Journalist Alastair Campbell (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Alastair Campbell has it backwards on Ireland

The British government was too indulgent of Irish nationalists

Artillery Row

In a recent podcast interview with the Republic of Ireland’s deputy prime minister (or Tánaiste) Micheal Martin, Alastair Campbell accused the British government of having a “repellent” attitude to the Irish during Brexit. The former New Labour spin-doctor chose an ironic moment to play up to our neighbours’ myths and prejudices about the UK.

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, had just caused outrage in Israel by describing one of the hostages freed by Hamas as “an innocent child who was lost (and) has now been found”. Even a former minister from Varadkar’s party, Fine Gael, has acknowledged that, in the Republic’s political life, “it’s difficult to extract antisemitism from anti-Zionist and anti-Israel sentiment”.

Meanwhile, in Dublin, a knife attack on primary school children and a care assistant was followed by anti-immigration rioting, when the suspect was rumoured to be Algerian.

The Republic’s police force (the Garda) claimed initially that this gossip was false, describing a “person of interest” whom it had arrested as an Irish citizen. It also announced that the man was in his forties and had been in the country for twenty years, which hardly discouraged theories that the authorities were being less than open. Mr Varadkar finally confirmed that the suspect was an immigrant, whilst appealing to the public not to link that fact to the crime.

Whilst the stabbing clearly shocked the media and politicians in Dublin, it seemed to many observers that they were more upset by the riots. The disorder was clearly a serious blow to the progressive, migrant-friendly image that the country’s establishment has carefully promoted. Like many of nationalist Ireland’s ideas about itself, though, this self-portrayal says more about the hostile caricatures through which the Irish see Britain, than anything meaningful about their own country.

In nationalist mythology, the British and particularly the English are depicted as selfish, rapacious and racist. In the years before Brexit, these stereotypes seemed to be fading from common use, but the referendum result made anglophobia acceptable in polite society again. This tendency was encouraged by British arch-remainers like Campbell, whose contempt for Leave voters reinforced anti-English tropes.

Far from showing disdain for the Republic during negotiations with the EU, the UK was too indulgent of Irish nationalist sensitivities. At the start of the negotiation process, Theresa May conceded that there would be no hardening of the land border between southern and Northern Ireland under any circumstances, irrespective of how unreasonable or demanding Brussels and Dublin might prove to be.

It was this commitment that led to the so-called Brexit “backstop” and various iterations of the “Irish Sea border”. Consecutive British prime ministers preferred to drive an economic frontier through their own territory — creating checks and regulatory barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland — over upsetting Dublin or Irish separatists in Ulster.

Some Brits viewed the Republic as a beacon of enlightened globalism

Occasionally, Brexiteer MPs on the government benches made disobliging remarks about Varadkar or his sidekick, Simon Coveney. Overwhelmingly, though, the British met Irish hostility and insults with forbearance and patience throughout the negotiation process.

During his conversation with Campbell, Martin accused the UK government of an “absence of any due diligence over the impact (of the Northern Ireland Protocol) on SMEs, small businesses, supply chains”. This allegation was not unfair, but it did not reflect the fact that the sea border was inflicted on Ulster at the insistence of the EU and Dublin.

There is a political crisis in Northern Ireland, and companies are struggling precisely because Britain capitulated to the Irish — or at least to the nationalist Irish. The idea that they treated them repellently is absurd. Indeed, it was Northern Irish unionists, rather than the Dublin government or northern nationalists, that British ministers chose to sacrifice when it became expedient.

For many people in the Republic, and for ardent Europhiles like Campbell, Brexit was an original sin from which there could be no redemption. After the British public made its decision to leave, the EU and its member states were absolved of responsibility for everything that followed. Whatever transpired, it was the UK’s fault, it was Brexit’s fault, and the Irish were justified in acting as obnoxiously as they liked.

That superiority complex was ill-founded, but it resonated with some Brits, who viewed the Republic as a model European citizen and a beacon of enlightened globalism. These views inverted their cartoon portrayal of the UK as an increasingly intolerant and inward looking country.

In fact, Britain has absorbed repeated waves of immigration whilst remaining one of the least racist countries in Europe. There was almost no populist reaction against Islamist terrorist atrocities, like the massacres in London in 2005, the attacks on Westminster and London Bridge, the Manchester Arena bombing and the murder of David Amess MP.

Of course, even higher levels of immigration in recent years have amplified a debate about how our society and way of life would change, but that could hardly be avoided. The Republic of Ireland, whilst it is behind Great Britain, has seen significant numbers of new arrivals, too. Many people there, it turns out, share the concerns of their counterparts in the UK, with a recent poll showing that 75 per cent think that too many migrants have been accepted.

The political establishment in the Republic is keen to shut down that discussion by passing draconian “hate speech” laws. A candid debate around the subject may undermine the myths that they have cultivated carefully.

Meanwhile, far from having a “repellent” attitude to the Irish, the Westminster government has consistently failed to challenge Dublin’s slights and distortions about the UK forthrightly. Rather than listen to Campbell, it should be braver in defending Britain’s interests and tell the Republic to concentrate on its own problems.

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