Irish backstop –
‘I think being a woman is like being Irish,” the novelist Iris Murdoch, who was born in Dublin, wrote. “Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time.”
I sometimes think this sentiment reflects my own wariness as an Irish person of taking too many compliments from overseas, and explains why I find congratulations for our Government – both the new one and the last – a bit unsatisfying.
The Economist recently called Ireland “an unlikely diplomatic superpower”, while the Guardian praised the “enviable beauty” of the Irish political climate. After years of alternating between calling Ireland’s Brexit tactics cynical and naive, even the Telegraph this month praised Ireland for “taking over the euro zone” and “extending their grip” on the continent’s institutions.
‘So tell me,’ Ryan Tubridy will dutifully ask Greta Thunberg or Kiri Te Kanawa right after they’ve finished talking about their work clearing minefields for Unicef, ‘what is your favourite thing about Athlone?’
Having negotiated its way through the Brexit morass, swerved the worst of Covid-19, secured a seat on the UN Security Council, and won a historic EU judgment that means it has the right to insist the world’s richest company does not pay us any tax – hurrah! – Ireland appears to be on its way up the global hierarchy, and Britain has continued to marvel at the shrewd cunning of its plucky little neighbour.
Why, then, does this praise seem faint, or unearned? It’s not that we hate adulation. Seeking flattery from abroad is one of our most crippling and shameful addictions, right up there with Garth Brooks or pairing coleslaw with lasagne. This is a fact confirmed any time a foreign celebrity appears on Irish telly. “So tell me,” Ryan Tubridy will dutifully ask Greta Thunberg or Kiri Te Kanawa on The Late Late Show, right after they’ve finished talking about their work clearing minefields for Unicef, “what is your favourite thing about Athlone?”
It’s just that Ireland hasn’t turned into some 24th-century futurist Utopia so much as installed sensible public policy that should seem unremarkable in a modern democracy – and in fact, given most western responses to coronavirus, actually is unremarkable. This Government and the previous one have been praised at home, too, for their response to the crisis, but we should remember that the new Coalition of the boring was instituted to obstruct Sinn Féin after its unprecedented leftward surge in support from people tired of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
And although Ireland has received plaudits from the World Health Organisation for its handling of the Covid-19 crisis, we made the same mistakes with care homes as other countries did, and small clusters of infection have re-emerged recently.
The idea of Ireland as a model of competence in social and public health is also one most of us might find surprising, as our country also has issues that rarely attract attention from afar: a mounting housing crisis that currently means 10,000 people are homeless in one of the hemisphere’s richest states; a rolling series of healthcare scandals surrounding everything from poor bed provision to faulty cervical-cancer tests; and the remarkable saga of the new national children’s hospital, in Dublin, originally budgeted at €400 million but now forecast to be costing about €2.4 billion, making it one of the planet’s most expensive buildings.
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Ireland’s decision to enter lockdown earlier than Britain was a good one, but only in comparison with the grievous laxity of our easterly neighbour. The early days of Ireland’s track-and-trace app are showing positive results, but this is a success unduly magnified by the British government’s initial resistance to such technologies, and subsequent failure to launch one that doesn’t break its own data-protection laws.
For all our other ills, we have not yet disposed of experts, accountability or political memory. We take these things seriously, and a combination of steady, boring diplomacy and common-sense public-health measures are bringing us greater praise than they should
Irish people have largely followed the protocols as advised, but we have also enjoyed relatively consistent, sober messaging from government, media and health experts. This is in contrast to Britain’s bewildering stew of denials, contradictions and outright political chicanery around adherence to their own guidelines – none of which has faced any serious consequences from the UK’s parliament or largely right-leaning press.
It’s on this last point that one might find a meaningful distinction between the two countries. While England’s political culture is notoriously barbed and acerbic, Ireland’s is rather strait-laced and sedate. Irish newspapers may be dismissive and hectoring when it comes to Sinn Féin’s surge in support, but they rarely depict them as communists who live in bins. They afford a soft touch to Government Ministers who have to be woken from a nap in the Dáil to vote against workers’ rights, but they stop short of exalting them as celestial objects bestowing sunshine on their grateful subjects.
Despite this, the Irish press has landed more recent hits on our Government than their English counterparts. Earlier in July, Barry Cowen’s 17-day tenure as minister for agriculture was ended after a slew of coverage of a years-old, and spent, conviction for drink-driving. Compare this with the lack of any consequences for Dominic Cummings, or the fact that both Priti Patel and Gavin Williamson regained senior ministerial posts shortly after being sacked for actions that almost reach the definition of espionage.
It’s this sense of political unseriousness that seems the most marked difference between the two places, and it says less about the “enviable beauty” of Ireland’s system than about Britain’s further slide into a fact-averse, consequence-free banana republic of malevolent toffs. This style of politics had ruinous effects on the Brexit referendum and the subsequent EU negotiations, and has now become criminally disastrous in a pandemic that’s costing many more lives in Britain than in is here.
For all our other ills, we have not yet disposed of experts, accountability or political memory. We take these things seriously, and a combination of steady, boring diplomacy and common-sense public-health measures are bringing us greater praise than they should, now that those approaches can be so readily contrasted to our American and British counterparts. It’s a sort of “clowns to the left of us, jokers to the right” arrangement, which continues to herald great acclaim for a Government so dysfunctional that Leo Varadkar spent a day last week briefing against Taoiseach Micheál Martin, his coalition partner, on whether their green list of accepted travel destinations should even be released.
Praise for us as shrewd and canny operators gets the diplomatic calculus back to front. Ireland is not outflanking a competent, long-standing neighbour. We just have the pleasure of being compared with the gurning claptrapocracy next door. So long as Boris Johnson waffles, prevaricates and sees fit to place the NHS on the table for sale, amid the strongest surge in its appreciation since its founding, Ireland’s mundane governing coalitions will continue looking important and nice by comparison. – Guardian
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