The Daily Telegraph
‘Ignorance of Ireland among the British is rather shocking, I’m afraid. It is a theme that occurs again and again… there is a huge difference between how the Irish regard their history and how the British are engaged by their history.” Who said that? Some crazed former republican?
No, former Tory minister Michael Portillo a year ago while making a documentary in Ireland. The British, he went on to say, were only really ever interested in the Second World War. A First Class degree in History from Cambridge had given him very little idea of Irish history. This is everywhere and embarrassing. Why does the average English person know more about France or Spain than Ireland?
Yet even our leaders can wear this ignorance with pride. Johnson’s hero Churchill once remarked: “We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English.”
That Ireland is a separate country with a separate government and European seems to be news to many. The absolute lack of knowledge among our politicians is staggering. Johnson once likened the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland to that of the one between Camden and Westminster.
Karen Bradley, who was Northern Ireland secretary for 18 months, once said she did not know that nationalists in Northern Ireland did not vote for unionists. How clueless can you be about a part of the Union the Tories say they want to keep?
None of this surprises me, as I see it daily. All the warnings about the border arrangements running contrary to the Good Friday Agreement, the current G7 rows, so much of it stems from arrogance and obliviousness to the history of Ireland and the current reality.
I have long been going to Ireland for family reasons and my daughter is at college there. When I tell people this, the first thing they ask is: “Is it because she read Sally Rooney?” She wanted to go long before Rooney wrote Normal People, where the two protagonists go to study in Trinity College Dublin. She did not even like the book much.
When I explain she had to quarantine for two weeks at the start of each term, people are aghast: “But she was coming from England?” “Yes,” I say, “it’s almost like they are a different country with their own government!”
An Irish friend who was born in Dublin and trying to register at the doctors was asked were they British? “No, I am Irish,” she said, and got out her Irish passport. The great irony is of course that anyone who can possibly get an Irish passport is now desperate for one, so they can get back the freedom of movement Brexit has taken away.
For the hard Brexiteer, the status of Northern Ireland has always seemed like an afterthought. They parade their stupidity when they talk about the border. They treat every moderate Irish politician as an IRA chief with little respect.
But then they have little respect for the fact that it was John Major that attempted to open up dialogue with Sinn Féin, even though that generation of Tories had lost friends to the IRA, Airey Neave and Ian Gow. Labour continued the peace process that they started.
To now antagonise every side is ridiculous. Johnson made us look small and stupid. Biden and the Europeans say they will not stand for it. But the border is not a bargaining chip. Peace cannot be jeopardised for ego or carelessness. What huge disrespect that shows to people on both sides of it.
When my youngest was doing Irish history at A-level, it was telling that there was only one textbook, yet for every other module there were dozens. It reminded me of when I was young and Thatcher had republican voices dubbed on the TV. I was 21 and living in New York when I saw coffins being carried to the British Embassy. Bobby Sands had died; a man had starved to death for his country. I was astonished and realised how much news had been censored at home.
Whatever “side” you are on, knowing recent history is part of understanding the present.
One of the most googled questions long before Covid was: “Is it safe to go to Ireland?”
Again, for many, no separation is made between Belfast of the 1970s and Ireland now, a country that is modernising fast. How hard is it to fathom that Ireland is another country and that they do things their way? For all the blood spilt, why do so few English people bother to understand what that was all about?
Once sitting in a pub with Irish friends in Brixton many, many years ago, a young man, an ex-squaddie, wandered over. He had been posted to Belfast for a year, but asked us what all the fighting was about. He genuinely had no idea, and yet there he had been, in a uniform with a gun, stopping and searching women out shopping and God knows what else. His total unawareness was shocking. I thought things would have changed by now. I was wrong.
That it is a separate country with its own government is news to many