Beginning with denial and ending with acceptance, the five stages of grief proposed by Swiss-American psychologist Ellizabeth Kubler-Ross made her famous during her lifetime and even became a staple of popular culture. Sometimes one almost wonders, watching the Irish reaction to one event after another, whether she would have been tempted to slot ‘Brit-bashing’ somewhere into the sequence if she had been working in this country.
If the crescendo of anti-British rhetoric in this country was just the usual fringe of anonymous social media accounts and local attention-seekers, it could be fairly safely written off as a familiar but irrelevant distraction. Something toxic, though, has been going mainstream for a while now. Coronavirus hasn’t created the phenomenon but it has brought it into sharp relief.
When David McWilliams takes to social media to brand the UK a ‘rogue state’, language which entered political discussion to describe North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the outstanding thing about such deranged behaviour is that he isn’t even the first notionally serious Irish figure to do so. Only a month ago Professor Brigid Laffan, a respected academic, used the exact same phrase to describe the country with whom we have the closest and the most consequential relations. When such crude Anglophobic tropes are routinely put in circulation by people who should know better, it shouldn’t be a surprise when they are picked up by others. Suffice it to say that anyone stuck in self-isolation who wanted to call out the more irresponsible examples online would not have to worry about running out of opportunities any time soon. The generally ragged state of British-Irish relations at the outset of a genuinely taxing period of loss and discontinuity is the demonstration, though, that there is also quite a bit at stake.
The demonisation of the British approach to coronavirus is, among other things, enormously unfair. Both governments in both countries have faced a situation which is literally without recent precedent. The correct response taking account of the enormous economic damage caused by protracted restrictions simply will not be known for a long time, indeed probably not for several years once the various waves of the virus have run their course. The writer and commentator Niall Gooch remarked recently that to attempt right now to judge a government’s efforts to meet the crisis would be as foolish as attempting in September 1940 to write the history of British military strategy in the Second World War. For people who want to see the extent of the division in medical opinion on what we should do, that has already been put together by some of the more helpful journalists. There are authoritative voices towards the top of medical opinion arguing both that the measures are too weak and that they are too strong. In truth, governments are effectively in the situation faced by a war cabinet when the best available military advice is divided and a decision has to be taken one way or another. For any national leader, these are heavy and sombre responsibilities to bear and they warrant being spoken of accordingly, whether it is our own government or another.
In truth, there is less distance between the Irish and the British positions than some suggest and the language used by officials in London and in Dublin can be close to identical. When Pascal Donohue says that the response ‘must be proportionate and consistent’ and acknowledges ‘the strain that the retail and many parts of the economy are under’, it could be a direct quote from Boris Johnson’s press conference in London. When the Johnson administration waits until expert advice requires it to do so before imposing limitations, it is simply doing the same thing which is happening in Government Buildings. There have been certain differences in epidemiological modelling and a slight variation in timing, but essentially both governments have sought the advice of the experts and implemented it faithfully. To pretend otherwise is also to miss the crucial revelation about how Johnson is operating. Despite every caricature in Ireland during the recent Brexit saga and no small amount of suspicion among his own countrymen, he has proven technocratic almost to a fault, uncompromisingly refusing to give an inch to the populist demands for visible action for its own sake.
Yet again, that simply isn’t cutting through in Ireland. A report this week that the scientific advice Boris Johnson is receiving has shifted was given widespread publicity in Ireland, typically characterising the matter as a major U-turn. That the same academics believed the UK government’s timing was more or less correct has been almost completed omitted. This is true even of usually reputable reporters. All of this points much less to any series of alleged mistakes in London than to a deep-seated and troubling need to fall back on ancient animosity towards ‘the Brits’ at the first sign in Ireland that some shared sense of sacrifice and endeavour is required from us. A psychologically healthy individual does not compare themselves constantly towards someone else, while continually misrepresenting the other person’s behaviour. A psychologically healthy nation should not have an opinion-forming class so heavily invested in caricaturing or misrepresenting the country with whom successful relations or their absence make so much of a difference.
What we may be encountering at the present moment is not the consequences of British government action, but our own eighty years ago. That Ireland largely sat out the Second World War is well-known, and it remains substantially true even when allowing for a degree of quiet help towards the UK and the United States, which has been somewhat overstated in some of the more recent histories. Effectively, we were not a participant. We did not experience air raids in the same way, privation or rationing to the same extent, or mobilisation and the re-ordering of society in the same way. The cost in life in Ireland was much, much lower than it was on the other side of the Irish Sea. Perhaps from our own perspective that was, at the time, an unheroic but basically correct decision. Either way, a decision doesn’t have to be a mistake to leave a legacy.
In Britain, that collective experience left deeply-rooted patterns of cultural reference and behaviour on which the country as a whole can fall back even now. The Blitz spirit was burnished by propagandists like much else, but the basic idea corresponds to a concrete historical experience. Ministers and writers in London tapping in to the collective memory of how to get through something serious together are tapping into something real and still quite readily available. Though, that said, we will soon find out to what extent the current generation of Britons do indeed still possess the forbearance of their ancestors.
Having sat out this period in history, though, the historical memory of how to do this successfully in Ireland does not exist in the same way. The temptation is to suspect that the current flurry of Brit-bashing is not simply an echo of some of the more regrettable excesses of the recent Brexit tribulations, when the anti-British rhetoric that was becoming routine in some quarters did start to get out of hand. It potential covers over an absence in our own historical memory that is potentially quite a liability in the months to come.
We are quite up against it here in Ireland now. We need a vocabulary of collective effort and a vocabulary of the public virtues that can bear a protracted period of attrition and loss. It isn’t going to come from setting ourselves up in opposition to a country that enters this crisis at least with a little of both ready to go.
Richard Waghorne is an Irish writer and political advisor based in London. He has previously worked as a columnist for the Daily Mail.