Analysis & Comment

Colette Browne: 'Brexiteers are learning their stereotype of the Irish as drunken, idiotic apes is somewhat off the mark'

The press conference between Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson in Dublin on Monday underscored an interesting development. The stereotype, long prevalent in England, of the Irish as being uncouth, slovenly oiks has now been reversed.

This was writ large in the images of a dishevelled Mr Johnson, looking like he had arrived at Government Buildings after being plucked half dead from a ditch, standing beside a dapper Mr Varadkar.

The Taoiseach, in his address, was articulate, measured and direct.

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In a concise speech, he neatly eviscerated Mr Johnson’s mantra that no deal would be a “clean break” Brexit – even managing to invoke Greek mythology as a coup-de-grace dig.

As Mr Varadkar answered questions, an agitated Mr Johnson, unable to stand still, began compulsively raking his hands through his unruly mop of hair and flexing his arms, as if limbering up for some kind of physical exercise.

His trousers, ill-fitting with his shirt billowing out from behind, could have done with some twine to hold them up.

When he did speak, Mr Johnson was meandering, nonsensical and addled, proffering nothing but tired slogans instead of anything meaningful.

The juxtaposition between the two men’s demeanours prompted many British commentators to lament the embarrassing spectacle of their prime minister.

One even suggested starting a petition on the parliament website, seeking to compel Mr Johnson “to apologise to Ireland for having to deal with him”.

It took only a couple of hundred years, but it seems like Brexit has finally dealt a death blow to the caricatures of the Irish, like those found in Victorian-era ‘Punch’ cartoons, as simian, dense and drunk.

In fact, you don’t have to travel back in time to the 19th century to find those kinds of depictions of the Irish in the British press.

Newspapers like the right-wing ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘Daily Express’ have routinely featured cartoons in which the Irish were invariably passed-out drunk, brawling or gormlessly drooling at the mouth.

One cartoon in London’s ‘Evening Standard’ which appeared during the Troubles was captioned ‘The ultimate in psychopathic horror: the Irish’ and showed ghouls and monsters wielding knives and explosives.

A separate cartoon in the ‘Daily Express’ depicted those on either side of the divide during the Troubles as apes, hurling bricks at a noble British soldier.

As recently as July, a cartoon appeared in the ‘Evening Standard’ which featured then Tory leadership candidates Mr Johnson and Jeremy Hunt dressed as leprechauns dancing around a pot of gold, bearing the inscription ‘no backstop’.

If Mr Varadkar had presented in the same bedraggled and bewildering way as Mr Johnson on Monday, there are no prizes for guessing how those cartoonists would have cast him for an English audience.

The paradox of Brexit is that it was supposed to release the UK from the shackles of the EU so that its true, and unlimited, potential could be realised.

Instead, it has caused it to regress into a belligerent, narrow-minded and regressive backwater, whose government is now abandoning democratic norms and openly considering breaking the law.

A certain cohort of English people have always had, in modern parlance, notions. The ‘Rule Britannia’ brigade have been so convinced of their own superiority, and so sure of the inadequacy of everyone else, that they thought of their membership of the EU as a hindrance and not a help.

The lesson that Brexit cannot facilitate time travel, back to their glorious colonial past, has been a hard one for many to come to terms with. Some never will.

The Irish, by contrast, have never held these kinds of delusions about our own exalted place in the world.

History long ago forced us to accept our limitations and have more measured expectations about what we could achieve on our own.

We have travelled a difficult road since independence, suffering a catastrophic setback as recently as 10 years ago during the banking collapse which caused immense suffering and hardship.

Still, Ireland today is unrecognisable from the country it was a mere two or three decades ago. And, unlike the British who yearn for a bygone era that can ever exist only in history books, most of us are pleased at the changes that have taken place.

Ireland is now more open, more inclusive and more diverse than it has ever been. The country is by no means perfect and still has serious problems, most acutely in housing and health, but we don’t blame immigrants or marginalised people – or indeed the EU – for these societal ills.

While the UK has convulsed itself for the past three years, and grown increasingly chaotic, Ireland has remained resolute – respectful of the referendum result, but equally determined to defend our own interests when they collide with those of the Brexiteers.

This quiet confidence, and assuredness, of the Irish has clearly come as a surprise to many in England, whose view of us was informed by hundreds of years of racist cartoons featuring drunks, papists, apes and idiots.

It is obviously a source of great irritation to many that it is the Irish issue, the backstop, that is causing their Brexit dreams to founder. Puny, inconsequential Ireland, to which Brexiteers didn’t give a second thought throughout the referendum debate, has proven to be an unlikely stumbling block to, what was supposed to be, the easiest deal in human history.

Clearly, Brexiteers underestimated the Irish. Some are still so deluded they think our dependence on the UK is such that we will eventually meekly follow them out of the EU – the master leading its vassal.

The inconvenient and unexpected truth is that the Irish have not been afraid to stand up to the might of the UK, knowing we can rely on other EU member states to bolster our small size.

The Irish do not have a superiority complex, but equally we do not have an inferiority complex – and we are not prepared to sacrifice economic prosperity and peace on this island on the altar of deranged Brexit evangelists.

The mantra of those who advocated for Brexit was that it would show the world the inherent strength and power of the UK, which would easily thrive outside the EU.

What has actually happened is it has helped to rebrand Ireland to an international audience as a dynamic and modern republic that has proven more than a match for the decaying constitutional monarchy across the water – which now appears to be, like Mr Johnson, unravelling before our eyes.

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