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Dublin: 16 °C Tuesday 2 September, 2014

Column: Ireland’s relationship with Britain has moved on. Let’s not fall back

We should be over our outrage at petty jibes by now, writes John Verling. Both countries have grown up.

John Verling

Last week, Forbes contributor Tim Worstall caused widespread controversy with an article referencing ‘Irish jokes’, which many commenters accused of anti-Irish prejudice.

Here John Verling argues that yes, the UK media make mistakes – but our international relationship has matured enormously. Just look at the Olympics, he writes:

THE IRISH ECONOMY is in the doldrums and unemployment is high. Luckily for us we have that valve on the pressure cooker – emigration – with Britain top of the departure list. The record crowds at our airports after Christmas only act as confirmation.

When I left on the 1980s I was excited about living in London. I was young and life was still an adventure. At times it could be tough for the Irish in Britain; the IRA bombings made you careful of your accent in public. My local was attacked after the Downing Street mortar attacks. The Prevention of Terrorism Act allowed you to be held for seven days without charge and I still shudder remembering the lines of heavily armed policemen that would greet you off a plane.

However, even though conscious of my nationality, and despite the terrorist activity, I was always made very welcome in the UK. One of the first things I noticed was the support Irish teams got from British people. Something I would never have witnessed at home in Ireland – the reverse in fact. Some of it was on the condescending side, but this was during the Troubles when we more famous in the UK for blowing things up.

Feeling inferior

We have an inferiority complex when dealing with Britain, as if we assume they are constantly laughing at us, looking down at us. In reality we need to grow up and get on with our own lives. There, I said it. Yes, the lack of knowledge amongst the English media of Irish affairs annoys me, but then what are we doing that is so great anyway? (That attitude still needs to change though, especially from the more right wing press who like to put down former colonial subjects.) A more confident Irish population need only ignore these newspaper columns, or maybe learn from the barbs.

It came as a surprise to me last summer when the British media spoke of the possibility of the Olympics as being another ‘great British failure story’. They wrote of how the transport system would crash under the strain, of long queues, ticketing problems, of how the whole country would grind to a halt and they would be the laughing stock of the world.

Indeed, when they flew the wrong Korean flag at an early, pre opening-ceremony football match it was viewed as just the start of it all going wrong. The British not being confident in themselves? On the world stage, too?

A new one on us – but it’s probably always been that way. In Ireland we were so set on proving ourselves that we never spotted the weakness. The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics helped Britain become happy with itself, warts and all. Britain grew up that night. The public loved the subsequent success of their athletes because they saw how hard they worked for it. No longer was it some natural result of being British that you won gold.

Improved relations

The strange thing was how we in Ireland joined in with all of this. Did we recognise the phenomenon of Britain becoming happy with itself? Are we becoming a bit happier with ourselves, maturing a bit? True, the Good Friday agreement has improved our relations with Britain over the past 12 years or so, but Irish people openly cheering a Brit home was new to me. That inferiority complex we developed from being a colonial subject might eventually be lifting, in line with the decline of the superiority complex of our former colonial masters.

Britain had to realise that there is a world outside its borders, and we too had to make the same realisation. More importantly, maybe we both needed to find our place in the world before we could be happy with each other.

It has taken a long time and there is probably more work to be done, but the London 2012 Olympics is up there with the Queen’s visit as a benchmark for proper growth in our maturing international relationship. Will our love (or should I say acceptance) of all things British continue or will we fall back into old habits? We will always be neighbours and rivals in what we do, but maybe no longer begrudging or belittling each other’s successes. After all, both nations love sport – so maybe we should not be too surprised that it has brought us closer together.

Having said that, it will take me a long time before I would cheer for a team that has John Terry in it.

John Verling is a father of three children and is from County Cork. He lived in London during the late 1980s, before returning to Ireland. He writes a blog called Verlingsweek.

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