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How the backstop created a back door for anti-Irish sentiment in the UK

As the UK exit from the EU draws closer, the Irish government has become a frequent target of Brexiteers.

Concerns have been raised about rising diplomatic tensions between the UK and Ireland.
Concerns have been raised about rising diplomatic tensions between the UK and Ireland.
Image: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR and new UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally spoke by phone yesterday, bringing an end to one of the frostiest moments in British-Irish relations in recent years – one that had fuelled concerns that anti-Irish sentiment was rising in London and Whitehall. 

In a widely criticised and later-deleted tweet, Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley wrote: “The stand off with our nearest neighbour is as a direct result of Taoiseach Varadkars failure to engage in basic diplomacy over the past 2 years.”

“The Governments [sic] lack of experience and arrogance will hurt Ireland in the coming months,” he added. 

Yet former diplomats, ex-civil servants and academics suggest that these fears misunderstand the situation.  Because while Varadkar – and to a lesser extent Tánaiste Simon Coveney – have recently become frequent targets of the British right-wing media, several experts told TheJournal.ie that it was important not to overstate the extent of anti-Irish sentiment in the UK. 

Dr Ben Tonra, a professor of international relations at University College Dublin and an expert on Irish foreign policy, said the British response to Ireland has been based on a view that international relations must fit a “big-country, small-country” dynamic. 

The British government, he said, were “wrong-footed” by Ireland’s Brexit strategy. “Part of the British reaction is their being on the back foot in relation to Irish diplomacy,” he said. “They think small countries should behave like small countries.”

Enda versus Leo 

Nonetheless, Varadkar has faced a nearly unprecedented level of scrutiny from the British media in recent months – with every comment picked over by the more right-leaning segments of the press.

Indeed the Fine Gael leader has been lambasted as a nationalist intent on causing chaos in the UK – a suggestion often mocked in Ireland, where Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are seen as the main beneficiaries of nationalist sentiment, whereas Varadkar’s party has typically prided itself in maintaining good diplomatic relations with the British government. 

But while an Irish audience often attributes Boris Johnson’s actions to electoral motives, Varadkar too is aware that Brexit will define his premiership. As Tonra notes: “Leo Varadkar’s job is not to be a diplomat” and with an election on the horizon, he “wants the Irish people to know he is fighting their corner”.

The scrutiny on Varadkar has in part led to former taoiseach Enda Kenny being lionised by some in the UK as an unctuous operator more sympathetic to the British position on Brexit. 

Even stranger have been some attempts to paint Varadkar and Sinn Féin as close partners in the Brexit process. 

Former diplomat Bobby McDonagh, who was Ireland’s ambassador to the UK from 2009 to 2013, has called the idea that Varadkar changed the government’s tack on Brexit “a fiction”. 

“It suits the hard Brexiteer narrative,” McDonagh said.  The problem is quite simple, he said, and has little to do with Irish policy at all. It’s a “frustration, on the part of the UK, that life is complex”. Not everyone agrees on this point.

Former diplomat Eamon Delaney argues that “Leo and the government have played a hard ball from the start”. “Enda was playing it more subtly and diplomatically,” he adds. 

However, he still acknowledges that “it’s exaggerated that Varadkar is playing to a nationalist agenda”.

Right-wing press

The backdrop to these tensions has been the overt support and outright cheerleading for Boris Johnson, especially from the Daily Telegraph and The Sun. Years before the 2016 referendum, both newspapers led attacks on the EU and the presumed overreach of Brussels into British life. But since the vote, both papers have become key constituencies in the Tory Party’s bid to regain public confidence in Brexit. 

The Spectator The right-wing Spectator magazine cover in October 2018. Source: The Spectator

In part, this made it nearly inevitable that the Irish government would become targets of criticism – and the recent attacks in the UK press aren’t particularly new.

Former No 10 Brexit spokesperson Matthew O’Toole points to the “asymmetry of knowledge” between Ireland and the UK – a problem that covers everything from Kenny-Varadkar comparisons to an understanding of why Ireland prizes the backstop so highly. 

In such a scenario, O’Toole says, it’s much easier to focus on individual politicians or raise the spectre of Sinn Féin. 

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The right-wing outlets of the UK media began laying the ground years ago for the now more common criticisms of Ireland and Irish policy. 

In April 2018, the historian Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote a piece in the Daily Telegraph titled: “The naive Leo Varadkar is being manipulated by the wily Michel Barnier.” As Brexit negotiations have intensified – and the EU have refused to shift on the backstop – Ireland has become a symbol of Brussels’ intransigence. 

In October 2018, The Spectator published a story headlined “Divide and rule: How the EU used Ireland to take control of Brexit”.  

As it became clear the backstop was going to remain an issue “it was only natural that… there would be a gradual realisation that if we can’t get our way in Europe we’re going to go for the people supporting the backstop”, Guardian journalist and media commentator Roy Greenslade said. 

Fast-forward to the summer of 2019 and the changing faces in the EU leadership have left a gap for a new target. 

“They can’t suddenly light upon Juncker or Barnier, because the situation is fluid in Brussels,” Greenslade said. In recent months there has been a “clear attempt to create a villain and they’ve alighted upon Varadkar”. 

One of the ironies, as people who spoke to TheJournal.ie noted, was that comments like those from Dooley would only empower the government’s critics in the UK. 

Yet Greenslade said that it was important not to conflate the attitudes of the British press with that of the general public – there was no danger of these attacks creating anti-Irish sentiment. 

“This is nothing like the days of the Troubles, when you think about it was so long ago in the eyes of many people in Britain,” he said. 

This was echoed by O’Toole. “There is a lack of engagement with the specifics of Irish history,” he said. 

And while the days of anti-Irishness are gone, what remains is a “pervasive ignorance of the complexity and nuance of the Irish government’s position”. 

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