Tom Collins: A cry for freedom on Europe’s dark night

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Tom Collins is an Irish News columnist and former editor of the newspaper.

Brexit has put a grave question mark over the future of the United Kingdom
Brexit has put a grave question mark over the future of the United Kingdom Brexit has put a grave question mark over the future of the United Kingdom

So what did you do on Friday night? I avoided the news, went to bed early and listened to Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – you know the one. Its finale is the European anthem, the Ode to Joy from a poem by Schiller.

It is an anthem that celebrates our common humanity, and our triumph over oppression. In Beethoven’s time the authorities were suspicious of music and musicians. Censors scrutinised everything that was said and done on stage.

Mozart was regarded as a bit of a dangerous radical – his setting of Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro, with the lower classes getting one over the landed gentry, was regarded by some as incendiary. Later Verdi had to change some of his plots to avoid being accused of sedition. Even in opera, assassinating monarchs was frowned upon.

When Beethoven was writing his ninth symphony, it is said he wanted the finale to be Ode an die Freiheit – the Ode to Freedom; but Freude (Joy) was substituted because the word ‘freedom’, at that point in history, was just too much for the authorities to handle.

It has ever been thus, and for all our advances today, freedom remains one of the things most feared by regimes around the world: even, it must be said, those that claim to be benign. By any measure, the majority of people in the world today cannot be said to be free. And those of us who, are often free at the expense of others.

When the Berlin Wall came down – just 30 years ago last November – we thought the world had been changed forever. The communist bloc was crumbling. Dictators were being put the sword. Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceau?escu (stripped of his knighthood by the Queen the day before he died) was shot by firing squad in December 1989.

The people were in the ascendant – defying armies, tanks and despots. A united Germany, at the heart of a united Europe, was a sign that times had changed, and had changed for the better.

I have no doubt that this momentous shift in Europe was one of the forces that helped mobilise the drive for peace here in Ireland. How better can you create a sense of common purpose between peoples than by ripping down the borders that keep them apart.

None would have predicted then, that just decades later, the tide would turn and a nation that portrayed itself as a global player would pull up the drawbridge, retreat into a narrow provincialism, and – in doing so – imperil the very peace that the European vision had underwritten.

Not only has the United Kingdom undermined Europe as a liberal counter-balance between red-necked America and the repressive regimes in Russia and China; it has also put in jeopardy its own integrity.

It should not be forgotten, amid all the jingoism in Downing Street, that the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh assemblies voted against Johnson’s Brexit deal. And here, unionists and nationalists alike will be acutely aware of the new border being constructed in the Irish Sea.

I’m getting on a bit, but I am certain that in my lifetime, Scotland will be a nation once again. The case for the union erodes every time an English politician opens his or her mouth.

The arguments against Irish unity are also less tenable and, at some point, the penny will drop with those who advocate reunification that the language needs to change. The rhetoric of ‘Brits Out’ has run its course. Arguments based on sectarianism, or the bitter remembrance of things past, will not cut ice.

I did not have to think long about which version of the ninth symphony to play as I sat in bed nursing a whiskey and suppressing my anger at what was being done in my name as the clock struck 11.

It had to be Bernstein’s legendary live recording, performed on Christmas Day 1989 in the Konzerthaus in east Berlin. The orchestra contained players from east and west Germany, and the four occupying states following World War 2 – Russia, France, the United States and the UK.

Bernstein changed Freude to Freiheit – joy to freedom. It was electrifying.

Freedom is what we must work for today – freedom from the populists, freedom from the racists and begrudgers, freedom from the elective dictatorship that is Boris Johnson’s government.