An anti-British feeling is on the rise but normal relations will resume once a Brexit deal is done, writes Kim Bielenberg
It may have been the highpoint of the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Anglo-Irish relations were never warmer than during the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011, when she attended a dinner with the great and the good in Dublin Castle, addressing President Mary McAleese with the words: “A Uachtarain agus a chairde” (“Madam President and friends”).
A couple of days later, there was the surreal sight of the monarch strolling around the English Market in Cork, joking with the local fishmonger Pat O’Connell. It was a scene that nobody would have envisaged during the darkest days of the Troubles.
When President Michael D Higgins paid a return state visit in 2014, even the English edition of the Daily Mail acknowledged that relations between the two countries had come a long way. Bygones seemed to be bygone, with even former IRA chief of staff Martin McGuinness attending the state dinner in Windsor Castle.
Who would have thought that, five years on from the Queen’s visit, Britain would vote to leave the European Union, putting this relationship under severe strain and almost causing it to break apart completely?
The extent of anti-British feeling among a section of the southern population now appears to be so potent that Higgins was recently moved to warn of the danger of a rising tide of Anglophobia.
It is perhaps not just Brexit that is creating this mood. There are other factors that are encouraging expressions of Anglophobic feeling. It has become normalised by the rise of Sinn Fein in the south.
This mood is also being heightened by the commemoration of events involving Crown forces that happened a century ago in the second half of 1920: the Sack of Balbriggan; Bloody Sunday; the Kilmichael Ambush; and the Burning of Cork.
Over the past fortnight, RTE has also screened a series on the Great Famine, which generated a wave of anti-British sentiment on social media.
The Louth TD Brian Stanley may have received a mild rap on the knuckles from Sinn Fein’s leadership for his recent tweet glorifying the killing of 18 troops at Narrow Water near Warrenpoint in 1979, and comparing it to the Kilmichael Ambush. But it was met with approval by many of the party’s supporters.
Expressions of xenophobic, rabble-rousing anti-English feeling are only to be expected from a shrill section of Sinn Fein social media supporters.
What has perhaps been more surprising is that a form of Brit-bashing has seeped into the mainstream discourse since the Brexit vote.
It can be put down partly to the carelessness of the British Government in stumbling into Brexit and insensitive comments by Tory ministers and MPs.
The thousands of British people who live in the Republic and the intermingled English and Irish families living across the water can be forgiven for feelings of discomfort at the tone of many of the public utterances.
An article in the New York Times by an Irish writer under the headline “I didn’t hate the English — until now” (a headline she has been at pains to point out she did not write) was particularly striking.
Beginning with an account of an incident involving an English stag party in Dublin and the head of a decapitated pigeon, she wrote: “I’ve noticed a tonal shift in the way I and other Irish people speak about the English. Our anger is more sincere. We are more ready to call them out on all those centuries of excess, more likely to object to those pink-trousered, pink-faced dinosaurs who still perceive us as their inferiors.”
Much of the newly respectable anti-English sentiment is ladled on with a certain smugness suggesting that Ireland has forged ahead as a progressive liberal state, while Britain has supposedly retreated into a semi-Trumpian dystopia nursing delusions of imperial grandeur. Along the way, the fact that half the UK electorate voted against Brexit seems to have been lost.
In his book Heroic Failure, Fintan O’Toole gives an entertaining explanation of Brexit, putting it down to national characteristics of post-imperial self-pity and even sadomasochism. He characterises the pro-Brexit movement as “an improbable alliance between Sunderland and Gloucestershire, between hard old steel towns and rolling Cotswold hills, between people with tattooed arms and golf club buffers”.
The stereotype of slack-jawed, blimpish British Brexiteers may have been flogged to death in public discourse on this side of the Irish Sea, but nobody was guaranteed to play up to it with such pitch-perfect plumminess as Jacob Rees-Mogg.
At one stage, denouncing the-then Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, he blasted Ireland’s neutrality during the Second World War and said it was “deeply disgraceful that people who wish to keep us in the European Union are threatening the spectre of a return to terror”.
Martin Mansergh, the former Irish government adviser who was involved in negotiations during the peace process, says the unilateral decision by the British Government to breach the Northern Ireland protocol had damaged Anglo-Irish relations.
“That was a significant aggravation, because it looked like a breach of faith. There is a whole history of breaches of faith,” he says.
“It was playing up to a stereotype that where Ireland is involved, Britain doesn’t have to keep its word. I am not saying that is the reality, but that would have been the perception.”
Over the past century, Anglo-Irish relations have ebbed and flowed, and there have been many dark days before, from the economic war of the 1930s, the tense period of neutrality during the Second World War to the early years of the Troubles.
After Bloody Sunday in 1972, relations were so poor that the Irish Government temporarily withdrew its ambassador from London.
The period from the first IRA ceasefires through the Good Friday Agreement and its long aftermath until Brexit can now be seen as a golden age in Anglo-Irish relations.
But according to Dr Eamon Phoenix, the Belfast historian, identities in the north have been hardened by Brexit. It has intensified nationalist consciousness.
“Boris Johnson had no emotional intelligence around the new Anglo-Irish relationship that was built in the worst of times,” he says. “It developed through continuous conversations between civil servants and trips between London and Dublin through the grinding mill of ceasefires and party talks.”
It was assumed that this relationship, where politicians and officials worked as colleagues rather than adversaries, would last. Few people saw Brexit coming, says Phoenix.
Liam Kennedy, professor of history at Queen’s University, Belfast, says Brexit brought about a chill factor and has contributed to a resurrection of Anglophobia.
He believes it is right to commemorate the events of the War of Independence, but we should also look at the positive aspects of the Anglo-Irish relationship.
“Across the 20th century as a whole, Britain was a refuge for Irish people, including unmarried mothers, where we had free access and free movement to a vibrant labour market,” he says.
Brexit may have strained Anglo-Irish relations, but once a Brexit deal is done — no matter how flawed — relations are likely to get back on an even keel.
Who knows, maybe some day a Sinn Fein Taoiseach may welcome a British monarch to Ireland.