The ferry from Scotland to Northern Ireland, on 11th July 1989, was full of bandsmen, going to march the next day. On The Glorious Twelfth, Protestants celebrate their victory, in 1690, over the Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne — and stick it to the Taigs. The battlefield actually lies to the south of Northern Ireland, in a nation created 100 years ago today — when 26 counties broke away from the UK to become the Free State and Eire and Ireland. Ironically perhaps, Brits choose to commemorate the battle in the part of the island not yet lost.
The bandsmen and the Boyne — and this illogicality — ended up opening the book I was travelling to Northern Ireland to write. The Glass Curtain is about the Troubles. Not the Troubles of Belfast or Derry, but the Troubles of Fermanagh, a rectangular county with a national border on three sides, where the IRA and the British State were at war. We call it the Troubles but trust me, it was a nasty, dirty, vicious civil war.
But I was travelling to Ulster at the fin de siècle, the end of history. When our temporary home there became permanent, I believed the Gods were smiling on us, because I could see, with my own eyes, the place changing for the better. First the Single Market came. (The EU did nothing but good for Northern Ireland, which opted to Remain in 2016.) Then the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated. It was a fudge, but in Ulster we were disgusted and ashamed by all that had happened and all we had done; only the GFA would bring the prisoners home, and only their homecoming would end the war. Then, at last, the Police Service of Northern Ireland replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a source of Republican rage for generations. Eventually, Sinn Féin supported the police.
With this drawn-out, painful process came the feeling that finally, finally the Irish question had been solved — and it had been solved because we’d plumped for the evolutionary rather than the revolutionary solution. Yes, the status quo would be maintained and Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom, but at the same time it would mutate into something else, a Hiberno-British hybrid that everyone knew was really Irish, really part of Ireland, but which had Royal Mail post boxes lying around. Partition would remain but it wouldn’t matter anymore. It only mattered that jaw-jaw had prevailed over war-war — and therefore everything was going to be grand.
The day before St Patrick’s Day, last year, I left Dublin, where I work, and went home to Fermanagh. I stayed there, in lockdown, until St George’s Day this year, when I set off for Belfast. There had been several nights of rioting there, protests against Westminster’s Northern Ireland Protocol — which established the so-called Irish trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, following the UK’s departure from the EU. Loyalist fury was expressed with messages painted on walls and gable ends, on placards and posters. They were everywhere — on bridges, railings and lampposts. Some were complicated, like the politics: a lot of writing superimposed on a Union Flag; others were simple: “We’re British, NOT Irish.”
What the placards told me — what they’d tell anyone who bothered to pay attention — is that Loyalists and Unionists believe the Protocol is going to lever them out of the country in which they were born and shuffle them into a country where they do not want to live; it will transform them from being British subjects to being Irish citizens. “There cannot be a border down the Irish Sea,” said Arlene Foster in October 2018. “A differential between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK — the red line is blood red.”
“What did you expect?” I want to shout. “The Tories were always going to shaft you.” The Loyalists and Unionists, who are now complaining so loudly, helped Brexit along hugely. They thought if we left the EU, the border created 100 years ago between Ireland and the North would be meaningful again. Mrs Foster was one of the chief enablers of the hard Brexit. “There will be no border down the Irish Sea,” the Prime Minister promised her party, last August, “over my dead body.” The DUP were reassured, then betrayed. The Protocol has brought Ulster not further from the south, from Ireland, but further from the UK. The target of the party’s anger is Mrs Foster. As I write this, she is resigning as leader of the DUP.
Meanwhile in the south, Sinn Féin are talking up a Border Poll. Whether the South would want us, if push came to shove, is unclear. A recent poll suggested 51% of people in the Republic favour ending partition — though there’s no plan in place, no data about costs, and the Irish Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, is cautious. Impediments abound. The North’s healthcare system is funded by the state; the south’s depends on insurance. And what will the status of the Irish language be? How will we iron out the differences in our school systems? It will be complicated and expensive, and yet: the possibility of a United Ireland is more interesting all of a sudden. And that is because the concern behind the words written on walls across Belfast is valid: the Protocol shows that we in the North are no longer wanted by the United Kingdom — or, at least, by its ruling party. We’re not liked, tolerated or understood, even vaguely.
A man who’d describe himself as a Unionist (old school), not a Loyalist, complained to me recently: “If I can’t jump in the car with the dog and go to Scotland to see the kids, without the dog having a rabies shot and a passport and a letter from the vet and whatever else they want … the kids might as well live in Spain.” As he sees it, the splintered and different nations of the United Kingdom are becoming foreign countries to each other, with not only friends but families divided. Unlike the majority in Northern Ireland, this old school Unionist voted for Brexit. He chose Britain over Europe, but Britain does not want him. When I asked who he blamed for this mess, he said, very quietly, “The British government.” Then he corrected himself. “I mean the English. This Protocol’s down to them.”
But “there is no ‘Irish Sea Border’,” tweeted Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Tory titan, on New Year’s Day. This is one strategy for overcoming the Protocol problem: pretending it doesn’t exist. Another is to say that the EU needs to be more flexible. “We are keen to see the EU engage further, which I hope it will do shortly to understand the needs and the flexibilities that are practical,” said Lewis last month. Why would the EU listen? Why would it do as it’s told?
And why would Westminster want to be flexible while we’re on the subject? They’ve got away with it. Whoever is elected as the new leader of the DUP — and it’s unlikely to be a moderniser — will have to work with the Protocol, as Foster did. To placate the party, the Tories might throw money in our direction. (When Mrs May needed the party’s Westminster votes, she gave it a billion quid.) They might even start the bridge to Scotland. Stranger things have happened. The people behind the placards in Belfast are unlikely to be placated. But what can they do?
Whatever happens, as a citizen of this place, I no longer believe (as I did once) that we are evolving into a stable hybrid. We’re not going to be grand. We will stagger on — that’s all. And if, occasionally, we complain, England will object to the noise, and nothing — absolutely nothing — will change.