Recently, Priti Patel, the former international development secretary, suggested that the government should use the threat of food shortages in Ireland to secure a better Brexit deal from the EU. Does she know nothing?
One million people died during the country’s Great Famine between 1845 and 1849 – a famine, I might add, which was exacerbated by the direct actions of the British government at the time.
This isn’t the first time ignorance over Ireland has become a flashpoint in Brexit talks. In late 2017, the eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey insisted that no physical border would be necessary on the island, adding that, were such a thing to exist, Dublin would “have to pay for it.”
While Hoey didn’t quite go full “we’ll build a wall and make Leo Varadkar pay for it,” her follow-up remark asking why the Irish government doesn’t “actually become more positive about this and start looking at solutions with their closest neighbour” will have raised eyebrows in Dublin.
There was an idea not so long ago, even among many Irish people, that it was time to move on from the past. We were all going to be European together forever, after all, and we ought to at least try to smooth over our differences. Post-Brexit, however, I suspect this relatively recent sense of equanimity is being put to the test.
A Little Family History
My grandfather came from Ireland to England to work at Orgreave colliery – I grew up hearing the stories of abuse dressed up as banter, of “Paddy Go Home”, of “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”, of him being asked if he was an IRA terrorist.
He moved back to Ireland after the pits closed, partly because of all that intolerance; the ONLY reason he moved back later (and thus the only reason I know him at all, really) was to be closer to his grown-up daughters and their children (me) after he retired and his health began to worsen.
British ignorance has always chilled him to the bone. That’s always been the insulting thing for him. Not the crimes themselves – and the famine, the plantations, the troubles, they were undoubtedly criminal actions fuelled by the direct decisions of the British state – but the fact that nobody even gives them much of a second thought, or takes the time to learn about them.
He was outraged when Rees-Mogg suggested that there should be a land border in Ireland, but he wasn’t surprised. I don’t know what he thinks of Patel’s comments, but I imagine he’ll be thinking much the same.
I’d like to leave you with a thought from Megan Nolan, who wrote an article for the Irish Times recently:
I found myself genuinely breathless with anger when I read the Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen’s recent comments assuming he would be entitled to an Irish passport post-Brexit. How can it be possible that a member of parliament in 2018 still believes that Ireland is nothing but a resource to be drawn from and discarded at will? I once laughed at their cluelessness. But I don’t find it funny anymore, how they think of us – or often, how they don’t bother to think of us at all.
I’ve lived in London for three years. I hadn’t spent much time in Britain before my arrival and had no particular feelings toward the English. I expected them to react to me with similar neutrality. What I didn’t expect was the toxic mix of dismissal and casual disdain. It would have been easier, perhaps, if it was all as overt as potato jokes. But what kills you is the ignorance; what grinds you down is how much they don’t know about the past and, if they do know, how little they care.
It’s a strange and maddening thing to discover about the people who shaped your country’s fate and who are poised to do so again… Because England keeps on making itself matter to Ireland, against our will.