I left this comment on the article by Roy Foster in today’s Irish Times, which is titled State visit seals the end of an era for Ireland, in which the historian discerns that the ‘two countries finally see each other as indeed separate but equal, in a mutually fulfilling relationship. Nearly as good as sex.’
There is a kind of neat echo, in the Professor’s climactic ejaculation here that the relations between Britain and Ireland are now ‘nearly as good as sex’, of Michael O’Leary’s crude joke last week in front of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, about having sex with the Queen, which provoked revulsion among those assembled.
A British politician once described Ryanair as displaying the ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’. If political relations under capitalism are comparable to sex, as Roy Foster contends, perhaps the problem is that Ryanair have no sense of romance, no sense of foreplay. Official Britain and official Ireland are fine about Michael O’Leary and company destroying the environment, attacking the rights of workers, launching venomous attacks on public services and social protections, and humiliating their own staff, including female workers in particular. Where O’Leary crosses the line is when, in polite company, he disrupts the delicate sense of decorum and reveals the phantasmatic support of this whole exercise: a business leader copulating with the Head of State.
Since Roy Foster has brought sex and psychology into it, we might recall French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s declaration that “there is no sexual relationship”. What I think he meant was that the representation of sexual difference between men and women is an act of imagination; there are not really any complementary elements at work. Mutatis mutandis, we can apply this to the idea expressed here that Britain and Ireland are ‘separate but equal’. Roy Foster writes of ‘the Irish’ as if there was a homogeneous body of people subject to identical psychological mechanisms, and undisturbed by any kind of class tension. This is a fantasy. And, just as there is no ‘the Irish’, there is no ‘the British’ either, and of course, there is no relation between the two. It is a fantasy that the lives of the tens of millions of people classified as ‘Irish’ -or ‘British’, for that matter- could ever be properly accounted for through reference to the machinations of monarchs, politicians and bureaucrats, or through the performances of artistic figures among cultural elites. But such coiffured fantasies oil the gears of power and wealth, while helping History get its End away.