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  1. Politics
27 June 2018

Northern Ireland’s bloody border, why Alan Sugar is not so sweet and newsroom jargon

A division drawn along old county lines, with “a medieval, magical feel to it”.

By Tom Gatti

How worried should we be about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic post-Brexit? Not very, according to Brexiteers. A recent poll conducted by the Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft asked voters in Great Britain what they would prefer if it came to a choice between either leaving the EU customs union or avoiding a hard border: two-thirds of Leave voters said they would rather depart the customs union. Many pro-Brexit MPs believe something “frictionless” involving “smart” technology will solve the problem (citing analysis done for the European Parliament which actually shows that technology alone will not suffice). Earlier this year Boris Johnson compared crossing the Irish border to moving between Camden and Islington.

The reality is quite different. At a Cambridge Literary Festival event earlier this month Colm Tóibín, who walked the border in 1986 for his book Bad Blood, explained that it was a division drawn along old county lines, with “a medieval, magical feel to it”, and around 300 crossings for its 310 miles. During the Troubles, when most of the small bridges were blocked with concrete posts and spikes, a little local knowledge made it easy to cross into the Republic: as far as ten miles south from the border was a lawless zone populated by the IRA and smugglers and governed by “tension and fear”. Nobody wants those days back, Tóibín told me, and in any case a hard border would be “impossible to impose”, especially for the 30,000 people who cross it for their daily commute.

How to be both

Another major Brexit headache is lurking in the Good Friday Agreement. In 1998 the document gave the Northern Irish people the right to be British or Irish – at which point its authors added what Tóibín described as “the two most beautiful words in the English language” – or both. Now that even staunch Unionists realise that they can retain their EU citizenship, the Republic is “shovelling passports north”, according to Tóibín. Under the agreement, a baby born in Northern Ireland would still have the right to be an EU citizen. A preliminary deal struck with the EU last December suggested that this situation could continue after Brexit, but given that, as Theresa May says, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, the atmosphere in Ireland, on both sides of the border, is still one of anxiety and uncertainty – as well as disbelief that the Northern Ireland peace process has become a political afterthought.

Judging the misjudged

I had not thought Twitter had undone so many – but its casualties keep mounting up. On 29 May, Roseanne Barr, star of the recently revived sitcom Roseanne, tweeted about Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to Obama: “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = vj”. She then apologised and claimed her judgement was affected by a sedative. Hours later ABC cancelled the new Roseanne, TV channels pulled reruns and Barr’s agent dropped her. Now it has been announced that a new spin-off series will go ahead without Barr.

Meanwhile, the Apprentice presenter and life peer Alan Sugar tweeted a picture of the Senegal football team next to sunglasses and handbags for sale, adding: “I recognise some of these guys from the beach in Marbella.” Piers Morgan defended Sugar – “he’s not a racist” – and the BBC’s only statement so far is that “Lord Sugar has acknowledged this was a seriously misjudged tweet”.

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Both Barr’s and Sugar’s tweets seem to me to be dictionary-definition racist. So why has one been lynched and the other  given the gentlest of wrist slaps? Is the BBC afraid of being smeared by the “political correctness gone mad” brigade? Or is this, after Jeremy Clarkson, a calculated decision not to lose another star who can still make headlines and pull in top ratings?

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When talent turns toxic

The books world is finally catching up with the “morality clauses” that have been used in Hollywood since the 1920s. Conscious of the #MeToo movement, publishers are increasingly using contracts to try to guarantee the good behaviour of their writers. According to an agent anonymously quoted in the trade magazine the Bookseller, these clauses contain “loose definitions of past, present and future ‘behaviour’ or judgement by the subjective whims of a public outcry”. So far they’ve been confined to the US, but they are likely to arrive here soon.

Publishers understandably want to cover their backs. But the idea that good writing corresponds with good behaviour is both infantile and infantilising: if we can still read TS Eliot despite his anti-Semitism, watch Shakespeare in Love despite its producer (Harvey Weinstein) and (just about) listen to “How Soon is Now?” despite Morrissey’s far-right lunacy, then we are grown-up enough to allow books to succeed or fail on their own merits.

New York’s Newspeak

A documentary about the New York Times in the Trump era, The Fourth Estate, plays to my weakness for newsrooms on screen. Although, as Rachel Cooke points out on page 52, the programme makers do not entirely solve the issue of how to derive drama from desk-work, they do supply some satisfying New York characters: competitive, caffeinated, baseball-bat-fondling hacks who constantly chip in on each other’s work. We also get my favourite bit of American journalist jargon, the “nut graf” – the paragraph that tells the story in a nutshell – as well as some discussion of the “kicker” (which, confusingly, refers to a punchy headline in the UK but in the US means an article’s final flourish). When White House correspondent Maggie Haberman gets a nice bit of detail from Trump, a colleague says, with relish, “That’s the kicker.” He then looks crestfallen when she immediately tweets it. In the social media age, it turns out, the kicker isn’t just the pay-off: it’s the whole story.

Tom Gatti is head of books and features at the New Statesman

This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone