Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit and Northern Ireland

The United Kingdom's suicide attempt needn't become a murder-suicide if people act now. I'm talking about Northern Ireland and the possibility that it might disintegrate into chaos. Yeah, I know, I write detective novels for a living, I'm not a politician; but I am of a certain age and I remember The Troubles all too vividly. The Troubles, many people have forgotten, were a complicated struggle between Irish nationalists and the British establishment that more or less devolved into a bitter sectarian civil war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. In a thirty year period more than 3500 people were murdered and Belfast became an apocalyptic landscape of bomb sites, checkpoints and derelict buildings. But in 1998 a fragile peace came to Ulster with The Good Friday Agreement and that peace has held ever since. 

Until last Friday, that is. Brexit day. Before Friday Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland were separate political entities but they were united together in the European Union. Anyone from any part of the island could work in or travel to any other part of the island with complete freedom. Brexit has changed all that. Although the overwhelming majority of the population of Northern Ireland voted to stay in the European Union, Northern Ireland will now go the way of the rest of the UK and leave in two years. Nationalists, who are mostly Catholic, have called for reunification with Southern Ireland, Unionists, who are mostly Protestant, have angrily rejected this. And thus the whole of the hard won Northern Irish peace process teeters above the abyss. 

In my Sean Duffy detective novels I attempt to conjure up the mundane horror of daily life in Belfast in the 1980s: the random bombings and sectarian attacks; the police, army and paramilitary roadblocks; the misery of life in a province at war with itself. As one character says “If you haven’t read Thucydides, I’ll boil him down for you into a simple moral: intergenerational civil war is a very bad thing.” 

For Irish millennials this all seems like a long ago dream or nightmare. When driving along the border today it’s impossible to say where the Republic of Ireland ends and Northern Ireland begins. The fields look the same, the cows look the same, eventually you notice that the road signs are in Miles Per Hour instead of Kilometres Per Hour but that’s the only clue. Everyone who remembers how difficult it used to be to travel from Belfast to Dublin in the 1970’s is happy that the border guards and customs posts are long gone. A three and a half hour journey from city to city can now be done in a nippy hour and a half with no fuss at all. 

Brexit, however, has thrust the nightmare back into the forefront of our imaginations. Britain’s new Prime Minister, whoever he or she may be, must attend to Northern Ireland as a priority. Assurances must be given that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will continue to be a “common travel area.” There must be no customs posts, no army watchtowers, no border guards along the 300 mile long, meandering dividing line between northern and southern Ireland. If trucks need to be monitored travelling across the border this monitoring must be done electronically. Furthermore Northern Ireland must be generously treated by the London government to make up for the shortfall in European bursaries and subsidies. Money won’t solve all the problems Brexit has thrust at Northern Ireland but there must be no more austerity budgets and penny pinching from London. 

Brexit has made the reunification of Northern and Southern Ireland much more likely and if this happens it must come peacefully. Ulster does not need another thirty years of blood feud and sectarian conflict. Politicians on all sides of the Irish Sea must now must work over-time to prevent Brexit  turning Belfast back into a war zone. The grim days of the 1970s and 1980s must never come again.