It’s as if they learned everything they know about Ireland from comic books when they were eight, writes Fergus Finlay
MAYBE we should forgive and forget the crass stupidity of some British politicians (and some of their media) when it comes to the Irish. Perhaps we misunderstand them too.
After all, I was raised on Hurree Jamset Ram Singh. He and Harry Wharton — Wharton of the Remove — were among my heroes. They were models of young English gentlemen, able to take a flogging when they had displeased their form master, Mr Quelch, and laugh it off with scorn.
I didn’t know what the Remove was, because there was no equivalent in our education system. I found out years later that it was a largely fictional device. In an Irish school, students in the Remove would have been preparing for their Inter Certs.
But in the books I devoured when I was eight, the Remove was part of an English public school called Greyfriars. Although Wharton and Singh were among the school’s heroes, the fictional school was made famous by a fat, dishonest, greedy student called Billy Bunter.
In a real sense, Billy Bunter, Wharton and Singh were my first impression of England. The first time I saw Boris Johnson on television, Billy Bunter was what came to my mind.
But apart from Billy (or Boris) the rest were brave, innocent, and so thoroughly English. Later, as I grew a bit, another school introduced me to a different, older England.
Dotheboys Hall was created by Charles Dickens. It was the place where Nicholas Nickleby was sent to teach, and where he befriended and later rescued a boy with an intellectual disability, Smike.
Dotheboys Hall was a dark and cruel place, and its principal, Wackford Squeers, was one of those villains who would live in a young teenager’s nightmares. But Nicholas Nickleby was and remains my favourite Dickens character. Quintessentially English in my eyes, honourable decent and brave.
I don’t know if it ever occurred to me when I was a kid that it wasn’t all that easy to reconcile the England of my childish imagination — blazers, cricket, ginger beer — with the England I had been taught about in school. In the history I was taught, there was nothing good or noble about England.
The romantic image of my early reading and the darker vision of my history classes collided with a bang the first time I went to London.
I was 16, and very excited.
Because I was fascinated by history, and thought I knew my stuff (how wrong I was), I couldn’t wait to see the Houses of Commons. But I nearly fell out of my standing when I saw the statue in front of the building.
Standing life-size, on a tall plinth, with a lion in front of him, was the butcher of Drogheda, the man who said “to hell or to Connaught” as he drove thousands of Irish people from their homes and land. It was Oliver Cromwell, the man who for my generation and many before and since was nothing but a monster.
Oliver Cromwell, or that sighting of him anyway, was my awakening. I’ve never joined the revisionists who think of Oliver Cromwell as a decent skin who was somewhat misguided about the Irish. But when I came home from that trip, and learned how Cromwell is viewed in British history, it dawned on me that history is complicated.
That was 50 years ago (that’s a frightening thing to write!), but I’ve sort of known ever since that the way we see them and the way they see us is always going to be different. I’ve tried to study that difference over the years, and I’ve tried to understand how attitudes are formed. I’ve come to believe as a sort of gut thing that if you want to reconcile differences, taking easy offence is a way to stop progress in its tracks.
But my goodness, the ignorance. The stupidity. The crassness. It’s as if they never read anything, even at the most superficial level. It’s as if they learned everything they know about Ireland from comic books when they were eight, and never bothered to grow up in their understanding.
The Secretary of state for Northern Ireland — who is surrounded by very able civil servants — has her foot permanently lodged in her mouth. As deeply offensive as she was last week, with her assertion that no-one in a British uniform could possibly ever have committed a crime, we shouldn’t be surprised that someone who never knew that unionists don’t like voting for Catholics (and vice versa) could have such a way with words.
Boris Johnson thinks the border is irrelevant because so few people use it. Priti Patel, a Tory MP, thinks that the threat of food shortages should be used against us if our insistence on preventing a border in Ireland leads to a no-deal Brexit (perhaps not the first British politician to think that a bit of starvation would do the Irish good).
Ian Duncan Smith, a former leader of the conservatives, expressed the view that the Irish were playing tough on Brexit because, after all, there was a presidential election going on here. Another one of them, Andrew Bridgen, who holds his constituency clinics in little English market towns like Ashby de la Zouch and Swannington, has announced his clear understanding that every Englishman is entitled to an Irish passport. Jacob Rees-Mogg says we’re the ones to blame for Brexit, and that if Britain cannot get a deal (having already rejected one that took two years to negotiate) it will only be because of Ireland’s obduracy.
And it never ends. On Sunday morning I heard the former cabinet minister and eejit in chief David Davis talking about how, after Theresa May’s humiliating defeat in the Commons, the ground shifted. Even Mr Varadkar’s language had softened, said he. He was actually arguing that because the British parliament had made a completely incoherent decision — rejecting the agreement for a dozen different and conflicting reasons —the Irish and Europe were now, at last, sitting up and taking notice.
Eighteen months ago, I wrote here that in deciding to leave the European Union, the establishment in Britain had effectively decided to leave Northern Ireland too. They may not have considered that at the time — or if they did, they just didn’t care. But it is the only inevitable, sooner or later, outcome.
The people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in Europe. I believe that the majority then would be a much bigger majority now, and that the DUP, for all their huffing and puffing, represent almost nobody in real terms.
Life outside the European Union, while their true next door neighbours remain in, will be unsustainable for Northern Ireland. Sure, we’ll suffer too, but I suspect the people of Northern Ireland will pay the biggest price of all, and may ultimately be abandoned by the Tory Party as well as everyone else.
Maybe that’s the reason so many Tories spend so much time saying so many stupid things about Ireland. Maybe they’re secretly guilty about what they’ve done, and want to find someone else to blame. Or maybe that’s giving them too much credit. Maybe, after all, they really are that stupid.
It’s as if they learned everything they know about Ireland from comic books when they were eight