Fintan O’Toole’s lecture, ‘Brexit, Ireland and the Politics of Victimhood’,

download-3.jpgA report by Professor Elizabeth Malcolm on Fintan O’Toole’s Lecture

University of Melbourne, Miegunyah Lecture, 11 March 2020

Farage and Parnell

The well-known Irish journalist and writer, Fintan O’Toole, commenced his lecture at Melbourne University on 11 March by showing a photograph of the 1880s Irish nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell. This picture, O’Toole informed his large audience, was displayed until recently in the European parliament office of Nigel Farage, the United Kingdom’s (UK) leading advocate of Brexit. Why, O’Toole asked, would an English nationalist like Farage want to remember Parnell, a man who fought hard for Irish self-government, aiming to loosen Ireland’s political ties to the UK, if not sever them entirely?

This was just the first in a series of ironic questions that O’Toole posed during the course of his entertaining lecture. He answered this particular one by explaining that Farage sees Parnell as a great disrupter of the UK parliament in the cause of Irish nationalism, just as he, Farage, sees himself as a great disrupter of the European parliament in the cause of British nationalism—or, more accurately, according to O’Toole, English nationalism.

English and Irish Independence

O’Toole argued that English proponents of Brexit, like Farage, have been, as he put it, politically ‘cross dressing’: that is claiming their campaign against the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU) is comparable to Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain. The parallel is of course spurious. The union between Britain and Ireland in 1801 was foisted upon the Irish people as a consequence of a corrupt bargain struck between a Conservative British government and an unrepresentative Protestant Irish parliament. By contrast, the UK’s 1973 entry into what became the EU was endorsed by popular referendum in 1975; and even the subsequent 2016 vote to leave was a very close one.

More broadly, O’Toole suggested that Brexiteers frequently adopt the rhetoric of national liberation and even of anti-colonialism. Coming from admirers of the British Empire, this is not just ironic but positively bizarre. Many Brexiteers see themselves as ‘enslaved’ by the EU. They argue that the UK should have an absolute right to determine its relations with other countries. This attitude O’Toole said was unrealistic and contrary to international norms. Relations between countries involve compromise; it is only empires that seek to dictate.

While claiming to champion freedom, Brexiteers often exhibit a mindset that might best be termed imperialist. By this, O’Toole said, he meant that they see the world in binary terms as composed of either dominant or submissive nations. Thus, if the UK can’t dictate to and control the EU, then, by definition, it must be oppressed by the EU. Yet, in fact, the whole rationale behind the EU is to prevent one dominant power from emerging. The EU has been especially beneficial for small nations, like Ireland, in that member states are treated as equals regardless of their size and economic or military power.

Britain as Defeated Victim

The English, O’Toole argued, have never really put World War II behind them. By the 1960s, despite having emerged victorious from the war, the UK was in serious economic and political decline, whereas defeated powers like Germany and Japan were on the rise. This is at the bottom of much of the current English sense of victimhood, with its associated feelings of self-pity, fostered by Brexiteers like Farage. O’Toole noted the recent popularity of counter-factual novels by authors like Len Deighton and Robert Harris, in which Britain is imagined as having lost the war and Germany is portrayed as dominating a united Europe.

How exactly, O’Toole asked, was the UK oppressed by its membership of the EU? This question is not easily answered, but in response to it he noted the relentless anti-EU campaign conducted for decades by the right-wing British tabloid press, often based on exaggerated or distorted claims and sometimes downright lies. The EU became a regular butt of English ridicule and satire, undermining public confidence in the organisation and promoting suspicion and hostility towards it. One of the English journalists most successful at mocking the EU during the 1990s was the 2016 Brexit campaign leader and now UK prime minister, Boris Johnson.

English Nationalism and Self-Harm

O’Toole also pointed to the rise, especially since about 2000, of English, as opposed to British, nationalism. Without a political party or a cultural revival promoting it, a sense of Englishness has nonetheless come increasingly to the fore, undermining the foundations of the UK. Contributing to this undermining, he also thought, was the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement, which gave the people of Northern Ireland the right to opt out of the UK whenever a majority voted to do so. Then, in 1999, there was devolution, which further loosened the ties of union by establishing a parliament for Scotland and an assembly for Wales.

In June 2019, a poll among Conservative Party members found that 63 per cent would support Brexit even if it entailed Northern Ireland leaving the UK, while 59 per cent took the same view as regards Scotland. It appears that for many Tories exiting the EU is worth the price of the dismemberment of the UK. O’Toole graphically compared this attitude to people self-harming in order to feel good about themselves.

Different Directions and Multiple Identities

O’Toole said he thought that Ireland and Britain were headed in very different directions at present. The English were embracing a narrow exclusive identity and a sense of national persecution. On the other hand, the Good Friday Agreement had rejected victimhood by asking, not what people wanted to die for, but rather what they wanted to live for. The Agreement accepted that identities are multiple, fluid and changeable. Likewise, amendments to the Republic’s constitution in the wake of the Agreement assumed that people would share their country with those who are different from them. The Agreement also envisioned, O’Toole stressed finally, that reconciliation between Irish communities with differing identities must precede political reunification.

Professor Elizabeth Malcolm was the first occupant of the Gerry Higgins Chair of Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne.