John Downing: ‘Some in the UK have an ill-judged sense of grievance against us’
The very last thing anyone in Ireland should do right now is gloat. As recently as just weeks ago, nobody would have been unduly surprised to hear the Taoiseach was visiting EU capitals in a five-to-midnight effort to rally support for Ireland’s cause.
Today, it is UK Prime Minister Theresa May who is playing that role. And in a curious piece of role-reversal, she is due in Dublin to try to enlist Irish support ahead of another Brexit EU leaders’ summit in Brussels tomorrow.
Among the many strange things surrounding this Brexit rolling political car crash is a persistent feeling among some in England that Ireland somehow wants to “punish” them. It has come across fleetingly, but recurrently, in various British media exchanges.
It is the notion that Ireland, with all its 4.8 million people amid the total EU bloc’s 500 million, is somehow managing to “wind” the other 26 remaining member states against London.
Yesterday a respected BBC political journalist, Nicholas Watt, revealed this growing, bogus notion in a piece for that news organisation’s website.
Mr Watt reported an off-the-record conversation with a former Conservative minister. “We simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this,” the man said – adding the “Irish should know their place.”
That is the point where we really need to look at the history of these matters. As the revered British historian Tony Judt noted in his masterful ‘Post War’, a history of Europe after the World War II, Ireland and Denmark were simply towed into the then-EEC in 1973 on the UK’s coat-tails due to both countries’ huge trade dependence on Britain.
In 1962, then-‘Irish Press’ London editor, Des Fisher, interviewed EEC Commission president Walter Hallstein about Ireland’s membership hopes. Mr Hallstein frankly said if Britain’s application succeeded Ireland would follow – if Britain failed, so would Ireland.
Since then the road has forked on many occasions; in 1979 we split with sterling, and in 1999 went with the euro. All the time, the Irish-UK trade dependency reduced – but the relationship also changed.
The British-Irish relationship has often been spiky and difficult. But most of us have close relatives and friends on the larger adjacent island with whom we also share a common language and overlapping cultural interests of all sorts.
The UK and Irish experience of EU membership over almost half a century has been shared and different at one and the same time.
It is hard for some in England to grasp Ireland had to protect itself against the consequences of Brexit.
We pushed a case about Ireland’s needs. We won EU support largely because our needs tallied with the greater EU interests.