“Nobody ever went broke by underestimating public taste,” the great American showman Phineas Taylor Barnum famously said. Freak shows were his specialty before he joined his rival, James Anthony Bailey, to launch an epic national circus, and Barnum was worth $5m when he died in 1891.
arnum’s maxim would translate into politics as “stoking the tribe wins votes”.
Last week, we saw Boris Johnson doing just that as his Conservative Party swept all before it in English council and mayoral elections, garnishing it on polling day by sending gunboats to the Channel Islands and renewing amnesty pledges to old soldiers for crimes in Northern Ireland.
We also saw Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party use Mr Johnson’s Tories as a useful political foil to win big.
We’ll see a lot more of it in the near future as Northern Ireland unionism takes on new leadership and gears up for elections to the rickety Belfast power-sharing assembly next spring.
Sinn Féin are past masters of talking to the tribe and being right about all that is wrong.
But Taoiseach Micheál Martin, travelling to Chequers at the foot of the splendid Chiltern mountains to meet Mr Johnson yesterday, is the antithesis of “stoking the tribe”. We sincerely hope that such meetings are where the rhetoric is dialled down and the realpolitik of the political deal kicks in.
In anybody’s language, that is called bread and butter politics, which helps people have better lives.
It’s hard for many of us to reflect that we are only days from the 10th anniversary of the historic visit by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and her late husband, Prince Philip, in May 2011.
Those four days in May a decade ago were the high point of a blessedly equal and good neighbourly relationship between these two countries, and it boded well for a future of mutually beneficial cooperation inside the EU.
At a dinner in Dublin Castle, Queen Elizabeth even used a phrase in Irish to open a very well-judged speech reflecting on “heartache, turbulence and loss” resulting from years of conflict in these islands.
She said many things should have been done differently and some things not done at all, but she also stressed that nobody could have imagined the strength of the positive British-Irish relationship that prevailed in 2011.
The British queen had symbolised that new relationship when she bowed her head in the Garden of Remembrance, honouring those who died fighting crown forces nominally headed by own grandfather, King George V.
President Mary McAleese, who did so much to make the visit such a success, joined her at the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in a ceremony to honour the 50,000 men, from Irish nationalist and unionist communities, who died fighting in British uniforms in the Great War.
The success was built upon by another first state visit in April 2014, with President Michael D Higgins going to the UK. Even now it is hard to believe that these were “firsts” in the history of this State’s existence.
What is even harder still to digest is that, only a decade later, relations between Ireland and Britain are now very rocky and trust is in short supply.
We can trace much of this to dawn on a Friday morning, June 23, 2016, when we learned UK voters had opted to leave the European Union it had joined alongside Ireland in January 1973.
That B-word, Brexit, has been compounded by the arrival of a second – known universally by his adopted first name, Boris.
The UK-EU divorce knocked much of the stuffing out of the new British-Irish relationship and pulled out a major support truss from beneath the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which was mainly predicated on mutual EU membership.
One of Mr Johnson’s predecessors, David Cameron, is rightly remembered as paving the way for Brexit by calling an ill-judged and poorly-fought referendum.
We now know Mr Cameron had come to understand Ireland’s complex relationship with the UK.
Contrast his sincere personalised apology in June 2010 after the Derry Bloody Sunday inquiry findings with the botched job done by Mr Johnson over the Ballymurphy inquest this past week.
It is hard to overstate Mr Johnson’s lack of interest in the UK-Irish relationship, and his brand of English nationalism raises serious questions about the future of the United Kingdom.
One of the less remarked Brexit consequences has been the abrupt end of day-to-day British-Irish contacts in Brussels, ranging from relatively minor officials right up to Taoiseach-Prime Minister.
Mr Martin’s visit to Chequers yesterday is a very positive thing, but we must find other ways of systematically replicating those daily cordial contacts lost to Brexit. Ireland must work to have a new structure of regular contacts put in place.
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