Today is St Patrick’s Day – a day where once a year, parts of the world are painted green, white and orange. Guinness is, quite literally, the order of the day, and in America, cabbage, corned beef and potatoes are still seen as an authentic “Irish” meal.
Most people who celebrate won’t be Irish. I don’t personally mind this at all. Although the blatant capitalising of exaggerated Irish stereotypes is predictable, it’s still nice to embrace a day of Irishness. It’s also an opportunity to remember generations of Irish emigrants and their successive communities around the globe.
The issue, for me, is not in the widespread presence of the “plastic paddy”, nor is it in the obvious marketing tactics. The day is problematic in how it fails to maintain the world’s spotlight for the rest of the year.
Once a year, everyone wants to be Irish. Every other day, we are a burden. The Good Friday Agreement is a barricade for a hard Brexit; the border question won’t go away; women still have no legal autonomy over their bodies. There is often a considerable reluctance to engage with what are seen as the complexities of Irish and Northern Irish politics and social issues.
Five months ago, I worked on a documentary for the Irish broadcaster, RTÉ. “Brexit: Farming on the Edge” was our attempt to provide a platform for local voices which were being drowned out by a UK-centric focus on Brexit. Most farmers I spoke with described feelings of isolation.
Their concerns weren’t being listened to. Large supermarket chains were considering cancelling their deals with local farmers. The Irish beef industry is the largest of Ireland’s food sectors, with the UK counting for 50 per cent of its trade and the EU 45 per cent, yet for many of the farmers I interviewed, these issues were being glossed over.
This ripple effect may seem parochial to broader Brexit discussions, but for small communities across Ireland who are still largely dependent on the farmer’s cheque book, it is a matter of life or death.
The current situation of the farming industry in Ireland is emblematic of the wider issues surrounding Brexit’s implications for the Irish economy. The UK cannot get a definitive transition deal until the issue of the Irish border is resolved, and although Jeremy Corbyn’s call in February for a new single market relationship demonstrates the potential for a soft Brexit, there are concerns that a hard border will be an inevitable outcome.
So what does this mean for the Irish economy? A recent classified report, obtained by The Irish Times, has revealed that Ireland will be hit harder than the UK after Brexit. In research carried out by Copenhagen Economics, it was highlighted that while Britain’s GDP would be hit as much as 5 per cent depending on the type of Brexit, Ireland’s economy could be up to 7 per cent smaller than it would be if Brexit had not occurred.
The questions of Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union and the implications of an Irish border barely featured in the EU referendum campaign, and yet now are proving some of the most fundamental sticking points in striking a deal. Even still, there are concerns that it’s a “UK issue”. As MEP Mairead McGuiness admitted on this week’s episode of BBC Question Time, she was “hesitant” to come on the programme because, as she told the mostly English audience: “In a way this is your business”.
The spotlight of St Patrick’s Day has also emphasised divisions surrounding women’s rights. The Taoiseach is currently on a tour in the US as part of a St Patrick’s Day visit. While there, he has been sent a letter co-signed by 17 anti-abortion groups, demanding that he uphold the eighth amendment.
Meanwhile, pro-choice campaigners are maximising the media attention that exists as part of St Patrick’s. The London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign are participating in the St Patrick’s parade this weekend, while “Pints for Repeal”, hosted by Repeal Global, is fundraising and encouraging awareness by asking people to take a picture of their pint with the hashtag #pintsforrepeal.
The Irish referendum on the eighth amendment is to be held by the end of May. In Northern Ireland, a law which has been in place since 1861 means that women are denied full access to abortion. Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, has been pushing Home Secretary Amber Rudd for the legalisation of abortion, having last summer secured funding for women travelling to England to have the procedure.
There may be some readers who think this discussion of abortion is nothing new. Yet the fact that we are having to continually repeat ourselves demonstrates that for too long, women’s voices have not been listened to across Ireland.
If we could transfer half the energy that people put into painting their faces green on St Patrick’s Day, and joined the efforts of those who are already working hard on these issues, then perhaps we could have the luxury of changing topic.
St Patrick’s Day is a fun, carefree day, summed up perfectly by Father Jack’s infamous battle cry, “Drink!” But being Irish is more than just shades of green and good craic. If change is to happen, the Irish experience – politically, socially, good and bad – must be acknowledged all year round.