Henry McDonald: Colm Toibin spurns misty-eyed guff about a ‘New Ireland’

If you had read the headline in The Irish Times this week introducing a long essay by the novelist Colm Toibin you could be forgiven for thinking that here was just one more anti-Brexit, anti-British and by association anti-unionist tirade from yet another southern public intellectual.

By Henry McDonald
Saturday, 9th October 2021, 5:33 pm
Updated Wednesday, 13th October 2021, 8:27 am
Colm Toibin’s essay was packaged as if it was another anti-Brexit, anti-unionist tirade from a southern intellectual when in fact it was nuanced about Northern Ireland
Colm Toibin’s essay was packaged as if it was another anti-Brexit, anti-unionist tirade from a southern intellectual when in fact it was nuanced about Northern Ireland

On Tuesday last Ireland’s paper of record presaged Toibin’s text with the words: ‘What Brexit Britain doesn’t understand about Ireland’.

The actual column the Irish novelist penned originally for my old newspaper The Guardian was accompanied by an Irish Times sub-headline: ‘Hot-headed and untrustworthy, London now behaves as it used to regard the Irish.’

A cursory glance of those introductory banners produced an initial sensation of doom and gloom within me that even someone so balanced, fair and sensitive in his past writings on Northern Ireland had now seemingly joined the bandwagon of Brit bashing that has become so fashionable among the men and women of letters in the Dublin media.

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And yet on reading the actual column Toibin wrote it was evident that the author had not deviated at all from his long time pluralistic, scrupulously fair and nuanced take on Northern Ireland.

He started out by referencing the Queen and her historic, ground-breaking visit to the Republic back in 2011. The novelist recalled talking to British diplomats a few months before she would arrive in Dublin. He remembered urging them not to compel her (as the opportunistic Tony Blair had done previously about the Great Famine of the mid 19th century) to use one loaded word — ‘sorry’.

Toibin reflected in his article that, “The word ‘sorry’ was debased. Everyone was always sorry. Very few people who said they were sorry really meant it. Nor should the Queen express remorse or apology. The Queen in Ireland should not say anything that she did not mean.”

Staying focussed on the Queen’s visit Toibin continued: “On 18 May 2011 the Queen spoke with great delicacy and tact in Dublin Castle. She did not apologise for anything. She merely said something that happens to be true: ‘With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all’.”

Courageously, Toibin also challenged the cosy consensus in the Irish media that Brexit had somehow completely changed the matrices of relationships between Irish and British people, which appeared to reach such a positive apex during the royal visit to Ireland.

“None of this was ever going to change after Brexit. Irish soccer fans will still support English teams; Irish people still have cousins in England and go to England looking for work; Northern Irish people will still see Scotland as close to home. England still represents freedom for many Irish people,” Toibin wrote.

Excoriating not only Sinn Fein but also those politicians in Ireland’s traditionally dominant parties, Toibin warned against them wrapping the Green Flag around their torsos in order to harvest support from a younger, more neo-nationalist population south of the border.

“Their talk of a united Ireland ‘in my lifetime’ is mystical blather, but it has the power to unsettle a fragile political environment. Also, it will do nothing to keep Sinn Féin at bay.

“It will do nothing either to solve the more pressing and immediate problem of sour relations at official level between Ireland and Britain after Brexit. It is another example of politicians saying something they don’t mean.”

In his column Toibin too recollected his visits to Protestant churches where funerals of murder victims took place in the IRA killing fields of Fermanagh during the Troubles.

He reminded readers about the deep wounds inflicted upon border unionist communities during those dark days. His moving testimony, a powerful echo of his superb book about walking those borderlands in the 1980s, was a welcome balm to all the waspish, stinging anti-Brit rhetoric that has infected southern Irish public discourse over the last few years.

The novelist even had the guts to raise awkward questions such as why people in Northern Ireland would give up an NHS that is free albeit flawed to one that in his words is a “dysfunctional health system” down south.

Colm Toibin’s column was a welcome, realistic, refreshing intervention amidst all the misty-eyed guff about a ‘New Ireland’ in the post-Brexit era. It demonstrates that there are still voices in the Republic who maintain a sensible, pragmatic, nuanced outlook about Northern Ireland and especially towards the people there that still prefer to be part of the UK.

His column originally in The Guardian was headline-neutral: ‘Will the Brexit fall out lead to a United Ireland?’, the paper asked.

Toibin was at the very least sceptical about that prospect at present although you would never have known that if you took The Irish Times headline over the same text as an indication of what the author was actually trying to say.

Which begs more questions about the state of The Irish Times these days and its apparent abandonment of pluralism in both the states of Ireland.

• Other articles by Henry McDonald below, beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:

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