By picking a fight with Ireland, the UK might turn one of its closest allies against it, writes BONNIE GREER.
My primary school in Chicago long ago was primarily African-American and Latino. But every March 17 we became something else: Irish.
Each St Patrick’s Day we wore ‘the green’ – hats or shoes. The boys had bow ties and we girls had ribbons or even a green skirt. We sang When Irish Eyes Are Smiling and we added an ‘O’ at the start of our names. This was all done without irony and with a great deal of excitement and even affection.
Then came the St Patrick’s Day Parade, a cornucopia of Irishness both real and imagined. The Chicago River was dyed green. The bands played and the massive downtown area was shut down as we stood on the side waving our little Irish flags.
Once we watched a Disney movie called Darby O’Gill and the Little People, featuring a then unknown Sean Connery as a Dubliner. I am sure that he had as nonexistent an Irish accent as he did playing the cop who befriends Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness and then gets murdered in Brian de Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables.
It took me a few years to know the power that the ‘Irish’ held over Chicago. They ran the Democratic Party, known locally as The Machine with a ruthless efficiency. It was The Machine that John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy, appealed to, to get his son over the line in the 1960 Democratic primary.
The boss of The Machine was a rotund, jovial man named Richard J Daley, who was mayor of Chicago from 1955 until his death in 1976. In fact, the name ‘Mayor Daley’ was plastered over everything in the city, so much that I thought Mayor was his first name.
In 1919, he had belonged to an Irish gang which helped to promulgate a notorious race riot in Chicago and was blamed for attacks on people of colour. When I discovered this, I wrote my first play, a story about that riot.
The American Irish and my people, at the working class level, were always at odds. In some places they still are. We competed for the same menial jobs, and housing and respect. But they love you if they love you and hate you if they hate you, and both emotions are epic and true.
Later, after I had grown up and moved to New York City, I discovered the power of the Irish community there too. Whenever a cop dies or is killed in the line of duty – especially that – the pipes played at the funeral are Irish. President Ronald Reagan and the then Senate majority leader, the Democrat Tip O’Neill, found common ground because of their Irish roots.
A great number of the supporters of Trump have Irish ancestry; a legacy that some are now quite wrongly calling equivalent to the slavery of African-Americans. Much of ‘Making America Great Again’ has to do with the concept of an America that many Irish believed that they came to off the ‘coffin ships’ that brought them from Ireland after the Great Famine of the 1840s.
You get nowhere in America if you do not understand that Ireland is in the warp and weft of the Republic. It is the other story from that of the Pilgrim Fathers.
And what this means is that if Ireland is seen to be disrespected by the UK over Brexit, all bets are off.
Ireland is such a powerful entity in the US, so all-pervasive, that when I came to the UK, I was shocked to see how little respect the Irish had here. A guy I met in London, in what he called ‘County Kilburn’, once told me that he had not known that he was black until he opened his mouth in London. This was the mid-1980s and the Troubles were at their height. But I detected an undercurrent, even among the most enlightened, against the Irish.
The frankly cavalier treatment of the Irish backstop by Brexiteers is a dangerous thing to an American. Last week, I listened to the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab say that he had not read the entire Good Friday Agreement, a 35-page document that should have been a doddle for a former solicitor.
Raab made the admission to the Commons Northern Ireland select committee when he was asked repeatedly by its chairman Lady Sylvia Hermon to confirm whether he had read the agreement before or during Brexit talks. He said he had not, without any apparent awareness of how shocking he sounded. But if the UK wants to secure a trade deal with the US, it had better clean up its stance towards Ireland and quickly. The Irish lobby in the US is strong and formidable and passionate. They will not let an imagined slight slide.
The flip side of this is something that the UK does not really seem to realise. In spite of America’s excitement over the royal family and all things to do with the House of Windsor, this country is not, deep down, really trusted. Rather, I should say that the English are not trusted, or to be precise, the English upper class.
Unfortunately, Americans throw everyone under that bus labelled ‘Perfidious Albion’. And this is because of Ireland, to whom Albion was, not so long ago, indeed perfidious. When the late Princess of Wales visited Chicago, just after her divorce, she was wined, dined and feted. There are pictures of her being swirled around the dance floor in a cocktail dress, giggling at all the attention and obvious awe. Chicago had a real princess amongst them.
But there was one journalist, the great Mike Royko, who was outraged. ‘It has been reported in this newspaper that the city of Chicago has gone ‘gaga’ over the visit of Princess Diana,’ he ranted, railing against how sycophantic the city had become just because a royal was in their midst. Where was Chicago’s self-respect?
And it is no accident that the Romans and other baddies in what the French call peplums – movies about ancient Rome and Greece – all have cut-glass English accents. Downton Abbey, The Crown and Victoria are all very well…
But if the Irish are seen as being shafted during Brexit, those pails may be metaphorically rattling at cocktail fundraisers again. Not for Noraid, which helped the IRA, but for a campaign to reject anything that the UK may want. Including a trade agreement.
There is something profoundly stupid about the way Brexit is proceeding, in relation to Ireland. Britain’s ‘finest hour’ mentality will come up against something much stronger in the USA. When it comes to the UK – which is generally referred to as ‘England’ – deep down inside, just about everyone in America is Irish. In short, don’t be perceived to be disrespecting Ireland. Remember that I told you this.