Eilis O’Hanlon: ‘Does it really matter what Brexiteers in Britain are saying about Ireland?’

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Eilis O’Hanlon: ‘Does it really matter what Brexiteers in Britain are saying about Ireland?’

The Irish Ambassador to the UK wanted to defend the country, but just may have made us look silly, writes Eilis O’Hanlon


Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with the Irish Ambassador to the UK, Adrian O’Neill at Buckingham Palace in November, 2017. Picture: Getty
Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with the Irish Ambassador to the UK, Adrian O’Neill at Buckingham Palace in November, 2017. Picture: Getty

Imagine that Ireland had voted in 2016 for reunification, but three years later it still hadn’t happened, partly because the British were worried about the effect it might have on them, to the point where some people were even starting to doubt that Irish unity would happen at all.

It’s fair to say that feelings would be running high in some quarters. Words would be said. Well, that’s what some people in Britain think has happened since their own 2016 referendum, and hard words are indeed being said.

It doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong. There’s very little about Brexit which is categorically right or wrong in itself. Stances on the issue are more like stand-ins for different cultural and political ideals. What matters is that this is what they think.

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Instead of noting that some British voices are less than thrilled at official Ireland’s role in punishing the Brits for daring to vote for Brexit, and putting his diplomatic brain to work to clear a path to a better future, the Irish Ambassador to Britain, Adrian O’Neill, has now decided instead to write an open letter to the right-leaning, pro-Brexit Spectator magazine complaining at how its writers have chosen to express that displeasure.

According to Ambassador O’Neill, the publication has “lapsed into anti-Irish sentiment” with a series of “snide and hostile” articles, singling out one by royal correspondent, Robert Hardman, which mocked Ireland’s recent decision to become an observer member of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, France’s version of the British Commonwealth, and accused the Taoiseach of wanting to “suck up to the top gang in the EU playground”.

The 200-year-old magazine, no doubt cock a hoop at all the free publicity the ambassador had given it by rising to the bait – because what is journalism for, if not annoying grandees? – wasted no time in delivering a pithy response: “The Spectator loves Ireland – but critiquing the Varadkar government is hardly the same as criticism of Ireland. If the UK ambassador wrote to The Irish Times every time Fintan O’Toole went for Theresa May’s government,” it added amusingly, “the postage bill would be considerable.”

They must have had in mind the litany of pieces which O’Toole has written in the past couple of years, in which, taking an approach similar to Punch magazine cartoonists in the Victorian era who caricatured the Irish as violent, half-witted peasants, middle-class Ireland’s pet middlebrow sage has accused Brexit supporters in Britain of, among other moral failings, “pig ignorance of the genuine hallmarked, unadulterated, slack-jawed, open-mouthed, village idiot variety”.

Which, when written down like that in all its condescending glory, makes the Spectator’s editorial line on Ireland look polite by comparison.

To be fair, such cheap and cheerful playing to the gallery has proved quite popular in Ireland these past three years as anti-British sentiment has risen in response to the prospect of the return of a hard border; and initial reaction to the ambassador’s letter suggests that he has struck a chord back home too.

The Irish, after all, have every right to take a strong stand in the much abused name of the national interest. But those who give it out still have to be prepared to take it in return. What did we think the Brits were going to do – just sit there meekly without responding in kind for all the opprobrium heaped on their heads on this side of the Irish Sea since June 2016?

Whether it’s any of Adrian O’Neill’s business one way or another is the really interesting part. An ambassador’s role is to represent the country abroad. Not a particular regime or Taoiseach, but the country. His or her duty should be to rise above the tawdry mayhem, not get involved in the diplomatic equivalent of a gentleman’s duel over questioned honour.

It’s true that some have at times adopted a different approach. When President Trump appointed Richard Grenell as the new US ambassador to Berlin, he shocked Germans by praising the resurgence of conservative political thought in Europe, which some sensitive souls thought was his way of dog whistling support for the far right.

“He does not understand what the role of an ambassador should be,” said the centre-left Social Democrats. There were calls for him to be sacked. He wasn’t. He was only saying and doing in the heart of Europe what Donald Trump had sent him to say and do.

So is Adrian O’Neill saying and doing what the Irish Government wants him to say and do by writing this letter? It would be a risky move if Dublin has indeed decided to turn the embassy in London into an overseas branch of Leo Varadkar’s Strategic Communications Unit. What it risks, not least, is making the Irish look like a bunch of overly defensive cry babies who can’t take some robust criticism without having a fit of the vapours. Far from enhancing the country’s reputation in Britain, that would only hold it up to ridicule.

O’Neill insists in his letter that he’s “not unduly thin-skinned”, but that’s what people always say when they’re trying to get those with a different opinion to shut up. It’s the liberal wet blanket’s version of a racist saying “some of my best friends are black”. Whether he likes it or not, the ambassador has succumbed to an outrage culture which deems that everything which personally offends one must, by definition, be objectively offensive.

It could also arguably be seen as interference in Britain’s internal affairs.

Admittedly, there would be huge irony in the British complaining about foreigners interfering in their internal affairs, when the country’s entire imperial history has been about interfering in other people’s. No Irish person could avoid a sliver of satisfaction at such poetic justice.

All the same, do we really want to go down that road to whining victimhood?

Part of the problem may be that, unusually among European nations, Ireland does not have a significant eurosceptic base, so it’s much harder for this country to understand how the British mind works. Irish enthusiasm for the European federalist project in turn baffles many Brits, who can’t get their heads around how a country which was so badly treated by the EU at its moment of greatest vulnerability after the financial crash is now among the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for Brussels.

Those who preach the EU gospel in Ireland would contend that the cure worked, and they have a point. Things could be much worse. We might now be in the same boat as Greece, where all the functions of the ministry of finance are still under the control of an Orwellian-sounding Autonomous Authority Over Public Resources that includes two representatives of the European Commission, and where, despite a punishing regime of austerity, the public finances just keep getting worse.

It must still look odd from the outside that, when it comes to Europe, there is little difference in opinion here from the centre right of Fine Gael to Sinn Fein on the left, and all points in between, and the Irish media has largely reflected that consensus, to the extent that there’s barely a murmur of surprise when Irish politicians effectively urge the House of Commons to wrestle control of the Brexit process from the elected government. Again, imagine if the tables were turned and MPs were urging the Opposition in the Dail to take over. There’d be uproar. Rightly so.

All of this has led to an atmosphere of mutual incomprehension and mistrust, with an upsurge of anglophobic rhetoric in Ireland to match the jingoistic fervour of the Brexiteers. The ambassador touches on that in his letter, but doesn’t seem to have gone that small step further by asking whether his own intervention helps or hinders any necessary rapprochement.

What did he actually achieve by putting pen to paper? The whole thing is like some squabble on Twitter. No doubt it all seemed terribly important at the time, but, having steamed in to the fray, was it really worth it in retrospect? Sometimes it’s better to just count to 10, sit down, have a cup of tea, and let it go.

Where Brexit is concerned, there’s a long way still to go. There’s no point exhausting all our supplies of rancour and indignation just yet.

Sunday Independent

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