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Sunday 28 November 2010

It's not just their national interest, the English care about Ireland

Recent events have shown the enormous affection the English have for the Irish, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

AS Ireland's economic troubles forced themselves up the British news agenda, I was interviewed on ITV and the BBC. "How are the Irish feeling?" asked the interviewers, and I duly did my best to come up with a raft of suitable adjectives to describe the state of mind of my countrymen: angry, humiliated, bemused, shocked, ashamed, desperate being some of the first.

But what struck me was how concerned were the interviewers and their researchers. They all oozed genuine sympathy at what they were seeing as a brave little nation being bullied by the big, mechanistic entities of the EU, the ECB and the IMF.

The thing is, they mean it.

The last couple of weeks has shown striking evidence of the enormous affection the English have for the Irish.

If Portugal hits the buffers, they won't much care. If the Belgians run into trouble, they'll make a few jokes. A collapsing Spain would be a worry because of the size of its economy. But when it comes to Ireland, the English are sharing our pain.

I'm specifically speaking of the English, not the British. The Scots have their own Celtic and Rangers sectarian/ tribal baggage when it comes to the Irish and the Welsh probably feel closer to Patagonia, whither so many of them emigrated.

The Northern Irish? Well, I wouldn't recommend going north to look for sympathy. Most unionists are trying hard not to gloat publicly, while nationalists are devastated that the fecklessness of the South has finished off any prospect of Irish unity in their lifetimes.

It has probably also seen off Scottish nationalism, now an object of ridicule as it is thrown at First Minister Alex Salmond that he used to want to ditch the pound, adopt the euro and form an 'arc of prosperity' alongside such shooting stars as Ireland and Iceland.

But in the House of Commons last week, when the Chancellor George Osborne, described Ireland "as a friend in need", no one laughed, even if some resented the idea of offering a dig-out of £7bn.

The English feel about the Irish as one might about a big family next door who enrich one's life, even if a couple of them are trouble.

They love the writers, the talkers, the musicians and the comedians, adore Terry Wogan, are inspired and amused by Bob Geldof, and accept as normal that their companies may be run by the likes of Niall FitzGerald from Limerick and Gerry Robinson from Donegal.

It will be a rare English person who doesn't have a close Irish relative or in-law as well as good Irish friends and workmates.

Osborne was at pains to make it absolutely clear that he was not being patronising and he truly wasn't. His generation (he is 39), no longer view us as thick Paddies who mend roads and sing rebel songs in Kilburn.

Apart from anything else, these days, as in Ireland, most of the menial jobs are being done by Eastern Europeans, who are valued as workers but have not socially integrated.

Four years ago, Osborne wrote after a visit to Ireland that the UK had much to learn from its neighbour: "They have freed their markets, developed the skills of their workforce, encouraged enterprise and innovation and created a dynamic economy."

As he would see it, despite the recent catastrophe -- which the English mainly blame on the euro -- none of that is negated by what happened since.

Certainly, the UK is in no position to sneer at anyone else for failing to control bankers.

Indeed, Ireland won widespread respect over here for embracing austerity early on. Whether that will survive the discovery that Irish old-age pensions are twice -- and the job-seeker's allowance nearly three times -- those of their British counterparts, is another matter.

Crucially, Osborne pointed out that helping a major trading partner is in the UK's national interest, it's not charity. The Left, of course, think differently. In another interview, on the BBC's Jeremy Vine Show, I was confronted by a long-winded socialist who believed that the British should bail out the Irish because of colonial crimes like partition. When he mentioned the Famine, I choked.

On Friday, an English friend rang me -- also choking -- because Jenni Murray, the presenter of Woman's Hour, had responded to Edna O'Brien's suggestion that the Irish were responsible for their own economic woes by explaining to her millions of listeners that the British had "created" the Famine.

But apart from those who embrace guilt, the English broadly are sorry for our trouble and hope that we'll soon be feeling better and able to continue adding to the gaiety of nations.

They'd probably draw the line at having us back in the United Kingdom, but they'd welcome us into the Commonwealth. And who knows? Maybe even into sterling.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards