Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times and Parnell Fellow at Magdalene College Cambridge. His new book, The Politics of Pain: Postwar En­gland and the Rise of Nationalism, was published in the US in November. (February 2020)

Follow Fintan O’Toole on Twitter: @fotoole.


Whatever He Wants

Even in a cynical pursuit of political advantage, the Republicans might have maintained the form of a real trial (scrutiny of verbal and written evidence) without its substance (a genuine weighing of guilt and innocence). They decided instead to have neither the form nor the substance. Because the Senate’s proceedings do not look much like a trial, its declaration of Trump’s innocence on both charges will not look much like a vindication. Whatever Chief Justice John Roberts would like to imagine, the Republicans are not even bothering to keep up appearances.

The Designated Mourner

The “mournful, plaintive wail of Irishness” is the soundtrack for both the Kennedy and the Biden stories, in which triumph is always shadowed by calamity. There is in this structure of feeling no easy opposition of hubris and nemesis. There is just, as Obama said to Biden when his son Beau was dying, the awareness that “life is so difficult to discern”—difficult because it does not offer itself in the easy forms of the wonderful and the terrible but confuses the two by conjoining them as twins. The political manifestation of this awareness is not the upbeat rhetoric of the American Dream; it is a politics of empathy in which the leader shares the pain of the citizen.

The Union Without Qualities

Robert Menasse; drawing by Tom Bachtell

The Capital

by Robert Menasse, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch
About eight years ago, the Austrian novelist Robert Menasse managed, with great difficulty, to arrange a meeting with a woman named Themis Christophidou. She was then deputy head of cabinet of the commissioner in charge of the European Union’s department of culture in Brussels. Christophidou, who is a Greek Cypriot, …

The Ham of Fate

Boris Johnson campaigning in Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire, July 2019
Does Boris Johnson believe any of his own claims, and do his followers in turn believe him? In both cases, the answer is yes, but only in the highly qualified way that an actor inhabits his role and an audience knowingly accepts the pretense. Johnson’s appeal lies precisely in the creation of a comic persona that evades the distinction between reality and performance.


How Brexit Broke Up Britain

A sticker reading

There is overwhelming evidence that the English people who voted for Brexit do not, on the whole, care about the United Kingdom and in particular that part of it called Northern Ireland. Asked whether “the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland” is a “price worth paying” for Brexit, fully 83 percent of Leave voters and 73 percent of Conservative voters in England agree that it is. So, while the people who voted for Brexit are waving goodbye to the United Kingdom, Theresa May—with, in this, the support of Corbyn’s Labour—has vowed to “always fight to strengthen and sustain this precious, precious Union.” Brexit cannot be properly articulated because it has made a sacred cause of fighting for the very thing Brexit voters don’t care about.

How Ulster Unionists Block Brexit

Party leader Arlene Foster addressing the November 2017 conference of the Democratic Unionist Party as delegates waved Union and Ulster flags, Belfast, Northern Ireland

As the recent debate on abortion showed, the Democratic Unionist Party’s values and idea of Britishness are increasingly out of kilter with Britain itself. And Brexit, which the DUP supported, now looms as a disaster for the Northern Irish party. If, as the DUP insists, Northern Ireland can be treated no differently from the rest of the UK, because the Union with England, Wales, and Scotland is sacrosanct, then all of the UK must stay within the EU’s rules to meet European conditions on border arrangements with Ireland. In which case, Brexit itself becomes pointless. The DUP’s backward-looking Britishness thus stands solidly in the way of Brexit’s English revolution.

Theresa May’s Blue Monday

British Prime Minister Theresa May in Downing Street, London, December 5

Britain’s agreement to accept Ireland’s demands over Brexit and the border is an expression of its weakness: it can’t even bully little Ireland anymore. And this would have been bad enough for one day. But there was another humiliation in store. Having backed down, May was then peremptorily informed by her DUP coalition partner that she was not even allowed to back down. It is a scarcely credible position for a once great state to find itself in: its leader does not even have the power to conduct a dignified retreat.

Britain: The End of a Fantasy

British Prime Minister Theresa May on her way to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen's permission to form a minority government, London, June 9, 2017

Brexit is an elite project dressed up in rough attire. Because Theresa May doesn’t actually believe in Brexit, she’s improvising a way forward very roughly sketched out by other people. In Britain’s recent election, May’s phony populism came up against the Labour party’s more genuine brand of anti-establishment radicalism that convinced the young and the marginalized that they had something to come out and vote for.