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Shane Lowry with his wife Wendy Honner PA Wire/PA Images

Opinion Why it's important to call out people referring to Shane Lowry as British

Caoimhín De Barra argues that it’s something to get exercised about.

ONE OF THE noteworthy subplots that arose during the Open last weekend was when Laura Davies made a bit of a faux-pas while commentating for Sky.

Davies provoked a great deal of ire from some Irish viewers when, reflecting on the possibility of Offaly man Shane Lowry winning the event, she stated, “It would be lovely wouldn’t it for the home fans, and for us as well because it’s nice to see a British winner of The Open.”

This was not the first time that a misunderstanding of this kind on the part of the British media has occurred. Last summer, when Pope Francis visited Ireland, a banner on Sky News declared “Pope in England”.

A few weeks prior to that, Paul and Gary O’Donovan were interviewed by the BBC after they won silver medals in the Lightweight Double Sculls at the European Championships. On the screen, beside their names, a little Union Jack appeared, denoting them as British athletes.

Errors of this nature happen a few times a year. When they do, the usual debate breaks out among us. Some people are offended that the English media could so lazily lump Ireland and Irish people in with the United Kingdom. They feel this demonstrates ignorance at best, or a lack of respect at worst.

Others feel such a reaction by Irish people is childish. They argue that Britain and Ireland have so much in common that to be riled by such a trivial matter is a sign of small-minded nationalism.

The truth is that these episodes are almost always founded on subconscious mistakes, rather than a desire to provoke or appropriate. Given that, surely the most suitable response is to simply ignore it and carry on?

Not quite.

No such misunderstandings on the part of the British media ever happen with
individuals from Switzerland or Senegal. The reason that Ireland and its people
occasionally find themselves caught in a British dragnet is that a large swath of public
opinion in the United Kingdom has never accepted that Ireland is an independent

Underpinning this mindset is the idea that geographic proximity and a shared culture
cement a natural bond between the two islands that overrides any technicalities of

But there is nothing “natural” about this bond. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the end-goal
of the British colonisation project in Ireland was to bleach out a distinctive sense of
Irishness and erase any difference between the two islands.

Irish people do have a great deal in common with British people, but that wasn’t by accident or chance, nor did such a development occur without considerable misery and suffering.

Furthermore, there is no such thing as neutral geography. The term “British Isles” first appeared in English in the 1570s, when the English crown was seeking to subdue Ireland and Scotland. From the very beginning, the expression “British Isles” was a deliberate attempt to give geographic legitimacy to the political ambitions of an expansionist English state.

The outcome of these efforts is that some people in Britain are doctrinally incapable of seeing Ireland as a sovereign nation, outside of the United Kingdom.

This was best exemplified in an article by British journalist Melanie Phillips in 2017.

Phillips claimed that, in contrast to Britain, which is an “authentic” nation, Ireland only “has a tenuous claim to nationhood”.

Very well, one might say. Some people in the United Kingdom don’t fully grasp the reality of Irish sovereignty. Is that worth getting worked up over?

The answer is yes, and the reason is because this attitude could have very serious consequences for Ireland. In fact, it already has.

In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, the question of what would happen with the Irish border, if discussed at all, was dealt with glibly. Of course, Brexiteers promised simple solutions for everything, but it was quite easy for those who supported Brexit to imagine the border would be a non-issue precisely because they are generally the people who think Irish nationhood is something of a fiction anyway.

They are now the ones who react with indignant anger when the Irish government has the audacity to try to protect its own interests in Brexit negotiations at the expense of the United Kingdom.

This may only be the beginning of future problems. To put it bluntly, to view Ireland as a slightly wayward part of the United Kingdom normalises an ideological framework that would justify (in British eyes) any heavy-handed action by Britain toward Ireland.

This isn’t to claim that the Tory leadership is plotting reconquista in Ireland (although one would never know with Jacob Rees-Mogg). But our political world has changed unimaginably in the last ten years, and it would be foolish to think that cordial relations between the United Kingdom and Ireland will endure indefinitely.

So when our neighbours across the Irish Sea try to slip us in under us their British umbrella, don’t be shy about putting them right.

It can be done in a friendly way and with humour. But it is important they hear what we say, because such misunderstandings are not without real world implications.

Caoimhín De Barra is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington. 

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Caoimhín De Barra
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