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A view from the border: Ireland on the brink of Brexit

With a declining Catholic church, a gay premier and a politically astute citizenry, Ireland has come of age. But on the border old wounds are reopening.

Driving through County Donegal, somewhere south of Ballybofey, we turned left on to a narrow lane. After a few miles we came to an old stone bridge over a tumbling stream. It was wide open country, with forestry plantations and mountains in the background, but a foreground of pure Irish bog. No one in sight; no sound but the wind. And none of the paraphernalia of a border.

The sharp-bend sign on the far side was British-style black-and-white rather than Irish black-and-amber. And on the other side was an un-British 80kmph speed limit sign. The only other indicator was the phone flipping from network to network. I stood alone on the bridge: king of the wild frontier.

This being Ireland – one way or another – the first passing driver stopped to say hello. Her name was Sarah Conaghan. She was in the holiday cottage business and as local as they come. But round here that is not a simple proposition: she lives in Donegal, in the Republic, but grew up in Tyrone, where we now were by a matter of inches – part of the United Kingdom.

Yes, she confirmed, this was indeed the border: the Shruhangarve Bridge. She drives across it all the time, into the UK and then out again. It was not always thus. “During the Troubles the British army put steel spikes in the road. Then the boys came along with a digger and pulled them out. So the British came back and blew eight massive craters in the road. You can still feel the bumps. A farmer did create a track so you could walk by but, by car, a six-mile journey became 23. One old lady had a second farm just over there but it was too far for her to walk so she never went back to it again.”

Shruhangarve is one of 208 official land crossings between the UK and the Irish Republic. That statistic only became known this April, 98 years after the twisty-turny border was created as a temporary truce line. The process of counting the crossings – an example of north-south co-operation – was described by officials as a “nightmare” because of its sheer complexity. Previously there were thought to be about 275. The EU’s entire eastern land border has only 137 crossings. And the 208 does not include private roads or the myriad of makeshift crossings that might be created by resourceful malefactors. Where there’s a customs post, there’s dosh to be made.

Compared to other border counties, Donegal was relatively calm in the bad years. Nor is its situation the most confusing: further east, on the road between Cavan Town and Clones, both in the Republic, you cross the border nine times. But, if the border slams shut, no other part of Ireland will be more affected than this place, whose opinion was never sought.

Donegal is a large rural county out on a limb, almost severed by politics from the rest of the Republic. It was very much part of historic Ulster but excluded from political Ulster in 1920 because it was 85 per cent Catholic and would have endangered Protestant control of the north, which was the whole point of the exercise. It stands by the old values, too: it was the only county to reject the legalisation of abortion in this year’s referendum. Yet the accent is very Ulsterish, and the county actually stretches north of “the North”, Malin Head being the Irish mainland’s most northerly point. To the south, it is connected to the rest of the Republic only by two bridges at Ballyshannon. Most of the exit routes go through the UK. And its tourist trade – including Sarah Conaghan’s business – is dependent on visitors from Northern Ireland.

Donegal would be remote even in a united Ireland. This is up-the-airy-mountain-down-the-rushy-glen country, steeped in legend. “Dublin doesn’t care about Donegal,” said Tom Murray, who runs the pharmacy in Ramelton and is the county spokesman for the pressure group Border Communities Against Brexit. “I’m damn sure Britain doesn’t care. And I’m damn sure the EU doesn’t.”

Any restrictions would affect his business in ways even his customers do not know. The ancillary products that sustain a small pharmacy are almost all sourced more cheaply from the UK or transhipped that way from Dublin.

Louise Doyle is a reporter on the Donegal News in Letterkenny. Much of her reporting now is taken up with concerns about Brexit, not least the end of international co-operation in cancer care between the hospitals in Letterkenny and Derry. If that stops, patients will face a four-hour-plus journey to Galway. “I’m a wee bit worried myself,” she said. “I live in Derry and the journey to work is 30-40 minutes already. And we’ve had stories that the Garda are completely unprepared to police a border.”

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If Donegal is worried – heading towards alarmed – concern is general all over Ireland. Indeed, here is a country flatteringly obsessed with the vagaries of another country’s politics. “It makes great TV,” one academic said to me disarmingly. Does it? From where I normally sit, the entire UK appears to be averting its gaze, either in horror (48 per cent) or bloody-mindedness/suppressed guilt (52 per cent). “I would argue that the debate here is much more rational, much more informed than it is in the UK,” said David Farrell, professor of politics at University College, Dublin. “I’m sending Irish newspaper articles to friends in England because we’re seeing subjects discussed that aren’t being discussed there.”

This seems emblematic of a dramatic change in the relationship between the two nation-states of the North-West European Archipelago, known to some as the British Isles. Suddenly it is Ireland and not Britain that appears to be the adult in this dysfunctional family.

The long and tempestuous relationship between the often cruel mother country and the unruly daughter is mutating since the child, having thought she was finally breaking free from the old bat, now has to cope with the increasing risk that she will leave a saucepan boiling on the stove while wandering off to the wrong end of the bus route. The change is neatly represented in the two leaders. Neither has a stable parliamentary majority. But the day I watched him, Leo Varadkar, the gay, half-Indian taoiseach, a one-man embodiment of the new Ireland, quietly dominated the Dáil with a soft-spoken command of his brief, while Theresa May… well, you know all that.

In Donegal, time may seem immemorial, but Ireland has changed even in the past couple of years. Central Dublin is now as dominated by tourists and their attendant tat as Piccadilly Circus or central Amsterdam. And the locals walk through the area with mild contempt rather than proprietorial pride. The proportion of foreign-born residents in this once self-contained country is suddenly at 16 per cent, among the highest in the EU. But there is as yet no right-wing populist party. Some locals put this down to Irish good nature. It might have more to do with the diffuse nature of the immigration and the absence of ghettoes that might be perceived as threatening.

Over a lifetime, the change is staggering. In a rural school in 1960 the teacher asked the future newspaper columnist Deaglán de Bréadún’s class how many were going on to secondary school. De Bréadún recalled: “There were 40 in the room and I was the only one who raised his hand.”

“Before 1967 there was no free access to secondary education,” explained Tomás Finn, who teaches history at the National University of Ireland, Galway. “You had to pay, which was difficult for a lot of people. Some rural areas didn’t even have a secondary school. And if they did it could be a long way away.”

Finn dates the first stirrings of change in Ireland to the retirement of the sempiternal Eamon de Valera in 1959 and his replacement as taoiseach by the more pragmatic Seán Lemass, who opened up the economy and inched forward socially. Also in 1967, book censorship that had afflicted practically every Irish writer worth mentioning (“the best banned in the land”, as Brendan Behan put it) was eased but not ended. Ireland being as it was, part of that awakening was inseparable from the reforming papacy of John XXIII.

Finn argues that 1968 was a crucial year, not so much because of the ferment affecting the rest of the world, but because of the reaffirmation of the ban on contraception by John’s successor, Paul VI, with the publication of his encyclical Humanae Vitae. Change was in the air; Paul shot it down. “It came as a huge surprise,” says Finn, “and here it really mattered. People began to struggle with their conscience.” But it was not easy to ignore the Pope if you lived in rural Ireland with no money, no car, and no chemist up the road able to help.

It was the start of a 50-year journey away from something close to theocracy towards a normal kind of west European so-whattery, which culminated in the 2-1 pro-abortion vote in May. Much of this would surely have happened anyway: the inevitable result of education, prosperity and travel. But the abuse scandals have given it velocity. Ireland’s response to Pope Francis’s recent, near-disastrous visit was not just indifference, it had a vengeful edge.

Church attendance remains higher than elsewhere. But evidence of decay is overwhelming. Irish priests once roamed the world; last month just five new students entered the famous seminary at Maynooth to start first-year studies. Now the priesthood adds to the immigration figures, the traditional fate of low-status jobs that no one wants. People told me of Malawian priests, Nigerian priests, even a Korean (“in trainers!” said my incredulous informant).

I heard of a Dublin church where people once double-parked for hourly masses every Sunday; now they have a couple of masses and ample parking. Of priests being forced to explain to mourners or wedding guests what every Irish seven-year-old used to know. Of old men standing in for the now non-existent altar boys. “Ireland – semper fidelis,” John Paul II said on his triumphant visit in 1979. And it might have stayed that way. But the church broke the faith.


An LGBT flag adorns a reconciliation sculpture in Londonderry, Northern Ireland

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Mammon has proved fickle as an alternative deity, but it is a beguiling one. Ireland joined the EU in 1973 because it had no option once the UK signed up: it would have been adrift in the Atlantic. And if Britain had opted out, say 20 years ago, Ireland would probably have had to follow suit. But while Britain spent 43 years chafing against the bonds, Ireland found the EU liberating. It gained new trading partners and learned to work the system. Now, in spite of all the problems, Irexit would be unthinkable – especially as the Celtic tiger is sharpening its claws once more.

Which may be a sign that it will maul itself close to death again. Economic growth for 2018 is running close to 10 per cent, but in Ireland there is always the suspicion of what Paul Krugman of the New York Times calls “leprechaun economics” – that growth is more dependent on decisions taken in Google and Apple’s tax avoidance departments than anything having a tangible reality. Dublin house prices are still notionally about one-fifth below their crazed 2007 peak, although, at this exchange rate, they are probably higher than London’s. The upshot is a terrifying problem of homelessness, on which subject Varadkar sounded uncharacteristically unconvincing in the Dáil.

Ireland’s infrastructure is too rickety to allow the normal options of moving further out from the cities. The commuter roads are clogged; the tram and train services vestigial; the bus system dysfunctional. And Dublin is as dominant here as London is over there. Beyond the Pale is indeed beyond the pale. Ireland has other problems that affect everyone. From here – where doctors’ appointments cost €50 a time and hospital stays require insurance – the NHS looks like Nirvana. This might prove the crucial factor in making Ulster Catholics shy away from a united Ireland.

The country seems less corrupt than it was in the pre-crash days when policy was decided, for a certain consideration, in the VIP tent at Galway Races. Still there are horror stories of the problems getting anything done that involves the state. There is nowhere on Earth where people will be more helpful, provided you find the right person to ask. That’s a big if.

Ireland can be exasperating for the visitor, too. Whatever the gushing travel pages might say, there’s still a lot of shite food around. If you don’t like Guinness (and I’d rather drink Bovril), it’s impossible to locate a decent pint. And it’s probably easier to find authentic Irish music in Ulan Bator than in Dublin.

But the Irish can make anything lyrical. The New Statesman likes to print poetry so here is my contribution. The Dublin GPO may be sacred but dozens of other post offices across the country have been earmarked for closure. The list has just been published and these are the 16 doomed post offices in Donegal (I suggest you read it aloud):

Ballyliffin, Ballymagan, Brinlack, Bunbeg, Burnfoot, Burtonport, Church Hill, Culdaff, Culkeeny, Dunaff, Dunfanaghy, Dunkineely, Gortahork, Kindrum, Meenaneary, Quigley’s Point, Rossnakill.

The residents can always cross the border and find alternatives in the UK. Well, they hope they can.

For the next article in the New Statesman series “The Lost Continent” Matthew Engel will visit Denmark

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war