Martyn Turner, the brilliant Irish Times cartoonist, told a story during the dark days of the Troubles. If memory serves, Turner had given a lecture at an exhibition of his cartoons in the United States. From the audience came the not-unintelligent question: “How much does the average British person care about Northern Ireland?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Turner replied. “The average British person cares about Northern Ireland just as much as the average Irish person cares about Northern Ireland.”
“Really?” said the American, “That much?”
“Yes, said Turner, “That little.”
I remembered Martyn Turner’s story last week, when Channel 4 News took to the streets and, armed with a map of Ireland and a marker, asked random members of the British public to draw the Northern Ireland border. The results were predictable.
One man drew a line from Sligo to Dundalk, chopping the head off the teddy bear and costing the Republic, Donegal and much of Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth. One woman cut the island clean in half, drawing a line from Kinvara across to Newbridge and up to Bray. Another woman accused Ireland of “just making trouble because they lost”, and went on “it’s a bit petty isn’t it really?” and said “the southern Irish have to lump it basically”.
Another man, who was pretty accurate in his drawing of the border, and who actually knew what he was talking about, said “Brexit is going to be an utter disaster all the way round… I don’t think they’ve thought this through frankly.”
In response to this news report, Trish Byrne tweeted “If it helps, British people, it's the bit of Ireland that has weather.”
Lest you think this is an unrepresentative picture of British knowledge of Ireland, and only a snapshot of public attitudes, the response from the ruling Conservative Party has been pretty breathtaking in the depth and breadth of its arrogance and proud ignorance too.
Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory party leader and former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, told Channel 4 News Ireland is playing hardball on the issue of the border because “a lot of things are in the making on this one. There’s an election going on in Ireland…”
When corrected by presenter Cathy Newman, that Frances Fitzgerald had resigned and the threat of an election has been averted for now, IDS retorted “Well, no, the presidential election is coming up. And of course the key point about that is that the present government is worried about Sinn Fein, so I think there’s a lot of showboating going on in Ireland.”
I’m sorry, what?
Look, I suppose there is possibly a tiny chance Michael D might get sick of being our genuinely-beloved Head of State, and sick too of a quarter of a million a year, all-you-can-eat haute cuisine and a free gaff in the Phoenix Park, and decide to stand down next year. (He won’t.)
Or Senator Ger Craughwell might succeed in his quest to gain the tiniest sliver of relevance—I’m so sorry, that should have read “Or Senator Ger Craughwell might succeed in forcing a presidential election in 2018”. (He won’t.)
But even if there is a presidential election in 2018 (there won’t be), it’s very hard to picture any scenario in which Brexit might play a part in any potential #Aras18.
On the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, leading Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, similarly gave an authoritative and completely wrong assessment of Irish politics.
“Irish politics are quite complicated at the moment, as you know, because there’s a vote of no confidence in the Deputy Irish Prime Minister,” said the man known as The Honourable Member for the Eighteenth Century. “They are worried about an election and I think the Irish border has become a matter of Irish immediate political concern, in the run-up to a potential general election, and the strength of Sinn Fein, and the Prime Minister of Ireland is quite concerned about that.”
(Joe O’Shea tweeted during the week; “De Valera apparently used to lecture visiting British officials on Irish history. One UK pol, at end of meeting, was asked how the talks are progressing; "Very well, we're up to 1798" U can kinda see where Dev was coming from.”)
Rees-Mogg to the contrary, it’s not Irish politics that are so complicated. We only have a minority right-centre-right government supported by a rag-bag of independents and kept in power by a confidence-and-supply arrangement with its centre-right-centre arch-rivals.
The UK has a minority Conservative government – riven in twain between standard-issue compassion-free pauper-culling millionaire Tories, and the swivel-eyed Brexiteer loons of whom Boris Johnson is the most presentable representative – kept in power by a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the bowler-hatted Creationist nay-sayer heirs of Ian Paisley in the Democratic Unionist Party.
Northern Ireland has no government at all, at the most crucial point in its history since Partition, while the DUP holds the whip-hand over one of the co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. Of course, Sinn Fein could stop that by taking their seven Westminster seats, but they won’t because party interests trump the common good every time.
Relations between Ireland and our oldest enemy/closest friend have never been better, we thought, what with Mrs Windsor’s 2011 visit – not even slightly marred by dissident morons in British soccer jerseys protesting – and the Queen’s Irish, Mrs McAleese’s “Wow” and Michael D’s return-visit magnificent Prosidontial Occent.
That was before The Neighbours decided to embark on an insane bout of self-harming which may well end up hurting us more than it hurts them.
At the time of writing – Monday night – the UK had at the urging of the DUP at the last minute rejected a Brexit deal which would have avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland by essentially allowing Northern Ireland effectively – plausibly deniably – to remain in the EU. The DUP weren’t having anything that might look like a United Ireland, even though so attractive was the proposed solution that Scotland, Wales and London all kicked up that they wanted the same.
Unionists like to refer disdainfully to the Republic as "Mexico", but it's genuinely hard to figure out if the current Brexit impasse is a Mexican stand-off or the DUP re-enacting that scene in 'Blazing Saddles' where Sheriff Bart takes himself hostage.
Theresa May has made the unholy mess of Brexit even worse. So long as Arlene Foster holds the balance of power over the Tories, it’s hard to see how this ends well for anyone. Whatever happens, it looks to be a bumpy ride.
To be continued…