The island of Ireland wants to move on from the past – if Brexiteers will let it

When I was 10, I crossed the border on a school trip. It was traumatic. 

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As news broke about an alleged agreement between the British and Irish governments on a “regulatory alignment” post Brexit, my relatives across the pond took to WhatsApp. “The devil is in the detail”, “It isn’t even signed off” and “The DUP will never agree to that”. Indeed, East Antrim Democratic Unionist Party MP, Sammy Wilson, wasted no time dismissing reports, if true, as “unacceptable”. The people of Northern Ireland will take little comfort from words alone.

When I was 10, I went on a school trip, from my home in Dublin, to the north. At the checkpoint, combat-clad soldiers pointed guns at us from concrete towers, defaced by graffiti reading, “Brits out, Peace in”. After hours of waiting, two British soldiers got on the bus wielding rifles. My friend, Bridie, was so traumatised she wet herself.

That was my first impression of British people. My resentment persisted for years, until I discovered that the kindest person on earth was British and married him. We now have an Anglo-Irish child who will have to be split down the middle at immigration control, post Brexit.

Stories of horrors over the border formed the soundtrack to my childhood. Then, my father got work as a labourer in Belfast. Every day, after the Angelus bells tolled at six o'clock, my mother would switch the radio off. Friends were told not to telephone so that the line was kept free “in case of emergency”.

We saw the repercussions of the violence in the Republic. A family in my neighbourhood had fled their home in Belfast after they were shot at in the street. Their crime? A Protestant and Catholic marriage that spawned “half breeds”. We gathered around these “Belfast boys”, as they revealed the scars, physical and psychological, from their “brawls in the bog side”.

The Good Friday Agreement changed everything on the island of Ireland. The removal of blockades heralded peace and economic progress on both sides of the border. Reinstating barriers between communities now would be a divisive, retrograde step and will open wounds that have taken a generation to heal.

It has long been understood that moving forward with the Brexit negotiations is contingent on coming up with practical solutions to Northern Ireland’s border. Yet none have been forthcoming. When Irish MEP, Mairead McGuinness, recently asked a Tory Brexiteer, Owen Paterson, how a hard border could be avoided unless Northern Ireland remained in the single market, he replied, “they [British people] voted to leave the single market”. That’s codswallop. The British people were not consulted on leaving the single market or the customs union.

Yet it has also been clear that if Northern Ireland leaves the single market, a hard border would be almost inevitable, despite the fact that 25 per cent  of raw milk produced there goes south of the border to be processed. Northern Ireland already has some of the highest levels of unemployment and poverty in the UK. It can ill afford to lose €3.5bn in EU subsidies up to 2020.

Fearful of the return to “the Troubles” that a hard border might well bring, I took my child to visit Northern Ireland recently. Protestant and Catholic children played together on the beach. Talking to fellow parents, there was a sense of impending doom.

Whereas in the past, we were divided along sectarian lines, now we seemed united in our shared European identity. One Belfast mother, a Protestant, told me she voted to remain in the EU and was angry that Theresa May is ignoring the will of the Northern Irish people, when 56 per cent voted to remain. She, like numerous Protestants in Northern Ireland, had applied for an Irish passport in order to retain her EU status.

The Tories have entirely misjudged the extent to which that shared European identity underpins the peace process. By riding rough shod over the rigorous impartiality required by the Good Friday Agreement, the UK government is gambling with peace in the province. Although the Good Friday Agreement allows for a unity referendum, until Brexit, there was no appetite for one.

The spectre of violence floats, like a restless ghost, over the island of Ireland. It will take more than vague promises of “regulatory alignment” to put it to rest. 

Tess Finch-Lees is a journalist and broadcaster.