The Gist: The Nearest Neighbour

The Gist: The Nearest Neighbour

Looking to the East before looking to the West. It has been a hard few years for Ireland’s view of our neighbours, home to families and friends. What happened?

This is the Gist.

Nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown

The UK’s Brexit vote in 2016 seemed to mark a break from the rational, if unattractive, politics of Ireland’s nearest neighbour. What happened to them?, people asked when I went abroad.

But that was the mistake we made- viewing the UK through the lens of their own media and the stories they told about themselves. Looking with these fresh, post-Brexit eyes, the UK has been suffering the model post-colonial meltdown for nearly 60 years now.

Their public is volatile (see poll tax riots) their politics is debased (see the first-past-the-post electoral system), their society is riven with divisions and simmering resentments (see 1970-2019).

It’s all been there to see, all our lives. What happened in 2016 is that the break in the UK’s domestic arena came in an area where Ireland was the world’s foremost expert- having a referendum on the EU.

And so, suddenly, we could see just how threadbare and shallow the UK’s political and media fused machine was- because we literally knew better. We’d already made all the mistakes, and we knew them when we saw them.

Ever since, we’ve taken off the lenses of the UK’s self-told story. It has been a sorry time, but we have, at least, been able to recognise it for what it was. The parts of the UK that the central media narrative wasn’t really speaking to anyway have done the same. Scotland, Northern Ireland, and latterly even Wales are now looking at England as the difficult relative. Too important to them all to ignore but impossible to live with.

The Covid crisis has now seen more parts of England alienated from that story. The audience for the English history of itself shrinks further by the month.

Its political leaders are diminished by their own story’s weaknesses, spinning fairy tales of visiting castles to test their eyes.

The narrative of England’s exceptional place in the world is charging towards the immovable white cliffs of reality while the price paid for those stories ticks higher each day in the statistics of the dead.

A pandemic does not care what story you tell. The Coronavirus will continue to spread regardless of media narrative, public opinion or political affiliation. Only unwanted, difficult action can stop it. And England’s dreaming has stopped its systems from waking up to that- or any other- hard truth.