Beware the surge in nationalism, Leo

Posted By: December 31, 2017

Lise Hand. The Times. London. Sunday, December 31, 2017

Stronger calls for a united Ireland over Brexit could cost the country dear
Despite the languor wrought by the Christmas cornucopia of indulgence, many Irish eyebrows soared skywards over the contents of an extraordinary letter unearthed in the 1987 state papers released last week. It was written on UVF-headed notepaper and signed in block capitals “Capt. W. Johnston,” the name used by the UVF in all its formal statements. Addressed to then Taoiseach Charles Haughey, it claimed the organization had been approached by an MI5 operative two years previously. “He asked us to execute you.” The letter closed with the line: “We have no love for you, but we are not going to carry out work for the Dirty Tricks Department of the British.”

It seems grimly ironic that this bizarre missive should be released from the archives at the end of a year that has witnessed the reappearance of frost over hitherto rapidly warming relations between the two islands.

It’s worth remembering how far Ireland had traveled since 1987 when it truly was a country of two halves. The Republic was beginning to fight its way out of a deep recession, and good vibrations abounded: cyclist Stephen Roche won the Tour de France; Johnny Logan won Eurovision; and the Irish soccer team qualified for our first major international tournament — the Euro finals in West Germany. But across the border, the violence ripping through The North that year cast a long shadow over the entire country. In May, the British SAS killed eight IRA members and a civilian in Loughgall, Co Tyrone, and in November 11 people were killed and 63 wounded by an IRA bomb during a Remembrance Day service in Enniskillen.

The intervening three decades brought the cessation of The Troubles and the removal of the hard Border between north and south, leading to a seamless flow of people and goods over an invisible line in the ground. It also led to the setting up of a devolved government in Stormont, and to a rebalancing of the relationship between Ireland and Britain.

We grew up, and Brit-bashing was left as the pastime of those unable or unwilling to turn their faces from the past. We listened in silence as God Save the Queen rang out in the emotion-filled cauldron of Croke Park in 2007 and then saw the respect reciprocated in 2011 when the same Queen bowed her head before a memorial in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance for those who died fighting for Irish freedom.

Then we all just got on with things, as normal neighbors do. There was the odd spat across the fence, naturally, and many of us still enjoy any English sporting defeat. But we regarded ourselves as equal to, rather than subject to, the Big House next door.

But then Brexit happened, lobbing a slow-burning Molotov cocktail into both our backyards. Theresa May — shellshocked after the snap election stunt went pear-shaped for the Tories — invited the DUP to prop up her party in government. There was consternation on this side of the Irish Sea at the perilous imbalance this alliance would impose on the fragile symbiosis of northern politics, particularly during a crunch phase of the Brexit talks. But the British side frankly didn’t give a damn, beyond outbreaks of hand-wringing in some quarters upon discovering that when it comes to attitudes on progressive social issues, the Tories’ new amigos had landed in Westminster via a Tardis from the 1950s.

As tensions rose over the fate of the Irish border, the depth of ignorance and insouciance displayed by swathes of Britain’s politicians, commentators and the public regarding the intricacies of the Good Friday agreement and the implications of a hard Brexit on the island of Ireland soon became all too evident. As the volume of Paddy-bashing was turned all the way up to 11 by some of the more rabid Brexiteers, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that instead of regarding us as equals, a cohort of our nearest neighbours believed we had simply advanced to the point where we had learned to play nicely with other children, and therefore could be safely ignored.

And as the battle raged between Dublin, Belfast, and Westminster, something began to shift in the Irish political landscape. In February and early March — before the British general election and before the Brexit horse-trading got underway — a poll on Irish unity was conducted by Ireland Thinks, which posed the question, “If it cost the Irish government €9bn per annum for Northern Ireland to unite with the Republic of Ireland, how would you vote in relation to a referendum on a united Ireland?” The result was 50-50. But when the same question was posed in the third week of December, after the Brexit border talks, the result had shifted to 60% for a united Ireland and 40% against, with a decline in don’t know.

The fact that this percentage would fork over €9bn for the fourth green field is inarguably the result of the spike in nationalism sparked by the Brexit battles of 2017. It may also be in part due to a recovering economy and a rebounding national confidence after being kicked around during the financial crash. It can also be attributed to the end of the mayhem in The North. It may even be that soaring property prices in the Republic mean that nine big ones for an entire province seem quite reasonable.

But €9bn would represent a 13% increase in the Irish government’s annual expenditure of €68.7bn. Where would the extra loot come from: the health budget or social welfare? Or by scrapping key infrastructural projects? Or by cutting agricultural grants or raising taxes? It’s difficult to gauge whether this swing towards a united Ireland is a temporary surge, a reaction to the crass colonialism of the Brexiteers, which would dissipate if the Irish electorate had to foot the bill at the expense of their own pay packets or benefits. But right now, the sentiment is real.

The Taoiseach is ending the year on a high in the opinion polls; one in The Sunday Times last weekend put Leo Varadkar’s approval rating at 56% — a four-point increase. Given the government’s failure to date to satisfactorily tackle other big-ticket issues, such as housing, homelessness, and dysfunction in the banking sector and An Garda Siochana, this is undeniably a Brexit bounce.

As the Taoiseach admitted, relations are “strained” between Ireland and Britain in a way not experienced for some time. An international opinion poll that examined how leaders rated in various countries found last week that Theresa May polled a 68% unfavorable rating in Ireland. Nor are the claims made in the UVF letter likely to promote a thaw, given the allegations therein suggest that as recently as 30 years ago British intelligence was considering bumping off Ireland’s most senior politician, basically treating the Republic as a colony run by dangerous chieftains.

Playing the tricolor card in this high-stakes Brexit game has served the taoiseach well. But if he overplays his hand to please the electorate and to out-Shinner Sinn Fein, who have been long clamoring for a Border poll, then he might find that multibillion fourth green field stuffed into his Santa sock sooner than he wants.