Brexit may be a disaster, but at least it’s going well for Fintan O’Toole. The Irish Times and Guardian columnist has become the doyen of liberal Brexit punditry. To Brits he’s foreign, but not too foreign. He’s the citizen of a former colony, but he’s not too salty about the whole “centuries of oppression” thing and and that gives him the perfect perspective to skewer Britain’s post-Imperial meltdown. He’s middle class enough to ignore the legitimate criticisms of the EU and has made a killing by making it all about culture and psychology. Fair play.
But according to people like journalist Eilis O’Hanlon, who last month wrote that O’Toole has “inspired a dangerous new wave of anti-Britishness in Ireland”. O’Hanlon was writing for Reaction, the “pro-market news” site founded by Iain Martin. You may know him as The Times columnist and absolute king of Anglo-Irish relations, who once asked what exactly it was the British had done to inspire anti-Britishness in Ireland. Ruth Dudley-Edwards, another Irish journalist, has been making a similar pearl-clutching argument on the same site, where she called O’Toole “new Ireland’s balladeer” and compared him to the people who wrote old rebel songs for Ireland’s wartime dead, such as James Connolly and Kevin Barry. Similarly, writing in the Sunday Independent, the journalist and former senator Eoghan Harris said that Irish Anglophobia hadn’t been as bad since Bloody Sunday, where we disgraceful Paddies got mad because the British Army killed 14 unarmed civilians.
To hear O’Hanlon tell it, O’Toole’s latest book, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, fanned “the ancient flame of Brit-hatred”. From this description you might expect to include an Irish nationalist rewriting of the Rangers fans’ anthem “Follow Follow” where “Dundee, Hamilton, fuck the Pope and the Vatican” is replaced with “London, Abingdon, fuck the queen and Albion”. In reality, the book starts with such an extended love letter to British culture that could have been summed up with a nice little caricature of him playing cricket with John Bull.
But if we have fallen into the trap of what O’Hanlon calls “a toxic Anglophobia resurgent in Ireland”, we should at least take comfort in the fact that our Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – a man who's been called a west Brit so often that being named as an Anglophobe must be something of a relief – is leading the charge. Writing in her column for the Sunday Telegraph, just a few days after her Reaction piece, O’Hanlon blamed the supposed anti-English sentiment on Brexit allowing Ireland to “for once” be the big boy who owns the ball in this eternal and insufferable game of colonial football we are locked in.
The idea of Varadkar and the EU creating some sort of anti-England cabal has been prevalent in the right-wing doldrums of sites like Reaction. Last year Owen Polley criticised Michel Barnier for speaking at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit conference in Dundalk because the town was “a favoured bolthole of the IRA during the Troubles”. IRA men never went to any other town in the Republic of Ireland, apparently. On the CapX site, ran by the Tory-affiliated think tank Centre for Policy Studies, Polley followed this up by pointing out the irony of the “Anglophobic doctrines of Irish nationalism” bringing about a hard border in Ireland. He confirmed O’Hanlon’s fear of Anglophobia “flourishing among the educated, middle-class Irish” when he decried that it is now racist to support our all-island national rugby team, a team so nationalist they have a separate anthem so that Ulster unionist rugby fans don’t have to sing the Irish national anthem.
This kind of concern over anti-Brit sentiment is consistent within Ireland’s media, where figures, including O’Toole, have routinely forgiven England before it has apologised, in order to look like the adults in the room.
The grim reality is that any distrust of the British state in Ireland is based on the history of being invaded, colonised and partitioned by it. It does not mean that we hate all English people and it doesn’t make us racist, as anyone who has heard the words “power” and “relations” used together could tell you.
If anything, Ireland has been overly nice to Britain in recent years; in a decade of revolutionary centenaries, Ireland included the names of the British soldiers killed in the 1916 Easter Rising, on a remembrance wall and just recently, completely ignored the anniversary of the Soloheadbeg ambush, roundly regarded as the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. Such is the government’s reticence to celebrate the military aspects of the Irish fight for independence that an event plan for centenary celebrations lay dormant in government offices for months until The Irish Times reported its existence.
The refusal to back down over the backstop, driving people like Boris Johnson up the wall because they have to think for more than five minutes, is testament to just how subservient successive Irish governments have been to British whims. Read any old Tory writing about former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and they will be glowing, because FitzGerald bowed to Thatcher every time. England is, for the first time since the Anglo-Irish Trade War, being properly told "no" by the Irish government and they can’t handle it.
The punchline is that Varadkar is only barely saying no; the backstop only covers cross-border trade. Despite telling nationalists in Northern Ireland that they would “never again be left behind by an Irish government”, cross-border services and the rights of the Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland have been left by the wayside. Paragraph 52 of December 2017’s Joint Report specifically guaranteed that northern-born Irish citizens in the north would have access to their EU rights; it was conspicuously missing when the Withdrawal Agreement was drafted.
It can be funny to imagine the English choking on their “sarnies” at the idea of a rugby team soon to be managed by Wigan native Andy Farrell chanting about getting the Brits out. An Anglophile writer for the paper of record that opposed every Irish revolution in its existence donning Braveheart-like tricolour paint would be just as good. Then there’s the idea of the politician who gets called an Irish Tory every minute of the day leading the charge against Perfidious Albion; the truth is that when it comes to Varadkar and Anglophobia, the only common thread is a lot of words and no substance.