Former Irish ambassador slams British attitudes and says for first time, Ireland has the upper hand

Bobby McDonagh

A former Irish ambassador has slammed the “breath-taking ignorance of history” shown by some Brexit supporting British politicians.

Bobby McDonagh was Ireland’s ambassador to the UK between 2009-13. During that time, he says he worked happily and harmoniously with his British counterparts for the mutual benefit of Ireland and the UK.

However, he believes Brexit has changed the diplomatic landscape for some people. He was particularly incensed by the reported comments of former cabinet minister Priti Patel that the UK should use the threat of food shortages to put pressure on the Irish to soften their stance on the Northern Ireland border issue.

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Mr McDonagh described she showed a “breath-taking ignorance of history”. Writing an opinion piece in the British newspaper the Guardian, he added: “However, while the boorishness of her remark is in a category of its own, misunderstanding Ireland has become a common feature of public discourse in the UK.

“The depth of ignorance about Irish politics, including from some Conservative MPs, has truly made us laugh rather than cry.”

Many of the of the more outlandish comments about Ireland, including one from Stanley Johnson that the Irish should just be left to shoot each other if necessary, stem from the issue of the Northern Ireland border with the Republic.

After Britain leaves the European Union, it will also be the border between the UK and EU. That creates problems for customs checks. The Good Friday Agreement requires that there should be no hard border as that would undermine the Peace Process.

Ireland, the UK and the EU all accept this but have so far been unable to find method of ensuring the customs controls after the Brexit that is acceptable to everyone. Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU sets out plans to create a trade arrangement that will make a hard border unnecessary.

However, if that proves impossible, she has agreed a “backstop” arrangement that could see the UK staying in a customs union with the EU with no way out. This has infuriated many Brexit supporting politicians, who have become frustrated with the way the border issue is proving such a stumbling block in the process of leaving the EU.

Mr McDonagh believes that the frustration they feel has led them to reveal their ignorance about Ireland and Irish issues. He writes: “The two years since the Brexit referendum have witnessed a startling decline in the capacity of many in London to understand Ireland.

“I can testify from four decades of working with British colleagues on EU issues, that our shared membership of the EU developed a deep mutual understanding between us. We found that we could agree on many issues; but also importantly that, when our views differed, we could understand each other exceptionally well. Each grasped where the other was coming from. Each understood the other’s way of doing business. We realised that we shared a language not just linguistically but metaphorically.

“It is therefore worrying that, in the emotional turmoil of Brexit, a large swathe of opinion in London, although of course by no means everyone, has come to misunderstand seven major aspects of Ireland: our motivation, allegiance, influence, intelligence, resolve, politics and friendship.”

Mr McDonagh says the Brexiteers have misunderstood Ireland’s resolve over the Northern Ireland backstop, imagining that it’s a way to create a United Ireland. He writes: “This is utter nonsense. The Good Friday agreement recognises the equal validity of unionist and nationalist aspirations; and many in Ireland would like one day to see a united Ireland by consent.

“However, the overwhelming majority believe that the focus for the foreseeable future should be on respecting both unionist and nationalist identities in Northern Ireland and on allowing the power-sharing arrangements there to take hold again and evolve. The only candidate in the recent Irish presidential election who sought to make Irish unity a significant issue received 6% of the vote. The irony is that it is only a hard border in Ireland, as opposed to Irish government policy, that could force the issue of Irish unity up the agenda.”

He adds that the British have also been surprised by Ireland’s allegiance to the EU. “Perhaps the misunderstanding that has proved most upsetting to the Brexiteers has been their recent discovery of Ireland’s influence.

“They should have understood that for the first time in history Ireland, with the inevitable strong support of our 26 EU partners, would no longer have the weaker diplomatic hand. They should have anticipated that the power relationship of the past would no longer apply.

“Many in London also fundamentally misread Ireland’s resolve. They believed that the Irish government was grandstanding and would eventually cave in. That particular penny has now dropped.”

Mr McDonagh finishes by saying that the friendship between the Irish and British, “characterised Queen Elizabeth’s state visit to Ireland in 2011, is now deeply rooted in Irish minds and hearts” and will not be destroyed by the Brexit rhetoric.

“But equally our friendship with Britain today is one of equals and will not deflect us, as committed and confident members of the European Union, from pursuing our interests, none of which is greater than maintaining the status quo of the Good Friday agreement insofar as that is possible in the circumstances created by Brexit.”

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Did you know?

Female Irish warrior Grainne Ni Mhaile, or Grace O’Malley is one of the most colourful characters in Irish history. Born around 1530, she was a Pirate Queen and became a constant thorn in the side of British Queen Elizabeth I. Find out more.