Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

Brexit and Northern Ireland

You probably don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to either. But this is something of a climactic week for the act of supreme national self-harm/heroic crusade to restore national pride that’s been gripping the islands off the western coast of Europe. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is about to deliver her Brexit plan to the House of Commons, where it looks set to be defeated. And what then? No one knows. Everyone seems to know what they want to happen, but no one knows what actually will happen.

So what is Brexit? Well, “Brexit means Brexit,” as May herself famously said, which strikes close to the heart of the recursive absence at the heart of the whole project. For all the talk of restoring national sovereignty that Brexit supporters have spouted, none of the fine details have ever meant so much as the act of Brexit itself: removing the U.K. from the grip of the European project. To which end, they have clung to the slender referendum victory achieved in 2016 with the grim determination of a dying man.

Brexit, like Athena, was born out of the splitting headache that’s afflicted the Conservative (and Unionist) Party in the U.K. for decades. At least as far back as the regime of Margaret Thatcher, a rump of Eurosceptic MPs have made Conservative leaders’ lives hell by putting their anti-Europe views ahead of any other needs. David Cameron, in the manner of Prometheus, decided to resolve the problem by taking an axe to it: having promised a referendum on the subject, he duly delivered in the hope that it would resolve the matter. Unfortunately, what he delivered was not a goddess of wisdom but rather a goddess of discord, who has since spread the Conservative split to the nation at large and the continent of Europe. Cameron promptly departed for parts unknown, and we’ve been living in the world he created ever since.

If the Brexit victory had been a decisive one, delivered on a clear platform, this might not have turned out as bad as it did. Unfortunately, “Brexit means Brexit” was as clear as it ever got. Worse, infighting among the Brexiteers themselves delivered Theresa May as the successor to Cameron—having campaigned against Brexit, she now promised to deliver it, meaning that no one trusted her. Two years of inelegant negotiations have followed, with Europe patiently coaxing along a nation and a party at war with itself. All the details that were glossed over during the referendum campaign have come back to haunt the Conservatives—the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as perhaps the main one—with the result that May’s proposed Brexit solution is a fudge that makes no one happy and seems doomed to defeat.

Which is where I come in. I’ve been crossing that border on a regular basis for 24 years. In the early days, back in the waning years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, most of the border crossing points were closed, and the ones that were in use featured passport and security checks, with watchtowers on overwatch from nearby hills. While the end of the Troubles didn’t bring as much of a peace dividend as Northern Ireland might have hoped (a subject for another day), the border has all but disappeared. Those border crossings are wide open, with the only sign of the change being a switch in the road markings and the units used for speed limits (miles in Northern Ireland, kilometres in the Republic). Brexit’s threat to return this situation to the bad old days is part of the reason why May’s solution is such a fudge.

Part of the argument for Brexit in the first place was for the U.K. to recover control of its borders. Not that it didn’t have that control a few years ago, but in an age where immigrants get blamed for everything, it was a powerful emotional call. It’s certainly one that Brexiteers have harkened back to as their struggle to achieve their goal proceeded by stumbles and flops. Unfortunately, the Northern Ireland border is one stumbling block that refuses to go away, and boy does it make them mad.

There were those who saw this coming, and warned about it back during the Brexit referendum campaign, but their warnings weren’t plastered across the side of buses, so they went unnoticed. Accordingly, when the EU negotiations had to deal with the details glossed over during the campaign, there was a lot of disbelief, frustration, and plain anger. The whole thing is a knot of conflicting desires and promises, and unpicking it is far from easy. But let’s take a dive:

  1. The Northern Ireland border right now is open, as are all borders in the EU. Brexit would see it closed, but that would conflict with…
  2. The Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the Troubles. Closing the border would breach the agreement, something that…
  3. The Irish Government really don’t want. In this desire they have the backing of the EU, frustrating the hell out of the Brexiteers. One suggested solution is to put the customs barrier in the Irish sea, between Britain and Ireland, but that would cause an explosion among…
  4. The DUP, who are currently taking a break from not running a government in Northern Ireland to spend time holding the whip hand over Theresa May’s minority Conservative government. The idea of closer ties to Ireland than the U.K. is pretty much anathema to everything the DUP stand for, so they’re now even willing to turn to…
  5. The Labour Party, led by old-school socialist Jeremy Corbyn. Strange times make for strange bedfellows, and there’s none stranger than the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian DUP and the red-or-dead Corbyn, whose suspicion of the EU project is long-held and has kept Labour from serving as a capable opposition during the entire Brexit imbroglio. Worse for the DUP, Corbyn has long been sympathetic to…
  6. Sinn Fein (Northern branch), who are taking a break from not running a government in Northern Ireland (with the DUP!) to continue not taking their seats in the U.K. parliament. Like the majority of people in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein are anti-Brexit, but they find themselves impotent on three fronts to do anything about it. They haven’t even been particularly vocal in support of a…
  7. People’s Vote. Essentially a re-run of the Brexit Referendum, this time with more clarity and detail, it’s the favoured option of most Remainers, though the success of any effort to remain in the EU is far from assured. And given the lack of time remaining, the absence of a plan for a new referendum and the poor odds of getting a negotiated Brexit deal through, we might end up with a…
  8. No-Deal Brexit. It’s the outcome that none but the hardest of Brexiteers are hoping for, but it still lurks on the fringes, waiting for its moment. The U.K. (including Northern Ireland) simply drops out of the EU next March, with no new trading agreements in place. Food and medicine shortages and travel barriers all await, and no one knows just how bad it might get.

The frustration among Brexiteers with what their slapdash approach to negotiating with the EU has delivered boiled over this week. Priti Patel, an emblematic figures for a government that’s big on rhetoric and small on detail, complained that Ireland too was likely to suffer from food shortages in the event of a No-Deal Brexit and that the Conservative negotiators should have used this as a lever to get a better deal from the EU. Not only was this wrong-headed on a factual basis—Ireland is more food-secure than the U.K. is—but the spectacle of a U.K. parliamentarian suggesting food shortages as a way of dealing politically with Ireland was historically inept to a staggering degree.

Yet this is where we are right now. Staring down the barrel of a process that began two years ago and has no more certain an outcome now than it did then. Those driving it in the U.K. are more wedded to the ideal than they are to any of the details. Those dealing with it from the outside are restricted to managing the fallout (the Irish government have spent a lot of money preparing for the worst case outcome), and there have been continual reminders that the EU would be happy if the U.K. just gave up on the idea and gave the EU another go.

I’d be happy to see that myself. Not only would it make crossing the border to Northern Ireland in future a less fraught affair and keep those of my family who live there more secure, but I like the fact that the U.K. are in the EU. As grumpy and unwilling a member as they’ve been, they’ve also served in some ways as a counterbalance to the centralising influence of France and Germany. The EU is not perfect, but its contribution to peace and prosperity across the continent has been a strong one. I’d rather see the U.K. inside, pushing for the changes it wants to see, than on the outside, lacking the power to push for changes and having to deal with it in a purely self-interested fashion. If there’s one big benefit that EU membership has brought, it’s confirming that nations, no less than people, are part of a society. Brexit would be a big step back from that understanding.

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Paisley and Legacy

That Paisley documentary, should you wish to delve into his mind.

So Ian Paisley is dead, as of a few days ago. I’m no more inclined to dance on his grave than I am to shed a tear at his passing, but the injunction not to speak ill of the dead mostly exists to preserve the feelings of the deceased’s loved ones, none of whom I know, nor are they ever likely to pay heed to anything I say. So some recollections might be in order.

When I was growing up in Northern Ireland, Ian Paisley was a constant presence. Back then he was a fringe character, albeit the most prominent one of his kind. To a child old enough to pay attention to the news but not old enough to understand the tangled truths and lies at the heart of the Northern Irish situation, there was something immediately appealing about this shouty man, spouting certainties at the top of his lungs wherever the lines between communities at war were in danger of becoming blurred.

The more understanding I gained, the more the limitations of his worldview became evident. Paisley was a complex man, even an exceptionally intelligent one, but those complexities were hammered flat by his fundamentalist worldview. Those he was close to remember him as warm, cordial figure, but one suspects that such warmth only extended to those who existed as human beings in his own eyes. Someone who could say that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin” had placed strict limits on his empathy.

In this, he was heir to centuries of anti-Catholic, biblical tradition arising from his Ulster Scots background, owning no authority save that of the bible. This is a man, after all, who founded his own church and his own political party. The common joke back in the Troubles was that Paisley had finally consented to a power-sharing agreement: with God. His famous heckling of Pope John Paul II suggested that he didn’t see him so much as a man as he did a figure of mythic significance, one that he was locked in war with.

All the stranger then that he executed an almost complete volte-face in his latter days. From being the most intransigent figure of the Troubles, he (once his party were in a position to take power) suddenly became open not just to power sharing, but to power-sharing with Sinn Fein, which he was more apt to call Sinn Fein/IRA. Which is either a breathtaking acceptance of the limitations of the principles he’d adhered to for decades, or an act of equally breathtaking hypocrisy.

That there were plenty willing to take the latter view may be seen in the fact that both his church and his party eventually rejected him. The former as soon as he took up that leadership role, the latter as soon as their grip on the reins of power was firm enough that they could afford to jettison their non-political anachronism of a founder.

As much as the Unionists may have had to hold their nose on going into government with Sinn Fein though, the same may have been true in reverse. His Damascene conversion on the road to government notwithstanding, Paisley was as responsible as anyone for generating the atmosphere of hatred and suspicion that drove the Troubles through three decades of murder. He’s gone to his grave with blood on his hands and no more willing or able to admit his culpability than Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams have ever been.

His decision, in what turned out to be his last year, to participate in a tell-all documentary, stands now as a final preacher’s performance, a spouting of the truth as he saw it from the mountaintop. Perhaps even to make clear that the twists and turns of his own life could be looked back upon as a straight road, laid out according to his principles. If so, there were many lives bulldozed to make way for it.

Negotiating a Breakup

 

The Saltire really did bring out the best in those crusader crosses.
Somehow it all seems a lot less colourful now…

All of a sudden, with under two weeks to go, the referendum on Scottish independence is making a lot of people nervous. Whereas its failure was previously treated as a foregone conclusion, with the media enjoying the raised voices and ridiculousness of it all, it’s now looking too close to call. So has it really come to this? Is the United Kingdom going to be split along Hadrian’s Wall?*

Well yes, probably. And it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The United Kingdom has been in a state of slow dissolution for a century and more. The colonies of the Empire headed for the exit one by one over many decades. The Irish had to kick and punch their way into doing the same, the results of which can still be seen in Northern Ireland. The Welsh? Well, they were first in, and they’ll probably be last out too. Feel sorry for them.

The Scots only joined in the first place because they were bribed with the crown of England. Not that it was a particularly easy unification, and indeed it took most of a century to sort out the details. (Ireland didn’t get roped in fully for nearly another century, and that happened at least partly as a result of rebellious efforts to head in the other direction.) In Scotland, the English are still the Auld Enemy, and while it can hardly be argued that Scotland hasn’t benefited through its part in the British-led Industrial Revolution and all that followed, the fact is that it has always been an unbalanced partnership.

For all that, this should have been a fairly straightforward vote. Countries don’t tend to break up for no real reason, especially not First World countries with several centuries of successful history behind them. So how has it come to this?

Well, the United Kingdom has, at the moment, the misfortune to be led by one of the most insular cliques of public school-educated toffs in many a long year. Hardly the kind of thing to appeal to the provincials. Not that the minor parties are notably better. Together, they’ve driven a “No Campaign” of staggering ineptitude, ricocheting between platitudes, hypothetical doomsday scenarios and hectoring condescension. Hell, even calling it a No Campaign was probably a bad idea. They never managed to move the media needle on that piece of negative campaigning, no matter how much they promoted the insipid “Better Together” tagline.

Would Scotland be better off independent? I don’t know, but cutting themselves off from the rest of the U.K. is not a risk-free move. Economically and politically, Edinburgh’s heft is far short of London’s. Culturally too. Though the calculus of the situation looks tougher to work out further down the line. The cussedness of the Scots suggests that if anyone can deal with the problems of independence and build themselves back up, it’s them.

As a native of Northern Ireland now living in the non-British-aligned South, the eventual outcome doesn’t hold a huge amount of immediate impact for me. Not that the Northern Irish aren’t involved at all. In fact, there a lot of resonances at play for the North. The Unionist movement up there is largely the legacy of Scottish planters. The Nationalist movement has been working on getting out of the U.K. for decades now. A shame it took Sinn Fein three decades and thousands of deaths to figure out that politics and P.R. are a much better way of getting what they want.

A “Yes” vote on September 18th might cut Scotland free of the U.K., but the implications will rattle along for years, and the U.K. is a more complicated place than a quickie divorce can mend. The Scots will make their mind up one way or another, but both they and the English will have to work on being either neighbours or partners giving it one more shot.

*Okay, not exactly along Hadrian’s Wall, but close enough.

Gerry Anderson – Learning to be Northern Irish

Two men who had a lot of influence on the Northern Ireland I grew up in died last week. One was the taoiseach who first brought ceasefire talks with the IRA to the highest levels of government, beginning the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement and a halt to three decades of slaughter. The other was a radio DJ who, through those years, provided a wry, human voice for those trying to live a normal life.

I don’t think it’s any insult to the memory of Albert Reynolds to say that for me, Gerry Anderson was by far the more important of the two.

Let me clarify that. One of my very earliest recurring memories is of travelling in the family car with one or both of my parents. The school my sister and I went to (and where my parents taught, and where my two brothers would later go) was several miles away from where we lived. So in the morning and the evening, we’d be driven there and back. Whenever that happened, and indeed whenever we were driven anywhere else, the radio was usually on, tuned to one of Northern Ireland’s local radio stations.

This was the 1980s, when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were more than a decade old and had become soul-grindingly mundane. I would be much older before I learned that being stopped in the middle of the night by soldiers in full camouflage, wielding automatic rifles; that cycling past police stations that looked more like fortresses; that listening to the news and hearing the tally of the latest bombings, shootings and burnings wasn’t something that everyone else in the western world had to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

The radio shows, which mostly mixed music with phone-in segments, were a means of holding together the majority of the population who didn’t support the lunatics on either side and didn’t care for living in a militarised zone. They maintained the thread of normality, of entertainment, good humour and common experience that frayed every time another bullet was fired or car bomb exploded. You could listen to them on the way to Belfast, arrive and have to deal with a city centre that had been fortified, then return and listen to them on the way home, restoring some sense of balance and sanity to your world.

Gerry Anderson was my favourite and still embodies much of what I think of as the best of Northern Ireland. For me, his dry humour, the way he dealt with the myriad strangenesses of daily life in the North, and his insistence that all those things were, in their own way, more important than the blood and thunder of the lunatics, is quintessentially Northern Irish. Famously, he was the man who cut through the Gordian knot of the Derry/Londonderry debate by renaming the city Stroke City. A Northern Irish solution to a Northern Irish problem if ever there was one.

Twenty years ago, the IRA ceasefire began, marking yet another step in the peace process, which has now taken firm, if occasionally painful hold on Northern Ireland. As bad as the Troubles were, those of us who lived through them were, in a way, lucky. We had the space to hold on to normal lives in the midst of it all, with the help of Gerry Anderson and many others. It’s hard not to look at the Middle East today and the chaos swirling around Syria and Iraq and wonder just how many people there won’t have as much of a chance. How much of their way of life is being destroyed. I hope that when the sound of the guns and the bombs fades away, there might be the sound of a radio somewhere, and of a dry-witted host engaging with everyday concerns before reaching for another record.

Closing Down Dissent. Or Satire. Or Anything, Really…

I'm not really trying here, am I?
Shakespeare says NO! (via Wikipedia)

Ah, the joys of following the Northern Ireland news. Every so often, you get served up the kind of insanity that only the combination of parochial religious zealotry and a genuine 17th-century mindset can provide.

This week, it seems that the DUP councillors in Newtownabbey, evidently nostalgic for the days of the Life of Brian controversy, elected to force a shutdown of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), just a week before performance time. Because, hey, there’s nothing more important going on in Northern Ireland than a slapstick play that might put a few religious noses out of joint.

Let’s just clarify here: this is the Reduced Shakespeare Company that has been in existence for three decades and has been a fixture on the London theatre scene for much of that time. This is a show that has been around for nearly 20 years, winning awards, being performed around the world in numerous languages. And this is the DUP councillors standing up en masse and doing their best to bully the local arts board into shutting it down without a vote.

It would be funny if it weren’t so predictable. The combination of political power with the certainty of religious faith brings tends to results in the shutdown of dissenting points of view. Underdog sects and religions can favour freedom of conscience, but history shows that when the boot’s on the other foot, attitudes change. After all, when you’re in possession of the ultimate truth, isn’t it a public good if that’s the only truth that’s going to get promoted?

The trend towards secular government is one that took a long time to hit Ireland, and arguably it still hasn’t hit the North. Everywhere else, there has been pushback, in the form of Texas creationists altering school textbooks, Islamist efforts to marginalise secular Turkish youth, or a UKIP councillor linking gay marriage to recent floods. In Northern Ireland, the linkage between religion and the sectarian divide and the fact that parties from either extreme hold the whip hand means that it’s not so much pushback as an effort to hold onto power (something the Unionists have been doing for decades).

There’s no indication that anyone involved in cancelling the play had actually seen it, or had any interest in seeing it. Whether their chief interest was in “defending Christian values”, grandstanding for a few more votes or simply throwing their weight around, they both overstepped the mark in terms of their electoral mandate and completely undershot in terms of doing something of benefit for the people of Newtownabbey.

The Bilocated Man

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The bowl of ages…

In my kitchen cupboard sits a bowl that’s stands out from the crowd. My crockery tastes tend to run to bachelor minimalism, but this one has a faded floral border. It also has a couple of hairline cracks, one of which covers more than half its width. It may not be long for this world, but it’s the venue for my breakfast cereal every morning.

This bowl, along with one other plate in that cupboard, is the sole survivor from the package of crockery and cutlery that I was given when I moved down to Dublin from County Down, just over 19 years ago. At the time, I had just turned 19 myself. So, as of late September/early October this year, I’ve officially lived in Dublin as long as I did in Northern Ireland.

It’s not quite that neat, of course: my first year in Trinity College Dublin was very disrupted, and I spent most of it, especially the latter half, up north. Still, insofar as I can identify a tipping point, this is it. When I came down to Dublin to go to college, I was a kid. Now that I’m still in Dublin, having just finished a Masters course, I can’t really claim the same measure of youthfulness.

I will forever be from Northern Ireland. When I first moved to Dublin, I had to face the question of whether I was Irish or British. I definitely didn’t feel like the latter—growing up in a nationalist, Catholic family saw to that. But I didn’t feel like being Irish suited me either. The experience of growing up in the North during the Troubles was a thing all of its own. So I eventually settled on insisting on my Northern Irish identity.

Though being Northern Irish hasn’t changed, it no longer seems to cover everything. This is not necessarily a bad thing. One way of reading it is that there’s more to me than was when I first arrived here in Dublin. I recently added an Irish passport to my British one, so maybe what’s grown about me is the Irish part.

It’s a funny thing, to realise that you’ve built a life in a particular place. Friends, work, education, habitation. An interest in local culture and politics, a landscape littered with memories and associations. The same thing is true up North, of course, but up there it’s a case of experience accumulated in the accidental form of childhood. Down here in Dublin, it feels a little more deliberate. Or perhaps necessary is the right word.

Perhaps the nature of it then is that we all live multiple lives, often overlapping one another. Childhood, teenage years, college, first job, first house. Sometimes, as in my move to Dublin, you get a clear break that allows you to divide what came before from what came after. Not that live is usually that clean. It is, and always ought to be, a work in progress.

With my Masters over and a job hunt underway, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that another life has started, adding another layer to the person that I am. I have no idea where this current path will eventually take me. It might just be that 19 years down the line, I’ll get to write something entitled “The Trilocated Man”. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

A Barricade of Bunting

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Hidden in the dazzle, the early evening protestors and their bunting.

In the end, it was a simple matter of stepping over a thin line of bunting stretched across the road. And then, later, walking through a line of mostly youngish men, hooded and masked. No one commented, or even looked my way. Even so, I felt my stomach knotting.

Why? There was no violence there, early on a wet night in Belfast, or later. (Though things did get hairy elsewhere and the next day.) The flag protests that have rolled across Northern Ireland for the past few weeks have been amply covered in the media, but this was my first direct contact with them. In place of brick and bottle throwing defiance, there was a slightly sullen matter-of-factness about the whole affair. Civil disobedience already turned into habit.

I’m not going to go into the justifications for the protests, which have already been covered elsewhere, except to note that few commentators on either side of the divide have dared to come out in support of violence as a response to putting a flag in a drawer as opposed to on a pole for most of the year. Unfortunately, both sides of the community in Northern Ireland are in the habit of launching the sort of street protest that inevitably leads to stone-throwing and worse. For the young and the hopeless, it’s better than dealing with the everyday grind.

So if I wasn’t facing violence, what was it that caused my stomach to curl in on itself? Some of it, perhaps, was a reminder of what I’d left behind. I’ve been in Dublin for a long time, and even when I lived in Northern Ireland it was in a relatively peaceful corner, where the Troubles mostly came in the form of daily news reports. In the North, old grievances run deep, and fears run along with them. Fear of the Other and what they might do if unchecked.

So the protests were a response to the apparent nationalist victory at getting the Union Jack taken off Belfast City Hall most days of the year. An effort by the loyalist community to throw their weight around, to prove to the police, nationalists and anyone watching that they could do so if they wanted. Swaggering is one word. Intimidation is another.

And it was that intimidation that my stomach was responding to. I’m not a violent person, and my first response to conflict is usually to avoid it. But when gangs decide to block passage along the Ormeau Road, as others did elsewhere that night, avoidance is no longer an option. Meekness works instead, avoiding eye contact and just passing by, hoping that the self-appointed big dogs have bigger fish to fry.

And where was I going that night? To Ravenhill, where an Ulster rugby team that has garnered the support of both sides of the community slogged their way to another victory in the rain. Among the flags there were plenty of Northern Ireland and Ulster banners, the best of which featured the Red Hand grasping a pint of Guinness. But no Union Jacks and no tricolours. We should all be so lucky.