Patrick West

What Ireland can teach Brexiteers about ‘taking back control’

What Ireland can teach Brexiteers about 'taking back control'
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The Brexit party and Conservatives have more in common than they might like to admit. Yet their similarities haven't stopped the bickering, as Claire Fox argues on Coffee House this morning. On the one hand, we have a party which believes it more important to have some form of exit deal from the European Union. On the other, we have those who believe the UK should pursue total secession.

The internecine warfare between soft and hard Brexiteers has been rehearsed many times, as immortalised in Monty Python’s Life of Brian with the feuding between the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front. And the current clamour over which kind of Brexit we want brings back historical parallels to an area still contested in this matter: Ireland. 

In 1921, having fought the British for two years, Irish nationalists and republicans ceased their War of Independence and began negotiations with London on how their country was to extricate itself from the United Kingdom. But the Irish were bitterly divided. On one side were those who would call for piecemeal compromise; those who would ultimately settle for an Irish Free State. They grudgingly accepted that six counties in Ulster would remain in the UK. They conceded that an Irish Free State would remain part of the British Empire as dominion status, would have to swear allegiance to the King and that three ports in the twenty-six counties would remain under British sovereignty.

Those who settled on this compromise were headed by Michael Collins, memorably portrayed in the 1996 film. On the other side, were hard-line republicans, led by Eamon de Valera, who would accept no middle-ground. A civil war between the two factions ensued, and in 1922, despite the assassination of Collins, the Treaty establishing the Free State was signed.

De Valera famously boasted that he only had ‘to examine my own hear and it told me straight off what the Irish people wanted.’ But most Irish people weren’t with him, or the Dáil (the lower case of the Irish parliament).

As the eminent historian Roy Foster has written: ‘feeling in the country at large was far more decisively in favour of the Treaty than in the committed atmosphere of the Dail’. Many who sided with the Free State weren’t ‘West Brits’, the pejorative term used in Ireland to describe Anglophiles. They merely believed that some form of sovereignty – as mooted by advocates of Home Rule before the First World War – was better than none at all. There was certainly no desire to see a return to the clumsy and savage British clampdown seen in Ireland from 1916 to 1919. And no one wanted a repeat of the brutality of the Civil War of 1921-22, a conflagration that stained Irish politics well into the last century.

The Treaty provided complete independence in domestic affairs, including full fiscal autonomy. There was also the underlying belief that the 1922 Treaty, albeit a compromise, was an important first stepping stone. Sure, Ireland hadn’t achieved complete independence, but by signing the Treaty, Ireland had crossed its Rubicon.

The Free Staters were eventually proved right. The interwar years, marked by a trade war between the Irish Free State and the UK, were an abrasive time between the two countries. And Éire, as it renamed itself in 1937, took advantage of this.

That year, under its new constitution, it removed its allegiance to the King. The following year, it took back the ports of Berehaven, Queenstown (modern Cóbh) and Lough Swillly.

In 1949, having cemented its independent status by staying out of the Second World War (even if thousands of its countrymen didn’t), Ireland declared itself a republic, leaving the Commonwealth and severing all ties to the British monarch. The country’s last tangible one-on-one link to Britain was broken in 1979 when the Irish pound severed its link to Sterling.

It was ironic that much of Ireland’s soft breakage with Britain was done under the tutelage of De Valera, Taoiseach from 1937 to 1948 and doubly ironic that he opposed Ireland declaring itself a republic in 1949. He rightly feared this would make reconciliation with the six counties of Northern Ireland, and their potential incorporation into an all-Ireland state, even more difficult.

The future of Northern Ireland in its relationship with the rest of the island remains one of the most thorny issues in the Brexit question. The Irish are for a large part ardent EU-philes, which is perhaps why Brexit has aroused in the country some dormant Anglophobia. It’s ironic, therefore, that of all people who have sought for years independence from a foreign power, it's the Irish who now appear to be so obedient to the EU.

The Irish taught the world a lesson on how to ‘take back control’, to regain sovereignty, to become a free country. You do so not by wanting everything right here and right now, but by playing the long game. On Thursday, we can take the first step. Rather than being obsessed with a complete break with the EU, it's important that we now make a first break with it. 

Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)