If it wasn’t so serious, we tell ourselves, it would be amusing. And so we rub our hands, half gleefully, as those Tory clowns get ready to pull their house down, all in the name of a dubious Brexit. How stupid, how absurd, we say, this pursuit of a pipe dream that can only end in tears.
But let’s hold a minute. Before we scoff too much at Boris Johnson, let’s ask ourselves whether anything like this has ever happened before. And we look in the mirror, and it dawns on us that maybe Boris is simply taking a leaf out of the book of Irish history.
It was 1932, and Fianna Fáil had come to power for the first time. De Valera’s promise was to cut off all ties with Britain, to cast off any remaining shackles binding us to the old oppressor. And so his first bold act was to renounce the Land Annuities. These were repayable monies that had been advanced to Irish farmers to buy out their holdings under the old British Land Acts. Part of the subsequent Anglo Irish treaty, which had given us our independence, was that the Irish government would continue to collect the annuities and remit the monies to London.
But de Valera said no. And so started the six-year Economic War, which would reduce the country to penury, collapse the economy, and leave us struggling between a rock and a hard place.
The initial British reaction was to impose a 20 percent tariff on all trade, which meant we were no longer able to sell our beef to our sole export market. Within weeks demand for cattle had slumped; and farming income disappeared. Small farmers could no longer sell their cattle at the fairs, nor could they afford to keep them. Livestock were slaughtered in the fields, farmers walked their cattle to the fair in the hope of sale, and abandoned them in the streets of towns and villages.
Ireland retaliated by banning the import of English coal. ‘Burn everything British except its coal’ became the patriotic war cry. It had some effect, but it quickly became apparent that it was a one-sided battle .
The de Valera government exhorted the people to support the confrontation with Britain as a national hardship to be endured by every citizen. National pride was at stake. If we could but stick to our guns, there were sunny uplands in the near distance.
Farmers were asked to turn to tillage, to make us self-supporting. A free beef scheme attempted to reduce the beef mountain, where the unemployed were given two pounds of beef each per week. So popular was the scheme that men on the dole declined to take jobs on relief works lest they would lose their free beef entitlement.
Ironically, the Government continued to insist that large farmers should pay their rates, and the annuities, to Dublin. This led to huge civil unrest and violence when the authorities began to impound and sell off, at less than their value, the livestock of farmers who refused to pay the annuities.
Like all wars, the Economic War had to end sooner or later. A Coal-Cattle Pact in 1935 paved the way for a full agreement. Dev agreed to a once-off payment of £10 million to wipe out all liabilities for the annuities. And he was hailed a hero.
And for Boris Johnson (if he is a student of history) comes the most reassuring message of all. In spite of the years of hardship, in spite of the poverty, in spite of the broken economy, Fianna Fáil continued to be returned to office, election after election, for the following 16 years.