Brexit: a reminder of Ireland’s shame
I have always scoffed at nationalism a bit. I love Ireland, my country, but all the talk about Irish soil has never really grabbed me.
However, reading about the UK’s EU referendum in Irish media and speaking to academics and so-called intellectuals, I noticed something: they are all anti-Brexit. They treat the prospect of the UK leaving the EU as something to be politely disgusted by. Britain’s own Remain campaign shares this disdain for Brexit, but there’s definitely something extra in the Irish disdain. And I think I know what it is – the UK could be about to gain the independence Ireland sacrificed in exchange for continuing EU membership.
Of course, Ireland, having long stood up to the British Empire, was once a paragon of independence across the world. It wasn’t only a land of originality, a place of poetry – Ireland was also a model of self-governance. We were unique but we were also able to reach out to the world in extraordinary ways. Ireland was special, and we knew it. But, hold the fón, there’s a catch: in 1973, Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC).
Membership felt good for a while. But, over time, the EEC changed into the EU, and became something else entirely. No amount of 1916 centenary celebrations, or tributes to our long struggle for independence, can hide the fact that, in recent years, mysterious bureaucrats from Brussels have been telling our government, and us, what to do. Everyone knows it’s wrong, but we’re scared of the alternative. So we sit when we’re told to sit by people we don’t really identify with, just as they sure as hell don’t identify with us.
But, in a referendum on whether to accept the Lisbon Treaty, the EU’s new constitution, in June 2008, we had our moment to free ourselves. The Lisbon Treaty, remember, was the second major reform to the EU’s structure since Ireland joined the European project, and it aimed to further centralise power in Brussels. And that June, we rejected it. The ballots were barely in, however, when a second referendum was put in the works. The message was clear: unless we gave the Lisbon Treaty the green light, there’d be trouble.
Ahead of the second referendum, the Irish government launched a well-funded PR campaign, which spread fear about Ireland’s future outside the EU, and the economic consequences if it rejected Lisbon for a second time. Unsurprisingly, the second time around, we said Yes. Admittedly, the EU had made amendments to Lisbon after Ireland first said No, but it wasn’t the amendments that convinced the Irish to approve Lisbon; it was the gun pressed to the back of our heads as we slipped the voting card into the box. It was a degrading and shameful form of democracy.
People never really talk about the Lisbon referenda now, the authoritarianism of it all, but there’s a kind of collective post-dentist numbness about what Ireland now is. It’s all a far cry from the visions of WB Yeats, and I don’t think I’m being overly sentimental to say some of the magic of Ireland has been lost.
This is why the snobby Irish media class despises Brexit so much – because it holds up a mirror to the state of Irish politics and Irish democracy. We’re told Britain resents the EU due to Brits’ ‘fantasy imperialism and national self-importance’. We’re told that UKIP has simply capitalised on ‘bolshy nationalism’ and a ‘fear of anyone who doesn’t enjoy ale and Union Jack shorts’. And we’re expected to believe that Britain potentially leaving the EU comes down to jingoistic Les Battersby types waving their pitchforks around.
The Irish political and media class talk of the economic problems of Brexit, of the uncertainty it could unleash. But peel away the dry economics and financial piffling and something else emerges: Ireland’s shame – the fact that we shrugged off our British overlords, only to pimp out our democracy a hundred years on. And now they, the Brits, are the ones on the verge of reclaiming their democratic sovereignty. It’s time we Irish recognised that our own democracy has gone a bit arseways.
Gearóid Murphy is a writer based in Ireland.
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