Brexit

A partial defence of Fintan O’Toole

BY Finn McRedmond   /  30 January 2019

We’re a broad church at Reaction. This week we published an article headlined “Fintan O’Toole has inspired a dangerous new wave of anti-Britishness in Ireland” by journalist Eilis O’Hanlon. I’m Irish and I reject the premise of O’Hanlon’s critique.

O’Hanlon writes on Fintan O’Toole, the staunchly anti-Brexit Irish Times columnist, Guardian contributor,  and er, the man who has heralded a “dangerous” anglophobia in Ireland with his monographs on Brexit.

That Fintan O’Toole can be characterised as a balladeer of the Irish middle class, capable of rousing the bourgeoise into Brit-hating-nationalists, akin to “malcontents singing rebel songs down the pub,” is quite the claim in itself. Fintan O’Toole is unmatched in his ability to stir radical nationalist sentiment in Ireland, apparently.

Unfortunately for O’Hanlon, she was unable to produce any evidence of this surgent neo-anglophobia. It’s almost as if the home-owning, Dublin-dwelling, Leinster-rugby-watching middle classes are not banging their fists on the tables of South Dublin Wine Bars in ebullient choruses of Come Out Ye Black and Tans, contrary to the narrative O’Hanlon wants to perpetuate.

This characterisation of the Irish as possessing a latent revolutionary nationalism, ready to be unlocked by some magnetic rebel figurehead (step aside Michael Collins, there’s a new man in town), is a common cliché. O’Hanlon herself writes about O’Toole “addressing rallies outside the GPO, where the 1916 Rising began.” The fact may be true, but the implication she draws are not. This invocation of historical rebel imagery to imply Fintan O’Toole, a liberal journalist who primarily occupies the opinion pages of the Irish Times (hardly the bastion of republicanism), is just part of this caricature.

These attacks are rooted in an unwavering commitment to Unionism – and the result is the weaponisation of symbols of bygone revolution. To make her case – that O’Toole is a dangerous force, incubating nationalist anti-Brit tendencies – O’Hanlon is forced to resort not only to outdated caricature, but also to ascribing non-existent loftiness to O’Toole’s influence.

The truth is that Fintan O’Toole is a flawed journalist. There are meaningful criticisms to level against him. There is his uncritical preoccupation with the establishment, and lazy pastiches of Englishness, unthinking polemics, and near conspiratorial obsession with power. He once referred to the EU as a “new illuminati.” His judgment on Brexit has frequently been poor. But the architect of resurgent nationalism of early 20th century Anglo-Irish politics? Swing and a miss.

However O’Hanlon has chosen to rely on the caricature of the restless Irish rebel – unthinking in the targets of his polemics, so long as he can engage in some good old fashioned Brit-bashing.

“Too little attention is paid by his new fans to O’Toole’s own past pronouncements on the EU. Back in the days of the financial crash and the eurozone crisis, O’Toole was one of a number of broadly left of centre pundits who spearheaded a populist resistance against the new dispensation…

As recently as the summer of 2015, following the punishment beating meted out to Greece for defying Brussels, O’Toole went so far as to describe those at the helm of the EU as a “new Illuminati”…

What happened was the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership. It seems that, faced with a straight choice between the “new Illuminati” and a EU member state wanting to go it alone, O’Toole plumps for the fiscal gnostics every time.

At least he does if the ones desiring to leave are British.”

The implication drawn is too simple: To be anti-Brexit is equivocal to being anti-Britain. To be anti-Brexit necessitates being unflinchingly pro-EU. To be critical of the European Union during the eurozone crisis then requires you to support the Brexit project.

But the anti-Brexitism that O’Toole advocates is exactly in keeping with his criticism of the European Union. As a commentator, O’Toole resorts to his professional instinct in both cases. He seeks to hold what he perceives to be the establishment to account; whether that be the EU, the British ruling class or the Irish government. His critics are suffering from a framing problem – and a misdiagnosis of O’Toole. He is an anti-establishment obsessive who resorts to penning blunt pastiches of ruling elites. He is not some radical nationalist interested in nothing beyond Brit-bashing.

Criticism of O’Toole’s supercilious caricature of English Brexiteers is fair. O’Toole describes them as personifying “pig ignorance – of the genuine hallmarked, unadulterated, slack-jawed, open-mouthed, village idiot variety.” Like any xenophobia, it is unproductive and wrong. But to hold O’Toole as a prophet of a dangerous, below-the-surface anti-British radicalism is rooted in meaningless hyperbole.

He too is flawed in his analysis of Brexit. O’Toole’s argument – that it is simply the product of an imperial hangover – is blinkered.

John Lloyd in the Irish Times put it well:

“England – Britain – voted Brexit not because its citizens regretted the loss of empire, thought it could be re-assembled, believed that the commonwealth could take its place or saw the EU as a sadomasochistic monster. They wished to be governed by a parliament and an administration that they understand, and on which they have a direct influence through their vote.”

This is fair. Fintan O’Toole suffers from an inability to separate his Irishness from his understanding of Brexit – viewing the entire phenomenon through a lens of Anglo-Irish history leading to mischaracterisations. But Lloyd too fails to capture the entire picture. In reality Brexit is many things, and any one journalist embarking on a course of single cause history is going to get it wrong.

But O’Toole is just one hack. He did not invent anti-British sentiment in Ireland. He hasn’t heralded a new wave of anglophobia. And he certainly hasn’t roused the bourgeoise into violent rebellion spirt. There is a latent anti-British sentiment in facets of Irish society. It is the product of a complex history, bolstered by contemporary attitudes – Priti Patel’s dizzyingly tone-deaf suggestion to threaten Ireland with food shortages, or the cavalier attitude of the ERG and friends to the Good Friday Agreement. The lacuna in the British psyche of the reality of the Troubles, and the blasé attitudes of Johnson and Rees-Mogg to the border.

O’Toole is wrong to resort to lazy caricature – but to interrogate who is responsible for any anti-British sentiment in Ireland, British politicians and commentators would do well looking a little closer to home.

Ultimately, O’Toole is a left-leaning historian who deals primarily in short monographs on Brexit. He is not the harbinger of some middle-class Irish revolution.