Earlier this month, I watched the great Irish author and political commentator, Fintan O’Toole, give a brief television interview about the state of relations between Britain and Ireland. He was standing on the banks of the River Liffey in central Dublin and, at the end of the conversation, the interviewer asked him what the feeling in Ireland was, three years on from the UK’s Brexit.
O’Toole thought for a second, and then said “sadness”. He pointed out that he was standing near where the Queen was greeted by cheering crowds, on her state visit to Ireland in 2011, a great, healing event that included the historic sound of the Queen opening one of her speeches in Irish, and her laying of a wreath to those who fought for Irish independence. At the time, it seemed to mark the culmination of a long and irreversible warming of British-Irish relations, dating from the run-up to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998; and as O’Toole suggests, it is difficult to overstate the sense of disappointment and dismay in Ireland over the drastic deterioration in those relations since 2016.
The current grim Brexit stand-off between the UK and Irish governments is not only depressing in itself, though; it also acts as a reminder of the sheer destructive force of right-wing populist politics, which live by emphasising difference, ramping up conflict, and preferring simplistic lies to nuanced truths. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was a masterpiece of nuanced late 20th century thinking about community and belonging. It had its structural flaws; but it was based on a sophisticated recognition that complex and conflicting loyalties, both within individuals and within geographical communities, are common in modern societies to the point of normality, and that they need not be a source of conflict, provided each identity is fully recognised and respected, within a strong internationally guaranteed framework of basic rights and democratic institutions.
The modern populist right, on the other hand, rejects this truth in favour of a series of big, simplifying lies, notably lies about complete national homogeneity and unity in the face of some imagined enemy. The Brexit Leave campaign, for example, sought to persuade a majority of British voters that the EU was that enemy and, for one day in June 2016, by hook and by crook, was successful in achieving that goal. When the result was in, they set about creating the myth that “the nation” had voted wholeheartedly for Brexit, when it was clearly split down the middle, both politically and geographically.
Then, emboldened by Theresa May’s attempts to placate the far-right of her own party, they set about creating the further myth that a “no-deal” Brexit is the only real Brexit; and they have installed a Prime Minister who – whatever his private views – is now so much a prisoner of those myths that he has laughably announced a “negotiating position” in which he refuses to talk to anyone in the EU until they do exactly as the UK demands, and remove the “Irish backstop” from Britain’s withdrawal agreement.
All of which, of course, has absolutely nothing to with the practicalities of maintaining an open border in Ireland, and everything to do with the kind of ritual display of national virility and intransigence that right-wing populists present as strength, when in fact it only betrays profound insecurity and weakness. Most people do, of course, feel terrifyingly disempowered in the world we live in, caught as it is in the grip of an economic system that is driving the planet to destruction, and that – in its DNA – is programmed to care little for the human or ecological consequences of market decisions.
Dealing with that sense of fear and weakness is not easy, though; and as right-wing or proto-fascist leaders throughout history have known, in frightening or humiliating times it is possible to build up near-hysterical levels of support among some sections of society by offering, instead of a painful reality, the snake-oil of facile hatred and simplified tribal identity, against some easily defined and demonised “other”. Hence the rise of figures like the notorious Trump-Johnson advisor Steven Bannon, allowed by the BBC this week to present himself for interview sitting in front of the Mexican “wall”, against the backdrop of a tank and an American flag; whatever he was saying, what he was signalling was a message of military power, patriotic American identity, and ruthless exclusion of everyone who does not fit his preferred right-wing white American stereotype.
If this kind of politics sometimes starts out as mere show business, though, or a kind of troll-the-liberal power-game, its combination of irresponsible hate-mongering and increasing detachment from reality can have devastatingly destructive consequences. At best, smaller nations like Scotland and Northern Ireland are forced to choose between identities and loyalties – in this case, to the EU or to the UK – in ways that are themselves divisive and damaging, and likely to ramp up ill-feeling against whoever is forcing the choice. Trade wars are already intensifying across the planet, as unscrupulous leaders, inspired by Donald Trump, begin a race to the bottom in the disruption of amicable trading relations; if history is any guide, military action is not likely to lag far behind.
And any stranger, looking with clear eyes at Britain and Ireland now, can see the human damage already wrought in these islands, by three years of triumphant right-wing populism in transatlantic politics: the grief and uncertainty of those who live along a Border that was never meant to matter so much again, the anger and frustration of those trying to run businesses or make long-term lives for themselves in Northern Ireland; and the sadness of all those who, as recently as 2011, could see the potential of a peaceful European future for all the people of these islands, but must now watch that prospect thrown away, in pursuit of a myth of national self-sufficiency and supremacy that will finally benefit no-one except the the cynical and ruthless men who deploy it, often without believing a word of the lies they tell, with such brutal panache.