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Brexit, Northern Ireland, borders, lies, smoke, mirrors and hope



When people ask these days, “Where are you from Johnathan?”


I say “Scotland.”


When people ask “Where is home?”


I say Limavady.


Are you Irish or Northern Irish?


“Northern Irish,” I say.


Northern Ireland has always been a stop-gap of a place born out of terrible treacherous acts. The trouble is if you stay long enough a place becomes home. And for many, that is the case.


Nature and nurture have shaped me. My cultural identity followed and settled as far back as I can remember. Don’t get me wrong my childhood was gloriously middle class. My father is a retired engineer and my mother worked in education. We wanted for nothing as they say.


I enjoyed school. Except when a chap called ‘Spud’ punched me in the face. Friends reading this may remember who he is and maybe remember that day. In the context of this article, I clearly remember that he was a Catholic living in a Republican area. What troubles me is that I had grown up being conditioned to identify myself and others like one or the other. Catholic or Protestant. Republican or Loyalist. Of course, maybe it was our own fault because in a border town like Limavady the best way to pick football teams was simply Catholics vs Protestants.


And there was rarely a dull game as I remember, not least on this day. And so there was the first self-imposed, self-protecting and possibly self-perpetuating cultural straight jacket that I personally encountered.


In Northern Ireland, everyone has a side. Trouble is years of existing on either side has driven behaviour, not least where people live. Growing up in Northern Ireland, of course, meant that I had a side. People physically live next to their own kind. This means Catholic areas and Protestant areas. My family were ‘prods’ (protestants). The worst kind many would quietly believe. Presbyterian puritan ‘prods’ somewhat ironically for me the Presbyterian ministry was founded by John Knox, a Scotsman. And my Grandfather was a Presbyterian minister so there was religion afoot in our family.


My Grandmother on my mother’s side of the family was what I would affectionately refer to as a social loyalist. By this I mean she would have a party every 12th of July in her home on Main street in Limavady. She would get most excited if it was the turn of our local town to host the 12th of July festivities. She was most probably very sectarian at times, not that I can completely remember in the interest of fairness. That side of the family had the Unionist swagger, or at least that is my impression anyway.


I have lived in Scotland now for almost 15 years and in that time many parallels have arisen between here and home in terms of how people identify politically. Politically Northern Irish people are seasoned campaigners and have largely been at least indirectly affected by violence. In contrast, Scotland at this time is showing political naivety which recently ultimately resulted in the referendum to stay within or leave the UK.


Populism and nationalism are dangerous things. Dangerous. The naivety of the debate in the Scottish referendum some years ago was played out in the narrow aisles of the rural community pharmacy within which I was then working. A tremendous example of collective naivety on a grand scale. A national scale. The debate began as somewhat of a joke. A bit of banter you might say. However, as the day of the vote approached folk were pushed to make their choice.


Take sides.


And it honestly hit me standing in the dispensary witnessing a conversation that crossed that tragic rubicon. I thought quietly that day from my slightly elevated vantage point in the dispensary;


“Shit this is just like home.”


Insight is really difficult to find if you have never learned through experience. I have often said to Scottish friends when talking about the referendum to imagine if there were suddenly some of the cultural restrictions and segregations imposed on our community here in Scotland.


Imagine for example only being able to drink in a nationalist pub or vice versa.


Imagine only being able to go to a nationalist school or vice versa.


Imagine only being able to marry a nationalist girl or boy, or vice versa.


This stuff still sits below the thin veneer of peace in Northern Ireland and the reason I am writing this piece is because this new reality is entirely possible both locally in Northern Ireland but also more widely as a result of the Brexit debacle.


And this is another myth that many may find useful to understand as they continue the nationalistic discourse in Brexit Britain.


1. Not all Protestants are Loyalists.

2. Not all Republicans are Catholics.

3. Not all Rangers supporters are Loyalist Protestants.


You get the idea. These issues have been conflated for years in Northern Ireland and I see similar happening in Scotland, and more widely as a result of Brexit. These lines have blurred as the cultural tide has ebbed and flowed over the years. And this is Nothern Ireland all over.


I remember many terrorist attacks and shootings when I was young. The proximity of it was always unsettling. If you’ve been to Ireland you will understand how close things are. Everyone is but a connection or two away. And the wonderful sociable culture at home reflects this. Everyone needs to know who everyone is. When two Northern Irish people meet outside Northen Ireland the first 30 seconds of the conversation is an attempt to basically work out whether they on our side or the opposition. Catholic or Prod?


Like him or loathe him Tony Blair was at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. That agreement was a slight of hand like no other in my view. Smoke and mirrors. The Good Friday agreement allowed the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland to be who they wanted to be. If I wanted an Irish passport, which incidentally I never have done, I could have it if I so wish. Republican friends can allow the border to dissolve and continue to dissolve year after year. The ‘North of Ireland’ or ‘Northern Ireland’ is at the moment yours to enjoy. Yours to perceive it how you wish. It is for the people to do what they have to do psychologically to make it feel like home.


The beauty of that agreement was and is that none of these concessions on either side ever seemed to feel like charity. No-one lost.


And I believe the agreement continues to work. It takes time though. And Northern Ireland needs more time. It does not need Brexit.


It is in this context that my heart breaks when I hear the destructive, ill-informed, naive rhetoric around Brexit coming from politicians across the board drunk on their own hubris and stumbling toward the end of this electoral cycle. We are possibly a mere matter of months away from the next general election.


I am not an expert, in fact, I am probably very naive but that said I do have some lived experience of the Northern Irish troubles. Our family and friends collectively brushed against the troubles, breathed a sigh of relief that none were affected and quietly went on our way. But that proximity shapes people. The management of expectations around how good we really have it in the UK in 2018 might help. I suppose the post-war era in the UK is a parallel here. The political will from that time bourne out of the previous fear and despair drove tremendous political will to help the country recover and thrive again.


Yet here we are again. I fear with Brexit we are at the point when the witches in Macbeth have cast their spell and now there is no turning back.


Because of my experience at home, I am actually ideologically ambivalent about how Brexit plays out. I do, however, detest the folly of it all. I simply cannot see anyone with the will or the skill to pull off the equivalent slight of hand required to solve Brexit in a similar way to what happened as part of the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday agreement provided space for people to own their own reality.


How could that ever be achieved for Brexit in the reactionary and polarised times that we live in?


Incidentally, the view in the image above is taken from the vantage point of Binevenagh, a mountain near Limavady. In the distance, you can see a stretch of water. This is Lough Foyle. Beyond in the sunny distance is the Republic of Ireland. Both sides of that water hold fond memories for me and how lucky I am to choose how I fit into that landscape.

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