Since 2016, the Irish political and media establishment has clung to a single, unifying, and unshakeable theory about Brexit: It was a fluke result, fuelled by the confluence of several unique factors. A poor remain campaign. Lies by Brexiteers. A surge in anti-immigrant sentiment, or when they’re not being diplomatic, “racist bigotry”. Poor turnout by the young. Voters did not understand the question. Voters did understand the question, but not the consequences. Voters didn’t really vote on Brexit at all, but rather to send a message on some other issue.
All of those things, we have been endlessly told, came together in a single, perfect whirlwind, to deliver a fluke referendum result, which every sane Briton now regrets.
If that’s the theory for the “why” of Brexit, the “what next?” of Brexit has been less of a theory, and more an article of religious faith: That its proponents will be righteously judged and held accountable. Brexit would not only be a disaster, but it would be a disaster that would destroy the Conservative Party, break up the United Kingdom, lead to a United Ireland, and an independent Scotland, and have the British Government – most likely a Labour Government – come crawling back to the rest of us, begging for forgiveness. A second referendum, most posited, was the way out. Graciously allowing Britons to right their error, embrace the enlightenment of remain, and be warmly welcomed back into the European family of nations.
Boris Johnson’s accession to power was greeted with barely disguised glee by most of the Irish commentariat. Not, you understand, because they welcomed his premiership, but because this was the moment. Finally, in their eyes, the great philandering charlatan, the liar, would be exposed. Johnson, having found it easy to write lies on the side of a bus, would suddenly be faced with the might of the united European Union, forced to accept utter humiliation, and in the process, exposed before the British people as a man of straw.
When Johnson faced a string of parliamentary defeats, the Irish commentariat was gleeful. Finally, the great shyster was being exposed for what he was, by experienced and savvy and moderate politicians like Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve. Adding to the paradoxisms of pleasure was the fact that Johnson had installed alongside him in number 10 that great villain, Dominic Cummings. The architect of Brexit, and the leave vote, was now being exposed as a man who had gotten lucky in a single hand of poker and was now losing all his winnings. “Classic Dom”, tweeted Irish journalist after Irish journalist, as every new attempt at Brexit was blocked by the group of politicians who revelled in being called “the rebel alliance”.
Every Irish radio host, every TV news panel, and almost every newspaper columnist took the same view: The circus act had been exposed, in the courtroom. British voters would look at the UK supreme court over-ruling Johnson and say “this fella is out of his depth”. The absurd, and unprovable claim that Johnson had “lied to the Queen”, was repeated ad nauseum.
So determined were they to enjoy Johnson’s defeats that they did not recognise, or observe, or remark upon, the trap that was being laid. It’s not as if it was hard to notice, either, since Johnson was fairly open about it. “They’re blocking Brexit”, he said. “We are”, came the reply from the remainers, “and there’s nothing you can do about it”. “Isn’t it brilliant”, they whispered in Dublin. “He’s getting his comeuppance”.
Last night, Boris Johnson won the largest conservative victory in a quarter of a century. He won a bigger share of the UK vote than any politician in 40 years. Tony Blair never came close to 43% of the vote in his landslide wins. Even Thatcher in her pomp only achieved that level of support in 1979.
He won the election on an explicit promise to “Get Brexit Done”. Those voters who we were assured did not understand the question in 2016, or who voted in protest at austerity, backed Brexit again. The young turned out this time, in such huge numbers that social media deluded itself into thinking that Johnson would be swept away.
This morning, Johnson’s opponents lie shattered beneath his feet. Brexit is now a certainty. It might be time for humility and self-reflection from the Irish commentariat, but there will come none. Precisely the opposite, in fact.
To them, Johnson may have won, but the larger truth must be, has to be, needs to be, that he’s really lost. “Oh he’s won alright, but he’s lost Scotland”, they say. “Scotland will definitely leave now”.
Last night, Boris Johnson won a larger share of the vote in Scotland (28%) than Fine Gael won at the last general election in Ireland (22%). Scottish unionist parties got 55% of the vote. Last week, a YouGov poll put support for Scottish independence at 45% – unchanged from the result when Scotland last voted on the issue. There is no evidence, none at all, that support for independence in Scotland is higher now than it was the last time they voted on it. But the psychological need for Irish commentators to believe that there must be some punishment for Brexit means that evidence is less important than speculation. The same people who told you for months that Johnson was finished will now tell you, in his moment of triumph, that the Union is finished.
Not just Scotland, but Ireland too. A united Ireland has never been closer, they say. Brexit has made it inevitable. They say this even as, once again, more Northern Irish voters voted for Unionist parties than Nationalist, and without any evidence at all – not a single data point – to support the notion that a border poll could, or would, succeed.
The last three years have demonstrated nothing more than they have demonstrated that the Dublin media, and the Irish establishment at large, have zero understanding of our nearest neighbour, and zero desire to understand it. The Irish establishment identifies with remainers and nationalists, and therefore it thinks, and perceives the world, only as remainers and nationalists do.
An Ireland that does not understand the motivations for Brexit is an Ireland that is entirely unequipped to combat those motivations should they ever appear on our own soil. For a country so obsessed, as we are, with our own independence, to so completely fail to comprehend the desire of British voters to make their own decisions, is mind boggling. To write off all Euroscepticism as driven by bigotry or small mindedness, or to pretend that voters don’t understand what they are being asked, is itself the most dreadful bigotry.
Fintan O’Toole, on the day of the election, declaring himself a “friendly outsider” to Great Britain, enquired of its voters whether they could not “do better” than Boris Johnson.
“No”, they answered. And our media is entirely incapable of understanding why. Because for many of them, it’s not about journalism. It’s a form of religion.