by Ed West
Monday, 6
September 2021

Why I’m not renewing my Irish passport

Hilary Mantel may want to become European again, but I don't
by Ed West
Hilary Mantel, whose grandparents came from Ireland, is renewing her Irish passport

As children my mother insisted that we have Irish passports. This was not so much to gain a small victory over my English father but out of a neurotic belief that, if the plane we were on was hijacked, we’d be released early as neutrals.

This was the 1970s, and obviously by the 21st century the dynamics of terrorism had changed. Now, if your plane was hijacked an Irish passport probably isn’t going to be of much use either way.

But having a green passport (as they were once were) can still be extremely useful, because around the world the Irish are loved as warm, charming and banterous folk while the English are viewed as cold-blooded Charles Dance types who at some point probably invaded your country.

On a press trip to Trieste, I was given a ludicrously large hotel room because, the concierge explained, the city’s most famous adopted son James Joyce was also Irish. Ironically, Joyce refused to get an Irish passport but, had I known that at the time, I obviously wouldn’t have mentioned it; nor the fact that I grew up in England and in cricket test terms am English.

I only got a UK passport in my 20s and the Irish one has since expired, which is probably unwise since the value of having one has increased sharply since. It’s not the fear of being stuck on the plane with Middle Eastern terrorist driving the craze, but being stuck on a rainy, fascist island with a bunch of ill-bred gammons.

Since the referendum over 420,000 Irish passports have been issued in the UK, and while for many people it’s a practical matter of having access to the EU, for others there is a certain spiritual element. Novelist Hilary Mantel, whose grandparents came from Ireland, is the latest to announce she’s got the little book with the harp on it, saying: “I hope to loop back into my family story and become an Irish citizen… I feel the need to be packing my bags, and to become a European again.” She told La Repubblica:

We see the ugly face of contemporary Britain in the people on the beaches abusing exhausted refugees even as they scramble to the shore. It makes one ashamed. And ashamed, of course to be living in the nation that elected this government, and allows itself to be led by it.
- Hilary Mantel, La Repubblica

Celtic nationalism has always held a certain charm for people who are essentially English, from Erskine Childers to Compton MacKenzie to Seán Mac Stíofáin. It’s been given new life in the Brexit era, in which the Celtic world has had all sorts of progressive values projected onto it, self-identified global citizens from England expressing their desire to be Scottish or Irish: countries which are far less racially diverse than the England they despise, no more liberal in public opinion, and in the case of Ireland part of a bloc that has so far been far less generous to Afghan refugees, and indeed is in many ways more conservative than the country that has just left.

I haven’t renewed my Irish passport, partly out of laziness and partly out of bloody-mindedness; but it also feels weird right now because Ireland has become a proxy in a parochial English dispute over how Ghastly Our Fellow Countrymen are. Although I may regret that next time I book into a hotel in Trieste; or indeed if the plane I’m on gets hijacked.

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  • I hugely enjoyed her Wolf Hall trilogy, it’s such a pity she can’t see historical parallels between the Tudor period that most obviously fascinates her and the present. David Starkey – before his public shunning – gave a brilliant lecture drawing the parallels between the break with Rome in Henry’s time and the break with Brussels in our own.
    You would imagine that historians who have to be alive to nuance and be able to see patterns in the past, would be able to see echoes of those patterns in the present. Yet Ms Mantel appears to have a blind spot due to her personal animus towards the PM and her apparent loathing of the ghastly, brexity Untermensch.
    I’ve written previously about where I think Brexit will sit in our history – I’m very much of the view that it will seen as the latest in a long line of occasions when the people of these isles have stood up to those in power and asserted and fought for their rights.
    As a country we have long taken pride in our democratic tradition. Even those on the political Left, who recoil from most of British history, have always wanted to associate themselves with the struggles of the British people to achieve a voice, to have a say – however small – in shaping our national destiny.
    Before most other countries in Europe, we created a system of Popular sovereignty, the idea that people should have a say in how they are governed – and by whom.
    Our membership of what the EU had become was denying the British people their democratic say, and they rebelled against it. For a good many years after the 1975 vote, there was general acceptance of our place in the EEC and its other incarnations. Of course I can’t speak for all 17.4 million Leave voters (nor the countless millions of Eurosceptics across the EU) but I would hazard that a very large number of them would agree that the Common Market had made sense. A group of entirely sovereign European nations agreeing to cooperate on trade. Had we remained simply as that there would have been a willingness – even enthusiasm – for the project.
    Since Maastricht, it was the creeping usurpation of powers without a democratic mandate that caused the rising Euroscepticism (not merely here in the UK but across all of Europe). 40 years after our vote to stay in, the EEC had morphed into an entirely different organisation that had accrued untold additional powers and areas of responsibilities (and sought to accrue yet more) without seeking the consent of the governed.
    In all that time – despite promises from previous PMs – we had not been afforded the opportunity to voice our opinion on our membership of a completely different entity – one that was moving towards full fiscal and political union. Finally, 24 years after Maastricht, we were given the chance – our first chance – to voice our support for it but instead we rejected it.
    The horrified establishment, determined to maintain a comfortable status quo that suited them very well, then attempted to thwart the expressed will of the people – who they regarded with contempt.
    Historically, the demands of all the various rebellions and movements against entrenched privilege and power in this country have essentially been the same, namely that if – as citizens – we are expected to live by the laws of the land then we should have a say in who makes those laws – with the obvious corollary that if we have no capacity to influence who makes the laws, then we will break the law. The Peasants Revolt, the English Civil War, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, it has all been the same, the right to have a say in our national destiny. The right to have a vote and, since achieving universal suffrage, that each vote should count the same whether cast by duke or dustman, young or old, male or female.
    We fought for those rights. We hold those rights dear. They are rights that everyone, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum, claims to hold dear. Even those who might not stop to consider those rights in the abstract, still have a sense that democratic sovereignty and the common law are the birthright of every Briton, thanks to those who came before us and fought to gain those rights.
    Yet many of the self-same politicians, writers and public figures who are always happy to pay lip service to those struggles and want to be seen commemorating the anniversaries, tried to deny the common man his vote – using PRECISELY the same arguments that the patrician classes had used to deny their votes previously.
    On the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre – where protestors whose banners called for “Universal Suffrage” and “Liberty & Fraternity” were ridden down and killed by a Cavalry charge in St Peters Fields – the BBC, the Guardian, and a whole variety of bien pensant commentators were at great pains to lay claim to the heritage of the protestors. Articles and programmes abounded, with the great and good all wishing to associate themselves with the noble aims of the Perterloo “martyrs”, whilst at the very same moment they were explicitly engaged in a campaign to disenfranchise millions of ordinary voters who’d voted for Brexit. Ms mantel was a vocal member of the wildly anti-democratic 2nd Ref campaign, that had deep support from other metropolitan elitists and luvvies.
    The hypocrisy was simply breath-taking.
    The arguments the establishment used – that the “little people” were too ill-informed, too easily swayed by lies etc, were precisely the same arguments used against universal suffrage: That working class people, or women, were not informed enough, not educated enough, not intellectually robust enough, to deserve the vote.
    If you support the concept of Free Speech then that has to extend to supporting the right of someone you disagree with being allowed to say things you would recoil from. If you support the idea of universal suffrage then that has to extend to accepting the result of such a democratic vote, even if the result is one with which you strongly disagree. If you refuse to accept a democratic vote, you are not a democrat – it’s a pretty fundamental point.
    We are past Peterloo type insurrection now, we are not going to see cavalry charges on our streets, or armed uprisings (whatever the more lurid catastrophists employed by the Guardian might like to pretend), but the fallout from the attempt to disenfranchise such a large number of voters (the majority view at the referendum, let’s not forget) was profound. We could see what was happening and were angry about it – and rightly so.
    So, when public figures suggest they’re ashamed of this country it only comes across as arrogance, bitterness and petulance, rather than principle. For all their self-perceived high-mindedness, they should consider this: – You might like to claim the heritage of the Chartists and wish to commemorate the Peterloo Massacre but just remember which side of this divide you were on. When it came to it, you did not stand for Universal Suffrage, Liberty or Fraternity, you stood with those cheering on the forces who’d ride roughshod over the plebs just to maintain their comfortable status quo.

  • I’m an Irish citizen through pure accident of birth. My father was born in Ireland but came to the UK at the age of three. He married my German mother while serving in Germany with the British army and my older brother and I were born on UK bases in Germany. I’ve lived in the UK continuously for 58 years and have only ever visited Ireland for three or four days ‘mini-breaks’. I’d gladly become a UK citizen but would have to face the same bureaucracy and expense as a recent arrival from the other side of the World. I know I’m whingeing but it does seem a bit silly.

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