The British writer Michael Burleigh, the author of several acclaimed histories of Nazi Germany and the rise of totalitarian regimes in 20th century Europe, has penned a scathing article on Brexit for the current affairs site, Project Syndicate. In the lengthy opinion piece, the centre-right academic condemns the governing Conservative Party in London for its failure to recognise the potentially disastrous effects of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on the carefully brokered peace in the UK legacy colony on the island of Ireland.
Of all the Euroskeptic Conservative politicians I know, not one has ever mentioned Northern Ireland, let alone the sovereign country to the south of it. The only thing on the Brexiteers’ minds is the quest for parliamentary sovereignty and liberation from the supranational “superstate” in Brussels. This blinkered view may simply reflect ignorance.
Even an erstwhile “Remainer” like Karen Bradley, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, recently confessed that, “[…] when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland.” In other words, until very recently, she has been incurious about one of the central issues of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British history.
In addition to military decommissioning, the Good Friday Agreement brought together antagonistic communities by mandating smooth trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, under the aegis of the EU customs union. The fact that 55.8% of Northern Irish voters backed “Remain” in the 2016 referendum partly reflects this astonishing achievement.
Predominantly English Brexiteers have given no serious thought to the Irish question, nor even to the likelihood that crashing out of the EU might take the UK back to the dark ages. Many of them would rather lose Northern Ireland and Scotland than forgo Brexit.
Instead, they have been busy constructing a fanciful world of limitless possibility, based on a national mythology featuring Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, the British Raj, and standing “alone” in 1940. Psychologically, some of them seem to be reliving an imaginary war with our closest neighbors and trading partners.
Unfortunately, this summation of Brexiteer thinking is all too true. There are many Conservative Party backbenchers, and a handful of like-minded mavericks in the opposition Labour Party, who genuinely seem to believe that the best scenario for a post-EU UK is a period of prolonged diplomatic and economic “cold war” with its former partners. A “corrective” to decades of too close ties and links with the nation-states of mainland Europe. Meanwhile in the American sports magazine, Deadspin, the journalist Odrán Waldron notes the animosity in Britain towards the Irish soccer player James McClean, who competes for the local English team Stoke City FC. The reason for the antagonism? The refusal of the Derry-born sportsman to wear the Royal British Legion Poppy, an annual symbol of commemoration for veterans who served in the United Kingdom’s military and intelligence services during the 20th and 21st centuries. This includes all those who fought in Ireland during the UK’s failed campaign to defeat the 1916-23 independence revolution, as well as the much later 1966-2005 “Troubles” in the still occupied north-eastern corner of the island. Two historical associations which make the poppy a less than neutral symbol for Irish people.
…McClean explained that he could not wear a poppy because it was “used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945.” As a son of a city eternally scarred by the British Army’s 1972 massacre of fourteen civil rights marchers—including six from Creggan—in what became known as Bloody Sunday, he said that he could not show “disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles—and Bloody Sunday especially.”
In any normal society, this historically contextualized and reasonable explanation would be accepted; not personally wanting to pay tribute to a force that indiscriminately killed peaceful protesters in your hometown seems perfectly sensible, but, as Colin Kaepernick came to learn years after McClean, anyone who questions the institutional war machine is immediately marked an outcast.
It was expected that Stoke City fans would boo their own player and they did as he entered the field in the 82nd minute in Saturday’s game against rivals for promotion Middlesbrough.
McClean was heckled and harassed with anti-Irish songs with every touch of the ball…
After the final whistle, with McClean walking towards the tunnel to exit the pitch, Middlesbrough fans rushed the perimeter, having to be held back by stewards.
Underlying the howls of those who can’t handle Kaepernick’s or McClean’s statements is the idea of the ungrateful savage who should be happy to have a place in the empire: When a millionaire black man in America or a millionaire Irishman in Britain speak of the routine slaughter their people have suffered over generations, they are told to be happy that they are not among them. The thinking goes that Kaepernick should be appreciative that he was never enslaved or killed by a cop and McClean should feel indebted that he did not join the ghosts of the Creggan estate, and they should both shut up and smile.
A precedent for the treatment of soccer-playing northern Catholics in Britain was set with Neil Lennon…
The targeted abuse of Lennon has never subsided: fans of both Rangers and Heart of Midlothian, two clubs from Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively with largely British nationalist fan bases, have physically attacked him. Just last week, he was hit with a coin by a Hearts fan during the Edinburgh derby and “Hang Neil Lennon” was painted on a wall near Hearts’ stadium.
English soccer has always been a hotbed for an almost accepted level of British nationalism, one that inevitably manifests itself in anti-Irishness; not the kind of anti-Irishness some Irish-Americans believe exists and affects them, but real-life hatred of former and current (McClean’s Derry is still under British control after all) colonial subjects expressing themselves.
If this is Britain before Brexit what will it be like after it?