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John Wilson Foster: The extent of Irish economic dependence on the UK is about to be exposed... Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have been playing very foolish hands

By repressing its past and present Britishness, the Republic is ignoring the source of its true independence, argues John Wilson Foster


Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar seem reluctant to admit Ireland’s reliance on the United Kingdom

Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar seem reluctant to admit Ireland’s reliance on the United Kingdom

Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar seem reluctant to admit Ireland’s reliance on the United Kingdom

Maureen from Dublin calls in to BBC Radio 3 to suggest to presenter Ian Skelly on Essential Classics what musical selection might best complement the piece he has just played. "Thank you, Maureen," says Ian, without commenting on the origin of the call.

Why, I wondered, would Maureen from Dublin be listening to Radio 3 each morning? Is it not a foreign radio station? The answer, of course, is that it is not a foreign radio station at all, but as native to Maureen from Dublin as Radio Eireann.

That got me to thinking of those talented southern Irish who do not just eavesdrop on England, but are actually there, culturally embedded more deeply than I will ever be - Des Lynam OBE and his nephew Joe Lynam, Dara O'Briain, Fergal Keane, or ex-convent schoolgirl Orla Guerin MBE, fixtures of the BBC and thus at the very heart of British educated culture.

Are they working for a foreign broadcaster or not? I would like to hear their answer, but alas the one-way cultural exchange between the southern Irish and the English is never brought up.

Yet they and stay-at-home Maureen from Dublin may be the keys to a brighter future that could eventually evolve for all of us.

My new friend Justice Richard Humphreys readily admits that he, too, listens to Radio 3 each morning. He is a High Court judge in Dublin and has just published a book launched by Bertie Ahern: Beyond The Border: The Good Friday Agreement And Irish Unity After Brexit.

This learned, courteous thinker (who was a government adviser in 1996 during the prelude to the Good Friday Agreement) knows in what ways I take issue with his new book, as I did in this newspaper with his previous one, Countdown To Unity: Debating Irish Reunification (2008).

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He knows my opinion that both books engage in - to use a big word - "teleology", the notion that Irish unity is an ordained political condition to which events are leading us by design.

Or as I told him - if we are on a countdown to unification (or, as he prefers, reunification), the only debate is about the details of that unification.

Indeed, both books meticulously develop possible scenarios for unification from that standpoint where politics meets the blueprints of civil servants and the articles of lawyers.

Richard is politely horrified to think his work could be considered the legal-political flank of a broad front currently engaged during Brexit in mounting an existential threat to Northern Ireland, United Kingdom. But alas it is.

My reply is that the Irish-British connection needs to be turned inside out and openly. Even strand 3 of the Belfast Agreement is assumed to run only east to west, existing only to legitimise by indirection the south's design on the north rather than to explore and strengthen the English-Irish bonds.

Those bonds, typified by those Irish BBC correspondents and Irish professors at Oxford and Cambridge, could be the keys to a future accommodation. Irish unity with Northern Ireland expelled from the United Kingdom defies cultural reality on these islands.

Anti-Brexit agitation in the south concerning the border is a distraction display on a national scale. It draws attention away from a real Irish vulnerability: the vital and rational two-member 'Schengen' area of the British Isles that the English have cheerfully maintained for decades and are trying to do now in the face of short-sighted Irish hostility.

Many southerners are in denial about this. But in her Oldie column, Mary Kenny stoutly defended Edna O'Brien from Irish attack for accepting her Dame of the British Empire honour, on the grounds that the Irish were profitably active imperialists, too, and the Empire had been good for the Catholic Irish.

O'Brien's reported pro-IRA sentiments seem to me to require far more defence, but Kenny might have mentioned that Dame Edna, like Kenny herself, has been a Londoner for decades. And neither is living in exile.

Sports, the arts, pop culture, trade, population interchange, value-systems (increasingly so) - all prove to what extent Ireland and Great Britain form an ever-apparent English-speaking cultural continuum.

Brexit is revealing the highly qualified nature of Irish independence. We know about the economic dependence on the EU, but the extent of Irish economic dependence on the UK is about to be exposed. Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have been playing very foolish hands.

Justice Humphreys' book pioneeringly considers how during unification his compatriots will have to acknowledge the strand of Britishness in Irish culture in order to "accommodate" Ulster unionists.

I salute him for suggesting this, but the suggestion goes nowhere near as far as it should. Reflecting on the strength of British-Irish inter-culture should be a journalistic and scholarly priority.

Light is beginning to shine on the shared horrendous and epoch-making British-Irish Great War experience. But mutualities stretch endlessly on either side of that event. Yeats and the Irish cultural revivalists demanded that Irish artists recoil in life and literature from their British experience (while Yeats himself enjoyed life in London, thank you very much). But that was a century ago, when it was thought necessary in order to achieve independence. Now it is past time for Ireland to cancel that demand.

Reflection on Irish-British bonds should be undertaken for its own sake, regardless of Brexit or Northern Ireland. It could help heal what amounts to a country's split cultural personality.

The English poet Philip Larkin wrote a poem about his years in Belfast (where he was a librarian at Queen's University). It is called The Importance Of Elsewhere.

Living in Belfast allowed Larkin to feel profitably and functionally separate; back in England he discovered that no "elsewhere" underwrote his existence and felt diminished.

During Brexit, I think Ireland is feeling a sense of deflation, a withdrawal of something that has paradoxically sustained it: the necessary "elsewhere" that Britain has always been.

Brexit is unravelling an intimate co-dependency and I sense anxiety beneath Irish bluster about the border and the backstop.

Understandably, for the unacknowledged British connection has underwritten Ireland's sense of independence.

By repressing its past and present Britishness (which does not imperil the marvellous distinctiveness of Irishness), Ireland is repressing the source of its true independence.

To cease doing so would unleash energy and goodwill. It would also allow Ireland to celebrate openly its extraordinary contribution to cultural life on the other island.

The monologue by nationalists on unification should be a duologue (which might become a dialogue) in which unionists encourage nationalists to look east in pleasure instead of just north or south, in pursuit of a much larger cultural reunification.

And maybe those BBC success stories in England could be persuaded to confirm that culturally they are very close to home.

In turn, unionists would outgrow their childlike fears, become adults in the room and positively recognise their own Irishness.

With luck, Maureen from Dublin would be simply another Radio 3 listener which, in rich rather than anomalous fact, she is.

John Wilson Foster's Irish Novels 1890-1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) discusses dozens of overlooked Irish novelists who fictionalised the intimate cultural relations between both islands

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