former prime minster, later a major figure in Lloyd George coalition at the time of the Treaty, who was known variously as “pretty Fanny” and “bloody Balfour.” Today as Irish critics rub it into the British, their attacks on the DUP’s grim style come close to dismissing the unionist case altogether. That case is demeaned by being implicated in Theresa May’s shameful scare tactics in raising the spectre of No Deal. What sort of defence of “the precious Union” is that?
The British and Irish mainstreams thought they had all but put to rest the mutual misunderstandings of history. Brexit alas has unearthed a few left behind in its rebarbative depths. Never mind. It’s good that the Irish history of the future will not all be about victimhood. It will include the sharp lessons of today taught to the British by the Irish who are experts at how to damage the Union. In the arch-Brexiteers ironically, they recognise the real thing.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London