GERARD HOWLIN: We can only hope we survive this post Brexit era of tumult and discontent

Theresa May greets Taoiseach Enda Kenny for his first meeting with the prime minister at 10 Downing St. Picture: Lauren Hurley

Inward-looking suspicion gives permission to people to pass the buck in terms of responsibility for their own lives, writes Gerard Howlin

YESTERDAY the Taoiseach was in Downing St to meet Theresa May about Brexit. Tomorrow night Hilary Clinton will become the Democratic Party’s nominee for the White House.

One week from next Friday the Olympics open in Brazil. Appalling, but no longer unexpected, events of horrific violence scar once safe European cities.

There is a strong sense of tumult and discontent in the world.

For all of that, life goes on. The many who can will take a holiday. Spectator sports, especially, relax the public sinew and muscle. At least it diverts angst about pressing concerns. Agreeable weather is another factor in lightening the public mood.

It is a fascinating turn of history in a state which, having set out separation from Britain as its raison d’être, now scours the European continent to find allies in keeping us as closely attached, or at least as interconnected as possible. It coincides with an unleashing from different sources of deeply troubling, random, and far from easily explicable acts of terror elsewhere.

Life for my generation has passed in three phases.

Before 1989 was a time, from an Irish perspective, of corrosive gloom. The violence at which we shudder when it erupts elsewhere now was in different forms, for different reasons, and was commonplace here. Across Western Europe, at peace since the end of the war, we provided the awful vista of uncontrolled, uncontained conflict. The apparent hopelessness and stalemate of Northern Ireland was compound by corrosive and apparently endemic economic failure.

But 1989 was in retrospect a turning point and the beginning of a definable new era. The fall of the Berlin Wall — astonishing — will forever be a key historical event. In retrospect, because of a confluence of factors, it was a symbol and catalyst of change.

A nascent Irish peace process had its earliest origins then, though it wasn’t readily apparent. Economic recovery slowly took hold and the basis of a future boom began. The 1990s were a time of optimism.

Fifteen years after the Berlin Wall, eight Eastern European countries, together with Cyprus and Malta, joined the EU. The accession ceremony in Dublin in summer 2004 was in European terms the ultimate expression of prevailing hopefulness. That, of course, is more hindsight. For us at home, delivering on the European stage, in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and in the context of a booming economy, saw 20 years of achievement, optimism, and economic growth.

Looking out at the world, there is little sense of optimism now. Looking backwards in time, 2004 was a high watermark. It was not the last expansion of the EU but it was its ultimate statement of self-confidence.

The year before the invasion of Iraq marked the ultimate expansion of an attitude that sprang from the rubble of the wall that had fallen only 14 years before. It was postmodern colonialism.

Democracy could be proselytised in the fashion that white missionaries had spread Christian religion.

The debacle of Iraq unfolded and an increasingly debt-fuelled economic boom shuddered to a halt, which prompted the Euro crisis and the eventual arrival of the troika here in 2010. Unlike the fall of the Berlin Wall there wasn’t a similar, single seismic moment.

But we can say now that 2003-04 was the furthest reach of an age of optimism which went to seed as hubris. The party went on for several years longer, but the underlying fundamentals had changed.

Economic crisis in 2008 brought multiple realities closer to home.

For almost a decade now, a third clearly definable phase has been in process, characterised by crisis, pessimism, and insecurity. Yesterday’s assassination of a priest in Rouen is the latest act of barbarity.

At their furthest extent, the Troubles afflicted British army barracks in Germany. Our economic woes affected nobody much, except ourselves. On this island we were relatively few and almost entirely contained. Now there is a general canker in the air.

With the exception of the Holocaust, which is not comparable, there hasn’t been such a generalised suspicion of an entire section of Western European population on religious and racial grounds since before the expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain in 1609.

That was so long ago that it was before a European enlightenment that vested every person with innate rights. In their ultimate development, those rights banished religion, colour, creed, gender, and sexual orientation as barriers to inclusion.

Now there is a fundamental attack on that society which, too briefly, we came to take for granted.

The shared significance of the Taoiseach’s first visit with Ms May at 10 Downing St yesterday and Ms Clinton’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination tomorrow night is whether these, and other threads, woven together will ultimately be strong enough to pull us into a brighter space.

We can only hope we survive this post Brexit era of tumult and discontent

Optimism by itself, as distinct from hope, is too synthetic to be sustained. Hope, founded on plans that are believable and on responsibilities that are upheld, is a better course. The lesson of Donald Trump’s candidacy, of Brexit, of Rouen, and of their disparate causes, is that there is a middle course between the hubris that causes our society to overreach, as we did here economically and as the UK and the US did in Iraq on one hand, and an inward-looking suspicion that feeds the very thing it seeks to protect against.

It is that inward-looking suspicion that feeds Mr Trump. It caused Brexit. It gives permission to people to pass the buck in terms of responsibility for their own lives, en masse.

The blaming of others, and the defining of that blame in terms of another group, in defiance of the rights of the individual, is the inevitable tragic-comic outcome. Angered at a perceived lack of due consideration, the response is to deny the same consideration to others. Eastern European immigrants in Britain have succeeded Irish immigrants in the status of unwanted neighbours. Muslims from around the world in Britain, France, and here are sticking around. Social media propagating fundamentalism finds a receptive audience in sometimes dispossessed, more often simply disillusioned young men.

There will be no expulsion of the Moriscos, however, even metaphorically. That is the inbuilt, certain failure of Brexit and Mr Trump. The entire project is an illusion for inadequate idiots, manipulated by people, who have only contempt for them.

The antidote to suspicion is hope based on an assured, proportionate reaction to every threat. It requires an equally assured, determined response to those who ironically see themselves as wholly indigenous to our society but consistently do too little to support it. The storyboard about political elites is the easiest cop-out of those unwilling to undertake the responsibilities of citizenship. The threat to our culture is ultimately not few, if horrific, attacks. It is lack of confidence in its values and opportunities.


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