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10 December 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:28am

Brexit will destroy my late grandfather’s dream of an open Irish border

My grandfather, who died the same week as the Brexit vote, experienced the humiliation of crossing checkpoints just to see his family. 

By James Conor Patterson

Brexit happened four days after my granddad died. At the time, I remember thinking that it was the worst week of my life.

We tend to think in the aftermath of grief that one misfortune can somehow prepare us for the next – that when we’re faced again with tragedy, we can somehow draw upon an unlimited well of resilience built up from our previous experience. And when I think about it now, two and a half years later, the separate griefs of both my granddad’s death and the Brexit vote seem so inextricably linked that every time the news comes on I’m reminded of him and have to change the channel.

It was a Monday when he died. I’d just come down from my girlfriend’s house in Belfast after my dad had phoned and told me that the old man was on his way out. Both sides of my family have been rooted in the city of Newry on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic for several generations, and none could chronicle the bad old days when partition meant customs control and customs control meant militarisation better than my granddad. He’d been born four and a half years after the Boundary Commission had finalised its report on where the border between Britain and Ireland should be drawn, and being nearly as old as the Northern Irish state itself, he had a fatalistic sense of humour arising out of the hard times he’d had to endure.

At 16, he nearly died from appendicitis on the floor of a smog-blackened terrace on the Isle of Dogs. He’d come to the shipyards of England to work as a welder – having been unable to ply his trade on the loyalist docklands of Belfast’s Harland & Wolff – only to be met by the braying of Cockney foremen who told him, Sorry Paddy. No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish. He spent the next 15 years going back and forth between England and home, often experiencing horrendous abuse at the hands of his English foremen and the sectarian “B-Specials” police force. But after working to secure a future for both himself and my granny, by 1963 he’d secured a lucrative job in Derry and was finally able to move home permanently.

Home, of course, meant Newry and lucrative meant a contract for a full-time position. My granddad was lucky in this sense, since he no longer had to go traipsing from site to site looking for work. But for the first six years of his kids’ lives, the border was a serious impediment in that none of them were able to freely visit their maternal grandparents in Dundalk. Crossing the border at Killeen meant stringent checks, and my dad still has distinct memories of the cruelty that could sometimes be visited upon families who were crossing over. This was “Bandit Country”, and up until the militarisation of the Irish border following an escalation of the Troubles, taunts and name-calling were the best that my granddad and his young family could hope for.

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The death of my granddad, for better or worse, has brought the precariousness of the Northern nationalist community’s position to the fore. His experience of discrimination, harassment and xenophobia at the hands of the British state was writ large by political decisions like unionist gerrymandering, housing discrimination and the introduction of internment in 1971. His involvement in the civil rights movement, along with many others of his generation, laid the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It’s this which is now threatened by the looming prospect of a no-deal Brexit, and it’s this which as at risk of overturning the move to equality which was fought so hard for by the likes of my granddad and others.

When I eventually came of age it was post-Good Friday Agreement and the political landscape was more stable. I was nine when – with the exception of the DUP – the North of Ireland’s main political parties sat down and tried to build a framework for lasting peace. And having never grown up with the looming threat of violence that faced both my parents and grandparents, the prospect of a closed border now, after all these years, is terrifying. Brexit marks not just a supranational existential crisis for Northern Ireland, but a personal crisis for me and many of my generation – one based around the fact that virtually all our identities have been shaped by an ability to move freely between jurisdictions.

I was born in Coventry, lived in Aberdeen until I was five, spent my formative school years in Newry, then studied and lived in Dublin until I was 21. My girlfriend is from Belfast, and we have both lived in Liverpool. When I was growing up, most of the shops, restaurants and cafes in Newry accepted both sterling and euro, and when I first started going out to pubs and nightclubs, the most popular venue for me and my peers was a hotel disco near the South Armagh village of Jonesborough. Half in the North, half in the South.

What all this is meant to illustrate is that freedom of movement has played an enormous role in the maturation of Northern Irish society as a whole; particularly with regards to advancing the parity of esteem principle at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. Employment opportunities have levelled out. Political radicalisation of young people has dwindled, and Northern Irish schools have topped UK GCSE and A-Level results for the past four years running. The number of residents availing of dual citizenship has risen to its highest ever level.

But there are problems too; problems that already face the UK as a whole, but that I fear may disproportionately affect Northern Ireland in the event of a hard border with the Republic. Consider that, despite Northern Ireland having received around 21 per cent more public funding than the rest of the UK, it still has the highest economic inactivity average at 28 per cent. (The UK average is 21 per cent.) As of 2013, public sector employment in Northern Ireland is at a whopping 31 per cent while the rest of the UK averages at 20 per cent. Brexit will make all this harder to fix. Will any guarantees relating to zero-hour contracts, for example, be enforceable post-Brexit in a region with no corporate leverage or trade links?

That’s without even mentioning the fact that, if one takes freedom of movement out of the equation, then Northern Ireland’s nationalist and unionist communities return to the bad old days of entrenchment and suspicion. Deny Northern Ireland’s links with the Republic, and the nationalist community in particular is once again cut off from its collective sense of self.

When the Brexit vote happened two years ago, I lost my paternal grandfather. Last month, I lost my maternal grandfather too, meaning that both the start and the end of this very long and laborious Brexit process have been bookended by personal bereavement. The passing of my maternal granddad is still too raw to write about, but my only hope is that, for two men who worked hard their whole lives, helped to rebuild post-war Britain, and involved themselves in the civil rights movement, their legacies aren’t forgotten. They worked to secure a pluralistic, prosperous future for their children and grandchildren. And right now, with the looming prospect of a closed border in the event of a no-deal Brexit, everything they worked for is at risk of being thrown in the bin.

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