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Don't Be Fooled by Brexit. British Bigotry Strikes Closer to Home Than the EU

by Mark Hay Jul 6, 2016

A few years back, while transiting through London’s Heathrow airport on my way to visit my then-significant other in Dublin, Ireland, I got into an argument with a border control agent who was not happy with my landing card. In the section where it asked me to list my address for my stay in the United Kingdom, I’d simply written “in transit to Ireland.” This was insufficient, the border guard told me, because Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. “No,” I explained, “I’m not going to Northern Ireland. I’m going to Dublin, see?” To which the border guard replied:

“Dublin is in the United Kingdom. Ireland is in the United Kingdom.”

I started to protest — but quickly backed down as the agent bristled and manufactured doubts about my passport and intentions while I’d be in the United Kingdom. So instead I just wrote down an address in Dublin, gave him my new landing card, and a couple of hours later vented to my then-significant other’s family once we’d arrived at their place in the seaside town of Howth.

They were suitably outraged. But none of us were all that surprised. Because while for many the issue of British chauvinism is something new, dredged up by the disaster that is Brexit, and directed towards non-northern Europeans, many Irish people who’ve spent a fair amount of time in the UK can attest that the phenomenon goes further back and deeper than that. It’s manifested for ages in a low-grade, often ignorance-fueled bigotry towards the Irish that’s tainted interactions between peoples from the two nations for ages.

For those who don’t know why there might be simmering tensions between the English and Irish, here’s an incredibly brief primer on the history of the two peoples: back in the 1100s, England’s Norman rulers invaded Ireland, which was slowly subjugated to the English crown and colonized by English elites over the following centuries. Ireland kept some local rule until the 19th century. But Irish still describe themselves as England’s first colony, pointing to a well-documented history of dehumanization and brutal usage of their lands and people for English interests. The escalation of heavy-handed English control in the 19th century led to a commensurately powerful nationalist resistance. Through bitter struggle, Irish nationalists achieved home rule in 1914, free state status in 1922, full independence in 1937, and total separation from the English crown (when the Republic of Ireland exited the Commonwealth) in 1949.

But lingering tensions, especially over the status of Northern Ireland, which remained in the United Kingdom, led to some grim bigotry. In the 1950s, boarding houses in English cities sometimes sported signs reading “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” — a telling equivalence. In the 1960s, things only got worse during “The Troubles,” a period of political violence between England and Ireland, which only ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. As an Irish comedian I once heard put it, until the 21st century, the image of terrorism in England wasn’t an Arab Muslim; it was an Irish Catholic. And many Irish people who lived through that will tell you that they were treated poorly accordingly.

Many, especially in England, like to say that all of this is behind the two nations. But the Irish readily point out that it is certainly not. Even though political and economic relations between the two nations improved rapidly in the 2000s, mutual suspicions and lingering under-the-surface hostilities still exist. The Queen of England even held off on visiting her closest neighbor and ex-subject until 2011.

England’s peculiar attitude towards the Irish most visibly manifests in the way that it claims famous Irish individuals as products of the United Kingdom — then discards them if they get too Irish. Last year alone, the BBC reported that Dublin’s Conor McGregor was the first UFC champion “from the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland,” lumping the states together (they amended the story to “the United Kingdom or Republic of Ireland” soon after, which wasn’t much of an improvement as McGregor was really not a member of the UK, and his entrance into the ring was insanely Irish). The London Film Critics Circle also recognized Colin Farrell, Emma Donoghue, and Saoirse Ronan as exceptional “British” entertainers. Perhaps most tellingly, though, back in 1963 the Irish actor Richard Harris apparently saw a headline one night commending him as a “British” actor for winning an award. But after a bout of drinking that got him into a bar brawl, headlines the next day read “Irish actor arrested.”

The lingering sense that England still somehow controls or is affiliated with Ireland is so strong that Irish publications have to waste headline space or whole articles outwardly repudiating the notion — and often, with a fair amount of grace. In 2014, CNBC host Joe Kerner couldn’t fathom that Ireland wasn’t part of the UK in a discussion with Chief Executive of Irish Foreign Investment Martin Shanahan, and yet Shanahan (probably choking back rage) didn’t break his cheery character.

However, the chauvinism at play goes beyond simple confusion. As Irish writers have argued, many of their countrymen in England often face patronizing suggestions that they should have stayed in the UK, that independence was senseless, and that they are funny little drunken musical people. It’s a lingering post-colonial bias that breaks out from time to time, as when the disgraced ex-Top Gear presenter lost his cool and unloaded on his “lazy Irish cunt” producer, a slur that got him very publicly prosecuted for racial discrimination over the past year.

Whether you’re Irish or an American tourist, you’ll likely never see a Clarkson-level show of bigotry on display in England — not even amidst the post-Brexit vitriol. While the consequences of that bout of stupidity for Anglo-Irish relations, fortunately the Irish don’t seem to have been targets of the recent spike in British hate speech and crimes. But once you do become aware of the nation’s longer-lasting and deeper internal chauvinism, you’re constantly reminded that Ireland’s peculiar experience of marginalization and the hurts of a century of struggle between these two neighboring nations that still live on in subtle ways and will likely live on long after the Brexit blowback dies down. This attitude isn’t as resounding an indictment to England as other recent stories. But it is an understanding vital to fully connecting with either nation when visiting, and a phenomenon to keep in mind as we gawk at the unfolding mess of England of the last few weeks.

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