This Englishman's story about Ireland shows why Brexit should worry us all
I first visited Ireland in the early 1990s after my mum’s parents moved back there, to County Limerick, 40-odd years after having emigrated to the north of England.
I loved Ireland immediately and do still.
By Michael, in London
Since that first visit I’ve gone back at least three or four times each year; for grandparent visits, for weddings, for funerals, for tourism, for nights out and each time with enjoyment, relaxation, excessive food and replenishment.
My own ties to Ireland got tighter and more emotionally and legally intricate when I married someone who was born in Derry (legally Northern Ireland), who lived their early years in County Donegal (legally the Republic of Ireland), and who migrated to England (legally England).
So it’s through this prism - a perspective common to thousands of others - that I watch the Brexit process. Increasingly with real sadness.
The debate about Ireland’s role in Brexit is becoming more shrill, more entrenched and more unyielding. The reaction to this week’s publication of the EU’s proposed legal framework is further evidence of how far we are from having a sensible, calm discussion.
Whichever side you sit on (Irish Brexiteer; Irish Remainer; Northern Irish Brexiteer; Northern Irish Remainer; British Brexiteer; British Remainer; or any, a bit, or none of these nationalities but eye-rollingly-impatient-and-bored-of-it-please-God-just-get-on-with-it), we are at risk of collectively losing sight of the intricacy and history of our relationships with each other.
The logic of the EU’s position on the Irish border is straightforward. Whether or not you agree with it, the head of the European Union calling for the safeguarding of one of its member state’s borders, at the potential expense of the hypothetical economic prospects of a soon-to-be ex-member state, is unsurprising and entirely reasonable.
This graphic sets out the challenge. There is, as is becoming increasingly apparent as the process evolves, no universally satisfactory solution.
The 'Irish veto' news from Donald Tusk in December will have been a welcome show of solidarity for people in Ireland, but tees up an almighty sense of resentment for the future if the reason why trade talks can't progress is "because of Ireland". It doesn't take a huge leap of strategic imagination to see how this could play out with some who favour Brexit. Depressingly hackneyed stereotypes of Irish people and culture already have been cropping up again in mainstream outlets, and unsurprisingly indignant rebukes from many Irish people suggest we are all digging trenches.
Beneath the barbs and headlines though is a matter of the utmost seriousness. Whatever your position, what matters is that whatever we each believe in, that we all act with a clear sense of a shared, centuries-old, intense, complicated, ongoing, bloody and always contested history. This is - alarmingly quickly in some of the British media's coverage - ebbing away.
The starkest example is the recent careless talk of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, as if it were a disposable, optional extra, rather than the foundation - for unionists and republicans alike - of a peace that broke out and has remained more or less intact after four centuries of conflict. A peace on the island of Ireland that has likewise meant an end to attacks on British citizens, whether in London, Omagh or Brighton.
The point of the past twenty years is not that that sense of contest has gone away, but that everyone involved - current residents, diaspora and their families, friends and enemies - has learned to find a way to manage that contest.
In the past few months it has felt, very clearly, that the contest is becoming harder to manage and the equilibrium harder to balance.
For me and my immediate, marital and extended family, and for many like us, this matters.
And this very self-centred appraisal says nothing of the communities living on and around the Irish border, whose lives depend on a stable border and are made deeply uncertain by these events and the debate around them. It is not abstract, but tangible.
Small Things: carrying two sim-cards, using two sets of cash. Medium Things: running cross-border businesses and deciding on schooling and health care. And Big Things: can the border be crossed safely without military protection, does the hostility of recent mainstream debate fuel deep-seated hostilities and violence?
I feel keenly and take personally the escalating antagonism in English media towards Irish politicians advocating the interests of their country. Likewise I am proudly and happily English and worry hugely about the long-term success, cohesion and health of my country.
These two feelings are not mutually exclusive; in fact if we are to tackle this challenge then the media, politicians and the public have to understand and act on the basis that not only are these competing feelings not mutually exclusive; but necessarily indivisible. Our shared history is too long and its descendants too inter-connected for empathy towards the other to dissipate at this particular moment.
A problem this big can’t be solved if we refuse to remember that we are not starting from a clean slate: that the populations involved bring to the table emotional and deep histories which - again entirely rationally - they will not and should not be expected to discard.
One thing the Irish and British have in common is a track record of exceptional writers, and one of England’s greatest ever is PG Wodehouse. The award for literature that is named after him was recently shared between Ireland’s Paul Murray and the British Hannah Rothschild. Wodehouse once wrote that “if there’s one thing circumstances aren’t, it’s different from what they are”: a pithy summary of the challenge we’re all now in. This challenge - whether you voted for or against the cause of it - is already straining personal relationships and the mutual understanding which has allowed families like mine to evolve as happily as I’m lucky enough for it to have done.
Our shared history is complicated and so is Brexit. Anyone who chooses not to acknowledge this complexity demonstrates either poor judgement or questionable motivations and in so doing, risks our shared future.