“Ireland is prospering by doing things more rationally and in ways that are firmly rooted in the state’s membership of multilateral institutions. The many in these islands who yearn for Britain to do likewise can only look on as, in Ireland, an enviable beauty is born.”
So read The Guardian’s salutary editorial on Monday, a paean to the ‘new nation’ of Ireland prospering amid Brexit chaos. Ireland, as eagle-eyed readers may notice, is not that new. But the contention of this fawning editorial is that the “Irish Republic” has been reborn by finally stepping out of Britain’s shadow.
Finishing on a clunky Yeats reference, the editorial was delivered in the patronising tone that colours much of the UK media’s Irish coverage. Its highest profile endorsement from within Ireland itself seems to have come, unsurprisingly, from Neale Richmond – a Fine Gael TD who made a name for himself not so long ago by advocating Ireland’s return to the Commonwealth.
Someone like Richmond will find plenty to like about the Ireland depicted by The Guardian. In this realm, the maturity shown by the new Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition in rising above dated nationalist politics is a measure of how far Ireland has come. The willingness of these two right-wing parties, who have governed the state between them since its foundation, to put aside what minuscule differences separate them in the name of the national interest is a marker of progress and rationality.
But this coalition is not the vanguard of a new Ireland, it’s a vestige of the old one. Neither of these parties, nor their junior coalition partner, the Green Party, received the most votes in February’s election. In fact, Taoiseach Michael Martin led his party to a second placed finish. The entire point of the new government, the only point in fact, is blocking Sinn Féin and the rising Irish Left from power. This is not the forward march of progress, it’s a raising of the drawbridge.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been change. In the past five years, Ireland became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by public referendum, and taken its first steps towards a legal abortion regime. The power of the old Catholic theocracy has been broken, and there have been street movements against austerity and the creeping privatisation of water.
All of these movements had, at their heart, a desire to break with the right-wing orthodoxy represented by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which has smothered Ireland since the foundation of the state. The mainstream parties delicately rebranded themselves in support of reform. But the marriage equality and abortion rights movements were built by activists who were shunned by official Ireland and its dominant parties.
These are not the forces credited in Monday’s editorial with driving Ireland’s progress. Remarkably, for an article about the pace of change in Irish politics, they aren’t mentioned at all. But this was not really a piece about Ireland. Rather, it was about projecting its own nostalgia for pre-Brexit Britain onto its closest neighbour, and mourning for all that the British liberal centre has lost.
Instrumentalising Ireland and assessing it only by what lessons it might hold for Britain is nothing new, of course. But what is most striking about the editorial is how little effort is made to engage with politics in Ireland at all. Leo Varadkar’s government may have been successful in putting the Irish border front and centre of the EU’s Brexit negotiating stance, as the editorial points out. But just 1% of the Irish electorate was guided by Brexit when casting their vote in the February general election.
What dominated instead were concerns over healthcare and housing – issues that could just as easily have resonance for British audiences. In fact, Ireland is currently in the grips of a major homelessness crisis, enabled by spiralling rents, the dominance of the private sector, and lack of support for tenants. And all of this on the precipice of the second economic crisis in a generation.
These are the issues that determined February’s election, prompting an historic breakthrough for Sinn Féin. Yet all of them are absent from “The Guardian view on Irish politics,” a giddy highlight reel of influential Irish politicians in Brussels and on the world stage.
Finance minister Paschal Donohoe’s election as chair of the Eurogroup means little to a lost generation priced out of gentrified districts in his Dublin Central constituency. EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan is better remembered at home as the architect of the hated water charges regime. Celebrating middle-of-the-road political figures for their Europeanism, while ignoring their record of impoverishing working-class people on the homefront – now, where have we seen this before?
And despite the Irish government successfully wheeling out Bono and Riverdance to gain a seat on the UN Security Council, few are under any impression that Ireland will offer much by way of difficulty to the international order. After all, this ‘new’ Ireland has increasingly drifted from its genuinely distinctive neutrality and towards full participation in the Western power structure. The state remains formally committed to neutrality, and adept at symbolic gestures, but in truth provides material support to the US war machine in Shannon Airport.
Not all of the points made in the editorial are entirely without merit. The British public is right to be aggrieved at Boris Johnson’s callous handling of the pandemic. The Irish response does indeed compare favourably with the UK’s, although should not be romanticised. Ireland, too, has suffered from a high rate of infection and fatality among health workers and in nursing homes.
The premise that “before Brexit and Mr Johnson Ireland might have taken an informal cue on handling the pandemic from its larger and richer neighbour” is shaky, to say the least. After all, Ireland remains without a properly public health service – one might have hoped it would take such a cue from Aneurin Bevan. But that line does betray the emotions which guide the editorial, the sense of mourning for the UK’s loss of status post-Brexit.
The reputable United Kingdom, as The Guardian imagines it, never really existed – certainly not in the eyes of most Irish people. Even if we were to forget Britain’s historic role in Ireland, or its more recent and grizzly contributions in the north of the country, Ireland took little by way of moral leadership from the country which went to war with Iraq and practiced extraordinary rendition during its recent liberal heyday.
While opposition from Bertie Ahern’s government was muted at the time, it was not so from the Irish public themselves. The 2003 marches against the Iraq war in Dublin were among the largest demonstrations in modern Irish history. Nor was that an aberration. The spirit of the anti-war movement drew on a disdain for imperialism and warmongering which had its roots in our relationship with Britain.
This editorial casts Britain’s shadow over Ireland somewhat differently. And no surprise: only through a distorted lens could you see a new republic in the congealing of its two historic parties of government in the face of the people’s demands for change. The Guardian romanticises the new Ireland, but it can’t seem to break from the old ways of writing about it.