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Brexiters evoking Ireland’s civil war should be careful what they wish for

Prominent leavers such as Owen Paterson are wrong to look to Ireland’s troubled past for inspiration

Fintan O’Toole

It is of course impossible to identify the weirdest aspect of Brexit. But up there somewhere has to be the desire of some of the hard Brexiters to think of England as Ireland – specifically the Irish Free State of the 1920s and 1930s. That state was formed out of a political and military uprising against Britain, led by Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army. Members of the Conservative and Unionist party are not supposed to be in favour of that sort of thing. But some like to imagine themselves as leaders of a national revolt by a plucky underdog against the imperial might of the European Union. In this bizarre exercise, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera become role models for the country they fought against.

Owen Paterson, a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland and an ardent Brexiter, recently cited Collins when explaining to the House of Commons why he would support Boris Johnson’s revised withdrawal agreement, even though he was not happy with it. Collins, the effective leader of the IRA at the time, negotiated the compromise treaty with the British in 1921 that settled for an Irish Free State rather than a full republic. Paterson quoted his speech to the Dáil in support of the treaty: “Now as one of the signatories of the document I naturally recommend its acceptance. I do not recommend it for more than it is. Equally I do not recommend it for less than it is. In my opinion it gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it.”

Paterson added that Johnson’s compromise “begins the process of establishing our full freedom, and I hope that I do not suffer the same fate as Michael Collins in wanting to see that delivered”. Collins was killed in an ambush during the civil war that followed the split in the IRA over the treaty. The logic of Paterson’s analogy is that he risks the same fate at the hands of his colleagues in Brexit’s army of liberation – perhaps with Mark Francois as Collins’s eventual nemesis, De Valera.

This posturing may be ludicrous, but it has a serious purpose. The allure of the Irish settlement is that the Irish Free State didn’t last very long. Much of what Collins agreed to in the treaty was gradually expanded into a more radical form of separation from Britain. In July 2018, the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan directly compared Theresa May’s Chequers proposals to the approach of the pro-treaty side in the early years of Irish independence: “When the Irish Free State left the UK, in 1921, there were all sorts of conditions about treaty ports and oaths of supremacy and residual fiscal payments. And what very quickly became apparent was not just that those things were unenforceable once the split had been realised; it was that everyone in Britain kind of lost interest in enforcing them. And although there were some difficulties along the way in the 1920s, it turned out to have been better to have grabbed what looked like an imperfect independence and then build on it rather than risking the entire process.”

The message is: grab Brexit now and over time we can make the split from Europe even more radical. The Brexiters wrap the green flag round them to cover a more barefaced project: when we have our “freedom”, we can tear up any commitments we make now. In all the pantomime dressing up of English Tories as Irish revolutionaries, it is easy to miss the point that what they really mean is that, once “the split” has been finalised, the withdrawal treaty will in time become unenforceable. Britain can walk away from it.

There are, however, two obvious problems. One is that the analogy itself is ludicrous: the EU is not an empire and it has not sent the Black and Tans to suppress demands for freedom. The other is with what Hannan, with such charming insouciance, calls “some difficulties along the way in the 1920s” in Ireland. These little local difficulties were partition, deadly pogroms in the North, a bitter civil war in the South, and the ghost of unfinished business that returned in the Troubles from 1968 to 1998. In the Brexiters’ blithe analogies, it seems that equivalent events in the decade that is to follow eventual approval of Johnson’s deal – the breakup of the union, civil disorder and violence and long-term tribal divisions – would be mere bumps on the road to English freedom.

For if the events of a century ago in Ireland really have to be used as an analogy for Brexit, there is only one valid parallel – the botched exit. Irish nationalists had, arguably, many better reasons for wanting to leave a multinational union (in their case two unions, the UK and the empire) than the Brexiters have for their departure from the EU. They were also creatures of their own time – the freedom of small nations was, after all, the British rallying cry in the Great War that had so recently ended. Perhaps it is not just patriotic bias that makes me imagine Michael Collins and WB Yeats to be slightly more serious figures than Boris Johnson or even Owen Paterson; but, be that as it may, they blew it.

They wanted a unified new Ireland that would be able to leave its sectarian divisions behind. They got two narrowly sectarian states, one Catholic, one Protestant. They got civil war. The new Irish state, poor and enclosed, was not much of a homeland: half its population emigrated. They botched the exit and it took Ireland 75 years to begin to overcome the consequences. James Connolly, the most far-sighted of the nationalist revolutionaries of 1916, feared that a bad departure from the empire would lead to a “carnival of reaction” in both parts of a divided Ireland. He was sadly right.

The divisions of the 1920s were cemented in place. The left was sidelined as tribal politics took hold. In the Free State (and later in the Republic), party allegiances were defined not by questions of social justice but according to who took what side in the civil war. Brexit has the capacity to have the same long-term distorting effect on English politics. The question for future generations could be not what you think the future should be but what did your side do in the Brexit wars?

So be careful what you wish for. Leaving a union is hard – don’t do it unless you have to. And if you really must do it, do it with all the grace and generosity you can muster. Don’t play at civil war – it’s a game that everyone loses. Don’t, on the one hand, work yourself up into such paroxysms of self-pity that you imagine England as early-20th-century Ireland while, on the other, assuming that what happened to Ireland then could not possibly happen to you now.

And remember that if you botch the exit, the carnival of reaction may be coming to a town near you.

• Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with the Irish Times and author of Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain

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