Britain and Ireland: friends at last

(First published in Sept 2012, after the Kate Middleton topless pics were published in Irish papers – republished now to mark the State visit of President Higgins to the UK)


And it was all going so well, wasn’t it?

After eight centuries of bloody strife – sometimes literal, mostly metaphorical – Ireland and Britain had settled into a warm little détente. We were neighbours and trading partners, even – whisper it – friends.

But now the whole thing has been blown asunder, all because of some sleazy photos.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but tamped-down hostility and bubbling resentments, on both sides, seem to have surfaced once more after the Irish Daily Star published those infamous pictures of Kate Middleton, AKA the Duchess of Cambridge. (Britain and France are also at odds over this, but that doesn’t count because Britain and France are always at odds over everything.)

On one side, some – not all – people in the UK think we were disrespectful and provocative in printing the snaps. On the other, some here argue that Kate is just another celeb who should be treated the same as Snooki or Jessie J, so to hell with the offended.

On both, there’s bile and bitterness. For proof, check out the comments on discussion boards and newspaper websites all week. These can basically be summarised as: “Scummy Irish, a bunch of drunken terrorist paedophiles” and “Arrogant Brits, still think they rule the world.” Yes, they’re anonymous, but people wouldn’t say it if they didn’t mean it to some extent.

And it’s all rather a shame, because we really are friends now. The British like us, most of the time, and we like them.

This has nothing to do with all that ‘maturing as a nation’ rubbish – you know, the England rugby team playing in Croke Park marking the greatest moment in Irish history, and so on. Lots of us don’t really agree with that, and would be reasonably nationalist, at least in the cultural sense.

But the British are our friends, our nearest neighbours, in some cases our relatives. We’re fellow Anglophones tucked away in the north-west of Europe, with a lot of common cultural touchstones and a similar sense of humour (one of the key definers of national character).

We share many of the same interests, a certain approach to life, an ever-present irony, a sort of smart-arsed stoicism. We are, in short, quite alike in fundamental ways.

George Orwell wrote, for instance, about how fascism could never happen in England, simply because of its culture and people, and the same is true for Ireland. It just wouldn’t happen.

Despite the history and politics, we are closest to the British in almost every way. This writer remembers going to Japan years ago and hitting it off with Brits, instantly and easily, more so than US or Canadian (who were equally as nice, just…a little different).

You can hate the collective history of a country while recognising that the British are generally sound as individuals. The collective misdeeds of the past don’t negate the enormous decency of the people today. Indeed, they shouldn’t really have any relevance.

That’s why it would have been easy, say, to shout for the England team at this summer’s European football championships. Contrary to the received wisdom, England’s players are no more objectionable than anyone else’s (with a few notable exceptions!) The UK media is no more jingoistic than we can be in covering sports. And from personal experience, the average England football fan is a decent sort, always very generous about our team/country.

(Also, of course, supporting England would annoy the type of Irish dimwit who takes pleasure in shouting against them. What a weird attitude to life: to define yourself through seeing another fail. It’s childish, rude, mindless…not to mention that these morons inevitably love the Premier League.)

On a deeper level, there is something inherently melancholic about the notion of both Britain and Ireland: island nations, endless rain, a sort of bittersweet fortitude, a history of seafaring…men out on the lonely waves, far from home.

Our two people feel both pride and regret in their past and present deeds; we’re instinctively drawn to the minor chords of gloominess, but can’t help ringing out the notes of optimism. Ireland and Britain, as separate states and in our relationship with each other, are complex, ambiguous, inspiring and tinged with sadness.

So it was cool that we ditched all the dusty baggage of the past and stopped wasting our energy on enmity. Let’s not allow those stupid pictures get in the way now; let’s get back to getting on.


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