THE shambles that was British politics this week had plenty of commentators grasping for their history books. Was Theresa May’s climbdown as embarrassing as Suez? Could it be compared to Dunkirk? Or some centuries-old battle that most folk have scarcely heard of?

Watching the chaos unfold in Westminster I was minded of a rather different moment from the annals of history. A double murder in Ireland more than 35 years ago.

On July 22, 1982, 27-year-old nurse Bridie Gargan was sunbathing in Dublin’s Phoenix Park when she was bludgeoned to death. Her killer was identified as Malcolm Macarthur. Days later he shot a farmer dead. The killings sparked a massive manhunt. Macarthur was finally apprehended – living in the home of Ireland’s chief legal advisor.

Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, in a halting press conference worthy of the Maybot, declared that the whole event was “a bizarre happening, an unprecedented situation, a grotesque situation, an almost unbelievable mischance”. The ultimate acronym for political dysfunction was born: GUBU.

I thought of GUBU a lot this week. A prime minister clinging grimly to power with no discernible sense of what she wants to do with it. A government in office but not in control. Crashing out of the European Union with no deal as likely as not leaving it at all.

Truly this is a grotesque, unprecedented, bizarre, almost unbelievable mischance. Ireland’s GUBU ended with a life sentence for Macarthur and the Attorney General’s resignation. If only Britain’s could be resolved so speedily.

Instead, low farce seems to be parliament’s permanent setting. Take former Brexit minister David Davis’s appearance before the EU scrutiny committee the day after May suffered the greatest defeat in British political history.

READ MORE: Giant billboards appear reminding Brexiteers of their own words

Davis is not known for his grasp of detail. This is a man who said weeks before the Brexit vote that Britain could sign separate trade deals with Germany and Italy. (Reader, it cannot). Asked a factual question he often responded by giggling inanely, as if the whole business of running a country is a great jape.

But even by Davis’s decidedly modest standards, his performance on Wednesday was pitiful. Without a word of apology, the man at least nominally in charge of the Brexit process for two whole years told MPs that the government has had a “blind spot” when it comes to Brexit and Ireland. Yes, it is that easy to miss a 310-mile-long land border.

Troubles? What Troubles?

With hindsight, Davis said, Number 10 should have put more resources into what used to be called “the Irish question”. But it was not all his fault. Britain had been “unpredictably handicapped”. Ireland had changed Taoiseach. The power-sharing government in Belfast had collapsed.

Yep, that’s right. If only Leo Varadkar hadn’t come along, pursuing the exact same Brexit strategy as his predecessor Enda Kenny. If only the Northern Ireland Executive was still up and running. Because, as Holyrood’s experience shows, Westminster is really keen on listening to what devolved administrations think.

Blaming the Irish for Britain’s GUBU has become a popular pastime for many on the Tory right. “Leo, shut your gob,” demanded the Sun last year. Perfidious Paddy is widely seen as standing in the way of the great British Brexit.

But what lies behind this caricature? Is it simple ignorance of Ireland, a failure to grasp that Irish interests are no longer directly aligned with that of the old colonial master? Or is there something more malign?

Just weeks after the Brexit vote David Davis – him again – told journalists that the UK had an “internal border” with Ireland. Only after becoming Northern Ireland minister did Karen Bradley discover that nationalists and unionists tend to vote for parties that share their views on the constitution. She is 48 years old.

But such comments speak more of witlessness than mendacity. It is the Irish backstop – the Brexiters’ bete noire – that has brought out the nastier side of Britain’s ruling elite when it comes to Ireland. A relatively prosaic arrangement for avoiding customs check on the Irish border has been reframed as a Machiavellian plot to carve up Theresa May’s “precious union”, hatched by Brussels bureaucrats and irredentists in Dublin.

Will extra checks on animal products and food at Larne and Belfast fatally undermine the union? Apparently, May’s fair-weather friends in the Democratic Unionists believe so. There must be no difference between Northern Ireland and the “mainland”. (Unless we are talking about abortion, corporation tax, etc, etc).

That many of the proposed checks already take place does not seem to matter. Listening to many Tory MPs, and to some journalists, it often seems that understanding of what the benighted backstop actually means is pretty thin on the ground in the Westminster village.

The failure to grasp the realities of everyday life in the shadows of what Churchill disdainfully dismissed as the “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” is hardly surprising. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, yet the only voice we hear from Belfast is the DUP’s.

The unionists’ putative leader, Arlene Foster, blithely declared this week that there never was a hard border in Ireland. I was surprised by that. Growing up 40 miles south of the border, on shopping trips to Enniskillen we used to pass checkpoints armed by callow squaddies touting rifles. Maybe I am suffering from false memory syndrome.

The border has changed, of course. As Theresa May has repeated ad nauseum, there will be “no return to the borders of the past”. I think the Prime Minister is telling the truth here. The days of barbed wire and bombed out roads are over. But what has Britain’s existential crisis done to the borders of the mind?

I’ve lived in the UK for more than a decade, one of hundreds of thousands of Irish people to carve out lives in our own near abroad. But even before I moved to Edinburgh to study I was inculcated in British culture: we grew up watching the BBC, supporting English football teams. I have clearer memories of Tony Blair’s first General Election victory than of any of Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fail’s triumphs.

In my lifetime, Ireland has come to feel at ease with Britain, which is often a synonym for England really. As Fintan O’Toole notes in his excellent new Brexit book, Heroic Failure, over the past two decades Anglo-Irish relations “finally evolved to be nicely boring. The sharing of a small space in a big world has become as normal as it should be. To each other, the English and the Irish were no big deal”.

No wonder my generation of Irish immigrants found it so easy to settle in Britain. There was no discrimination to be faced. No racist signs in boarding house windows. We came to this country as equals. Or so we thought.

Brexit has revealed that some of our neighbours have a very different view of us. Paddy the fifth column. Untrustworthy, even traitorous. Maybe this minority was always there, just hidden. Or perhaps, it has been recreated afresh by a national persecution complex that has taken hold in some quarters.

And yet Britain’s relationship with Ireland points the way out of the current mess in Westminster. Perhaps we are too blunted by familiarity with the Good Friday Agreement to realise how remarkable it is. Three decades of violence ended by dialogue and compromise. Everybody lost something. And, so everybody won something.

Twenty years later, that irenic spirit is sorely lacking. It is hardly churlish to point out that the DUP bitterly opposed the peace agreement, as did many Tories. Michael Gove compared Good Friday to condoning the desires of paedophiles. With such primitive passions in power, and little sign of compromise, GUBU could well be the defining state of British politics for a long time to come.