Brexit’s Irish Problem – A Semi-Personal Reflection

It is inconceivable that a vote for Brexit would not have a negative impact on the (Irish) Border, bringing cost and disruption to trade and to people’s lives.

Theresa May, June 2016

Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past.

Theresa May, July 2016

Around three hundred roads bisect the circuitous three-hundred-and-ten-mile border that separates the six counties of Northern Ireland from the twenty-six of the Irish Republic. Some are barely paved country lanes that snake over and back from one jurisdiction to another multiple times in a matter of miles. Others – like the motorway that connects Dublin and Belfast – are major arteries, as seamlessly asphalted as any German autobahn. The only way you can tell which side of the border you are on – as British television reporters have become so fond of telling viewers back home on ‘the mainland’ – is whether the speed signs are in miles or kilometres.

I grew up about thirty miles into the southern side of the border line, in a drab market town called Longford. For an over-eager child in a monochrome 1980s Irish home, Northern Ireland was strikingly exotic, simultaneously always present and continually absent. Each night it seems the news was filled with macabre tales from Belfast, less than a hundred miles away. But we seldom ventured north. When I was about seven years old my mother took us shopping in Enniskillen, the closest large town across the border, in County Fermanagh. We must have passed barbed wire and concrete look outs manned by acne-scarred teenagers from Derby or Newcastle touting automatic weapons, but I have no recollection of any of these. My only memories are remarking to my mother about how smooth the northern roads were – I was a serious boy – and how colourful was the window display in Enniskillen’s Woolworths. Northern Ireland seemed so much more modern. There were no Woolworths in Longford.

By the time I went to university in Dublin, in 1998, the border that had been erected in the early 1920s had started to disappear. The customs posts had already been dismantled. Most of the green wooden border huts were gone. Those that remained rotted slowly in the countryside. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement effectively brought an end to the thirty-year-long Troubles. The IRA’s war was over. So was the British state’s. The imposing watchtowers that hugged the hillsides of the southern reaches of Down and Armagh were dismantled. The squaddies went home, or eventually ended up in Afghanistan or Iraq. Roads that had been closed during the violent years – or simply bombed into uselessness – were opened. In the early 2000s, by which time I was living in Belfast, I often travelled on a rickety country bus back to Longford to visit my mother. I would occasionally pass the time by trying to figure out if we had crossed the invisible line based on when my cellphone switched providers. I was seldom certain.

Politically, the border started to fade, too. As southern politicians no longer had an immediate need to worry about the insoluble ‘national question’ attention turned towards getting filthy rich. The Celtic Tiger roared. Property prices doubled, then tripled. Semi-detached houses in Longford sold for €400,000. Now it was Dublin that was modern, all wine bars and hundred grand sports cars. I often headed south from Belfast at the weekends, escaping a half empty ghost city where people were still fearful of venturing after dark. By the time the boom turned to bust – form 2008 – most Irish voters had forgotten about the ‘black north’. Even Sinn Fein, the party of the IRA, campaigned on working-class demands for higher wages and social security not the need for “Brits Out.”

I was the only person I knew from my school who spent any time living in Northern Ireland. Over Christmas pints in the local pub nobody asked about life in Belfast. In the south, Northern Ireland had become an an embarrassment. A place famous around the world for bombs and bitterness. Thirty miles away, but another world. A Lacanian ‘Other’ that can never be assimilated, nor totally disavowed. Better to ignore and move on least the atavism proves contagious. So the Republic spent the best part of the last decade struggling to emerge from a self-inflicted mountain of bank debt while the north continued the slow struggle to emerge from its brutal past.

Thirty thousand people cross the Irish border every day for work. The border has not withered away but it is far less noticeable. There are still the fireworks stores on the northern side, and the incongruous petrol stations, often said to be illegally passing off industrial fuel for commercial use. Every so often, the Irish and British police team-up for a raid on republicans opposed to the peace process. But, for most, the border has ceased to matter a great deal. People in Donegal give birth in hospitals over the border in Derry. When my brother needed to get his driving licence at short notice he took the test in Enniskillen, where waiting times are far shorter.

In March 2016, I was in Dublin for the centenary commemorations of the Easter Rising, a rebellion which led to the war of independence and then to partition. The fiftieth anniversary of the Rising – a story of blood sacrifice still told in gruesome detail when I was a school child – had been celebrated with high nationalist pomp. The rebels of Easter 1916 were the heroes. The villains were the British. Everybody else – the vast majority of the population who had little interest in insurrection – were ignored. The IRA even got in on the act, blowing up Nelson’s Column on Dublin’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, in March 1966. Out of practice, the republicans misjudged the amount of explosives needed, leaving behind a stone stump that the Irish Army was left to dispose of. The tone in Dublin a half-century later could scarcely have been more different, or more ecumenical. There were solemn silences and visiting dignitaries from well beyond the republican family. There had even been talk of an invitation being extended to the Queen. Almost a century after independence, ‘Official Ireland’ showed itself off in the Dublin sun, a mature state, reconciled with its former colonial power beneath the European Union’s starry flag. There was little talk of Irish unification, or the border.

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A few weeks before the European Union referendum I went on a reporting trip to Belfast. Elections to the devolved assembly in Stormont had taken place a fortnight earlier. Round-faced middle-aged men still smiled down from placards on lampposts. The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein once more topped the polls. Barely half the electorate had voted. There seemed even less enthusiasm for the EU referendum.

“We’re not allowed to vote in that. It’s only England,” Sean Morgan told me inside his souvenir shop on the Falls Road in republican West Belfast. I thought better of correcting him. His shop was called Fenians after the 19th century Irish republicans committed to a United Ireland. Replica guns and copies of the proclamation of Ireland adorned the walls. There were rolls of red, white and blue union flag toilet paper at £2.50 a pop. “You’ll never never believe how many of those we sell,” Morgan laughed.

Sinn Fein – long the dominant political force in West Belfast – reversed its historic opposition to the EU to back a remain vote but there was little sign of pro-EU sentiment on the Falls Road. No starry European Union flags flew alongside the Tricolours. None of Northern Ireland’s parties spent more than £10,000 on their pro-EU campaigns. I counted a single Leave poster, on the Shankill Road, on the opposite side of the 15-foot-hight corrugated iron “peace wall” that has cut off Catholics from Protestants in west Belfast for more than four decades.

In the interests of balance – or so I told myself – I called into Ulster Souvenirs, halfway up the Shankill Road. Across the street, faded images of hooded loyalist gunmen looked down from a gable end mural. Inside the narrow shop, a portrait of a serious-looking Edward Carson, Northern Ireland’s Dublin-born founding father, hung over the till. David Reid, the shop’s owner, looked about thirty years old. I asked how would be voting in the referendum. “Oh aye, out!” He smiled. “People are fed up with the way the country is run, with being in the European Union.”

As if on cue, a trio of customers arrived. All wanted to buy Northern Ireland football jerseys for the upcoming European championships. How will you vote, I asked, a little too aware of which side of the border my accent placed me on. “Leave,” Greg Benson bellowed. The “Now That’s What I Call Loyalist Music” CDs and the Apprentice Boys flags behind the counter almost shook with the reverberations of his voice.  “You can’t say too much or you’re a racist, but immigration is the big thing. It’s having a massive affect on our health system,” Benson told me.

Northern Ireland remains one of the most ethnically homogenous places in the UK. Non-white faces are still something of a rarity in Belfast. But the squat capital has changed since I left for Scotland in 2009. The city centre is no longer a dead zone after dark. The rebirth of Belfast as a “cool” destination has been celebrated by journalists from around the world. Where once even a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon was hard to find now there is a plethora of cafes in the modish fashion, all exposed brick and customers with fixed gear bicycles.

Yet Belfast still carries the scars of the Troubles, particularly in the near-inner city districts such as the Shankill and Falls Roads. Here unemployment is high. Long term out of work even higher. There are still gap sites, and much of the new private housing is beyond the reach of local residents. And there are still the “peace walls”. These barricades, ad hoc at first, emerged with the start of the Troubles in the late 1960s. In 1971, a secret Northern Ireland government report expressed concern that the barriers, gates and fences springing up in West Belfast in particular were creating an “atmosphere of abnormality”. However, the report writers added that they did “not expect any insurmountable difficulty” in bringing down the walls. The following year, Stormont was suspended as the violence worsened to descend into civil war. The peace walls continued to appear. Only a handful have ever been dismantled.

When Britain first voted on Europe, in 1975, Northern Ireland was the most Eurosceptic of the “home nations”. Where two-thirds of English backed the then European Economic Community, just 52 per cent of Northern Irish voters supported membership. In 2016, positions were basically reversed. Where English opposition to the European Union swung the Brexit vote, fifty-six per cent of Northern Irish citizens voted to remain part of the EU in June 2016. In the border counties, the remain vote rose to 65 per cent.

 

My mother rang the day after the Brexit vote. It must have been the afternoon because she asked about Scottish independence. (In the morning, Nicola Stugreon had said that a second referendum was “highly likely”.) But she was mainly interested in the border. “What will it mean for Northern Ireland?” she asked. “Will I need to bring a passport to go to Belfast?” I said that I did not know but was sure it would not come to border controls. I was only half honest. I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t come to that. Already that morning Boris Johnson, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, was distancing himself from the referendum result.

 

That nobody on the BBC’s rolling referendum coverage was talking about what Brexit might mean for the Irish border was hardly surprising. Northern Ireland rarely features in news headlines anymore, in Britain or in Ireland. There was little said about Northern Ireland – or the border – during the campaign. The Democratic Unionists supported a Leave vote, without providing any discernible rationale, while almost every other local political party opposed Brexit, mainly on the basis that anything that might unsettle the notoriously fragile political and economic ecosystem could hardly be a good thing. Such caution seemed particularly justified when, a few weeks before the referendum, then home secretary Theresa May warned that a leave vote could create border chaos, “bringing cost and disruption to trade and to people’s lives”. In 2015, Northern Irish farmers received 87 per cent of their income direct from European Union grants. Polls suggest many famers subsequently voted Leave.

May’s pre-referendum fears about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland were quickly forgotten, however. In July, the new prime minister, declared that there be would be “no return to the borders of the past”. That sound-bite would quickly assume the role of a mantra, trotted out as often, it seemed, as “Brexit means Brexit”. Concerns about the cross-border trade and travel were blithely dismissed by references to the Ireland-wide Common Travel Area. (The CTA, Irish political leaders pointed out, has existed since the early days of the Free State but never before has one jurisdiction been inside supranational body with free movement of people and the other outside.)

In her first cabinet reshuffle, May defenestrated Theresa Villiers, David Cameron’s Brexit-supporting Northern Ireland secretary. Ms Villiers, generally perceived as detached from local affairs, caused consternation in Belfast by openly campaigning with the DUP ahead of the EU referendum. Villiers’s replacement, James Brokenshire, has smacked of nominative determinism: since the Brexit vote Northern Irish politics has, after a decade of relative calm, collapsed. Divided on the most significant issue facing Northern Ireland since the peace process, relations between DUP first minister Arlene Foster and her then deputy, the late Martin McGuinness, quickly deteriorated. When a botched green energy scheme was revealed to have massively overspent – apparently largely on grants to DUP-supporting farmers – Sinn Fein pulled the plug on Stormont.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is governed by a “consociational” system. This approach – in which ethnic blocs are given vetoes and balances – was initially devised in the Netherlands, to deal with regionalist demands. Since the 1990s it has become the solution of choice for post-conflict societies: Bosnia, Lebanon, Iraq. Under the Northern Irish iteration, the largest unionist and nationalist parties must share power. But in government the DUP and Sinn, always uncomfortable bedfellows, have drifted further apart, not closer together. The DUP has consistently blocked Sinn Fein legislation, including a law to permit gay marriage. While Foster was first minister, grants under a community halls scheme were bestowed on groups linked to the Orange Order, and largely denied to Gaelic Athletic Association clubs. The DUP’s culture minister refused a small grant to a Belfast community group which planned to take some children to an Irish-speaking area. The DUP leader’s fondness for majority rule echoes that of Theresa May. Brexit means Brexit. That most Northern Irish voters rejected the prospect of leaving the EU is incidental. The United Kingdom has spoken. But such majoritarianism has run into a major obstacle – not the Armalite, but the ballot box.

In March, Northern Ireland held another round of devolved elections. This time there was a notable sense of expectation. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Adam Ramsey and I published a series of articles on how the DUP had received £425,000 for its Brexit campaign and was refusing to name its donors. The story caught the Northern Irish public imagination. I found myself on nightly news programmes, where anchors explained that the murky story of the DUP’s funding fed into a sense that the party were untrustworthy. In Ballymena, the buckle in Northern Ireland’s bible-belt and the powerbase of DUP founder Ian Paisley, I met traditional Protestant voters who accused the party of having “lost touch with its religious base”. In Belfast, younger voters were angry at the prospect of losing their ready access to the other 27 European Union states, including the country on the other side of the invisible border. The election proved dramatic. Turnout was up almost ten per cent on 2016. For the first time since partition, unionism failed to secure a majority in a Northern Irish parliament. Sinn Féin won 27 seats to the DUP’s 28. The Democratic Unionists lost seats across the border counties, including in Foster’s home, Fermanagh, where Sinn Fein took three of the five seats on offer. At the time of writing, no arrangement has been reached on a new governing coalition. Sinn Fein insist Foster must step aside. She has refused. The prospects of a swift re-instatement of power-sharing look slim.

Brexit has put the border back into Irish politics, in ways that would have seemed impossible only a couple of years ago. In Belfast, senior people from Alliance – an avowedly ‘cross-community’ party borne of a split in the Ulster Unionists in the Troubles’ early days – talk of the need to make plans for Irish unification. The Fine Gael government in Dublin held up as a major victory the Brussels’s confirmation that a post-unification Northern Ireland would seamlessly rejoin the EU. Having emerged from the pro-Treaty side after the civil war, Fine Gael has long been the most fiercely anti-republican force in Irish politics.

Along the border, life goes on, in its own quiet way. After Ulster Gaelic football championship games, queues of traffic still snake out from Clones, in County Monaghan, over the border into Northern Ireland. The questions of who did what to whom during the three-decades-long dirty war remain, waiting for answers. Peace, however, has not given way to prosperity. The border remains one of the poorest parts of the country. The large houses dotted across the drumlins belie a general shift from the rural to the urban, from the towns to Dublin and Belfast, that has characterized Irish life in recent decades. Where there has been sustained – and sustainable – investment in the border counties it has often come with a large sign bearing the European Union’s starry standard.

My first proper job, at the University of Ulster, was funded by the European Union. It was 2008, just before the financial crash. We were not so starry-eyed as to imagine that our attempts to reconcile Catholics and Protestants on either side of a peace wall in Derry would bring the barriers down overnight, but there were minor moments of success. A film night on Derry’s walls. A talk on social enterprise well-attended by both sides. Small steps. Nobody expects that London – or Dublin – will replace the £500m that Northern Ireland receives from the EU each year, especially for the slow, difficult work of rebuilding communities after conflict.

This spring I was back home for a wedding. The reception was in a stunning colonial castle nestled by a lake in rural county Leitrim, barely fifteen miles from Northern Ireland. The road signs were peppered with destinations on both sides of the border. The following day, I visited my mother. She was planning to get her teeth fixed, in Enniskillen. She had the name of a dentist there who charged only a fraction of the price on the southern side of the border. “The NHS is great,” she told me. “We should have it here, too.”

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