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Opinion Identity politics dominated Britain's Brexit - let's not make the same mistakes

Peter Flanagan looks at our neighbours’ decision to leave the EU and whether we can learn the lessons here.

IRELAND’S FLIRTATIONS WITH the far-right usually end in farce. When Eoin O’Duffy – former Garda commissioner and leader of right-wing paramilitaries the Blueshirts – led 700 or so men to fight with General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, the Irish Brigade distinguished themselves with ill-discipline and drunkenness.

Unfamiliar with the Spanish heat and fine wine, the Holy War quickly descended into a glorified lad’s holiday; think Magaluf-with-marching. Franco was so unimpressed with Ireland’s lumpen, bleary-eyed fascists that he sent them home in disgrace. If there was a European herrenvolk, the Irish were not part of it.

The recent spate of anti-immigration demonstrations suggest that extreme narratives are taking hold again in some of our communities. While O’Duffy’s men had been scandalised into action by often-sensationalised reports of communists burning churches and murdering priests, today unverified stories on social media have driven the outraged onto Irish streets.

A very Irish childhood

Perhaps we were getting a little smug. Sandwiched between Trumpism on one side of the Atlantic and Brexit on the other, Ireland’s sleepy centrist political consensus made us feel like a lonely islet of moderation. As pivotal as the marriage equality and 8th amendment referenda were, these human rights were already established in most other Western democracies.

If liberalism was wilting among our neighbours, we were only catching up. Now it seems we could meet somewhere in the middle.

We allowed ourselves to forget, too, the nativism which began to emerge during our last economic boom. Ireland, possibly the whitest country in Western Europe, experienced mass immigration for the first time. The direction of traffic had traditionally been one way, but now people were moving here for a better life. I was in 6th class when four boys from Kosovo joined our school. The ink was still wet on the Good Friday Agreement, so the idea of people coming to Ireland to escape ethnic conflict must have seemed like someone’s idea of a bad joke. Nevertheless, they came.

I didn’t understand what other religions were all about. I’d only ever met one non-Catholic before. A boy in our class was being raised atheist, which we all considered pure odd. Didn’t he love Jesus? When we had prayer or rehearsal for our First Communion, he’d been excused to read by himself. “Enjoy your books, weirdo!” we’d thought. “We’re off to eat the actual flesh of Christ.” It’s only now living in England that I appreciate just how routinely strange and funny an Irish childhood could be.

The novelty wore off. In 2004 a referendum to remove the automatic right to Irish citizenship to children born in Ireland passed by 80%. Another referendum in 2008 confirmed the shifting mood when voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty. Led by a peculiar patchwork of the far left and the Catholic right the success of Ireland’s Eurosceptic movement stunned Dublin and Brussels. This rogue bout of national mischief was short-lived. A suitably bashful electorate passed a second referendum the following year as the depth of the global financial crisis emerged. 

Learning from our neighbours

The experience should have been a reminder of what happens when we indulge our worst instincts. The UK is another warning of what happens when a country elevates identity politics above all other policy areas. Everyone knows Brexit has been a disaster, but even the opposition seems determined to see it through. Contrarianism, or the rejection of logic in favour of a priori assumptions about British exceptionalism, is the will of the people. That a majority of voters now apparently regret the decision to leave the European Union is beside the point – the train has left the station and is bolting towards its inevitable dead end.

If Britain is pining for a glorious past, the reality in Ireland is that we’ve never had it better. Our old people – the demographic typically most likely to tilt towards conservatism – have watched the country transform drastically for the better over the course of their lifetimes. The same cannot necessarily be said of their kids and grandkids.

Younger people who grew up during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom years and took prosperity for granted are feeling increasingly shafted by a housing crisis with no prospect of a resolution. Even with the eye-watering growth statistics being reported, more than 70% of young people are considering emigration.

The economic calamity of 2008 and the following decade of underinvestment was not caused by families fleeing war in countries less fortunate than our own. Blaming refugees for our social problems is like blaming our hangover on the kebab we had on the way home from the pub. The responsibility lies with a reckless financial and political elite – most of them white, middle-aged and holding Irish passports. We misdirect our anger at our peril.

Peter Flanagan is an Irish comedian and writer. You can find him on Twitter @peterflanagan and Instagram @peterflanagancomedy.  

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