Britain’s Pro-Brexit Press: When in Doubt, Blame the Irish

Posted By: October 13, 2019

Ari Paul. Fairness and Accuracy in the Media. Friday, October 11, 2019

The Daily Express (10/4/19) defies the reality that Brexit has a great deal to do with Ireland.

The deadline for Britain to come up with a deal under which it would exit from the European Union is less than a month away. With no agreement in sight between Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a hardline Brexiteer, and his EU counterparts, the country has been jittery, to say the least. Political rebellions in Parliament and blows against Johnson in the courts have had people guessing: Will Johnson resign as prime minister, or renege on his promise that he will not ask for an extension on the October 31 deadline?

We have our answer. The BBC (10/4/19) reported that Johnson “will send a letter to the EU asking for a Brexit delay if no deal is agreed by” October 19, in order to be in compliance with a recently enacted UK law.

This all comes as a great blow to Brexit supporters within the Conservative Party and the Northern Ireland-based Democratic Unionist Party, who valued a swift exit from the EU over reaching a deal with the continental bloc.

So who’s the blame for this humiliation, according to the pro-Brexit faction of the British press? The Irish Taoiseach, or prime minister, Leo Varadkar, of course

It’s true that Ireland is central to this debacle. One of the main reasons the EU and the UK cannot come up with a Brexit deal is that the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, insists on keeping an open border with Northern Ireland, which is governed by London. The open border is seen by Dublin as a key factor in ending sectarian violence on the island, as well as a pillar of the Irish economy. Even if Britain leaves the EU customs union, Ireland wants free trade across the border preserved as a so-called “backstop”—something hardliners like Johnson see as ceding British sovereignty.

Varadkar, whose country would have to deal with an entirely new border situation in the case of a no-deal Brexit, has a vested interest in pushing the UK and the EU toward some kind of an agreement. And the papers just aren’t having it.

The Daily Express (10/4/19), for example, highlighted claims from Brexit supporters that the Irish premier was “meddling” in British affairs:  “‘It’s Got Nothing to Do With You Mate!’” the tabloid’s headline read, though clearly Brexit would impact the Republic of Ireland as well as Britain. The paper quoted angry Leaver MPs from the DUP,  but nothing from the anti-Brexit Sinn Fein lawmakers who represent the opposition in the North. The Express (10/1/19 ) also headlined DUP leader Arlene Foster’s claim that a no-deal Brexit would be Varadkar’s fault.  condemned the Irish leader as “panicked” (10/4/19 ), in his looking to avert a no-deal scenario—as if any leader would be sanguine as their nation’s only land border were to be hardened without their consent.

The Telegraph (10/4/19) figures out a way to work the word “drunk” into a headline about the Irish prime minister.

Journalist/politician Patrick O’Flynn, writing in the Telegraph (10/4/19), accused Varadkar of being “drunk” on his hatred for the “accursed English”—combining the ugly stereotype of Irish drunkenness with scorn for Britain’s former imperial subjects (Varadkar is of both Irish and Indian descent) in a tone that would have been familiar a century ago. The Telegraph’s Liam Halligan (10/2/19) went so far as to say Varadkar was exploiting the border issue just to ruin Britain’s dream of sovereignty.

The Telegraph (10/2/19) also trumpeted the claim by the DUP—which until recently propped up the Tory majority in Parliament—that Varadkar’s accurate observation that Remain has outpolled Leave since Johnson’s ascendancy shows that rather than the border issue, “the Irish government’s true intention was to keep Britain in the EU.” The London Times(10/4/19), too, headlined DUP claims that Varadkar was “Trying to Scupper New Brexit Deal.”

The Sun (10/3/19) claimed that Varadkar “sparks anger” with his suggestion of a second referendum on Brexit, a fairly un-radical political position in the UK.  The Daily Mail (10/4/19) also said Varadkar had “sparked outrage” with his “meddling.”

Varadkar is a good scapegoat for the pro-Brexit press: He’s foreign, he isn’t white and he’s pushing for some kind of transnational accommodation to preserve peace on the island, all things that rub Union Jack-wavers the wrong way.

The deeply colonialist approach of these presentations reflects the imperial nature of Brexit itself. They paint Ireland as an outsider trying to impose its will on the UK, rather than as a former colony of the British directly impacted by this crisis. And while Brexiters can point to the 2016 referendum as proof that the UK’s decision to leave was a democratic one, this ignores that the status of the two Irelands will change against their will—the Republic didn’t get a vote, and 56% of the North voted to remain—as if Britain’s is the only sovereignty that matters.

The New York Times (10/4/19) recently showed how the Brexit processes inverted the power relationship between the formerly colonized and its former master:

Unless Mr. Johnson can satisfy [Varadkar] that it will not disrupt the fragile peace in Northern Ireland, it is highly unlikely that he will be able to persuade the other 26 members of the European Union to accept it.

When one thinks of how emasculating this is for an empire that once controlled a quarter of the globe, the tabloid histrionics about Varadkar seem almost like a hegemonic death rattle. Worse, as Fintan O’Toole at the Irish Times(10/3/19) writes, Johnson’s perception of finding a consensus isn’t about finding one with the EU, but finding one with the hard right of the Tory and DUP alliance. Such a view on international cooperation is as colonialist as it is hypocritical; as O’Toole points out, keeping the border open is also mandated under the British law authorizing the EU exit. He writes, “Britain just can’t live up to this commitment.”

Pointing the finger at Varadkar by Brexit partisans, and their friends in the press, isn’t just about deflecting from Tory mismanagement—it’s a clear statement that for Brexiteers, the fate of Ireland simply doesn’t matter to them.

Featured image: Cartoon from the Sun (3/31/19) depicting Britain’s then–Prime Minister Theresa May as a leprechaun demanding that Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar “solve the backstop problem.”

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