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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. 

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. 

Photo: Getty
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Commons Confidential: Tories turn on “Lord Snooty”

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

With the Good Friday Agreement’s 20th anniversary rapidly approaching, Jeremy Corbyn’s office is scrambling to devise a celebration that doesn’t include Tony Blair. Peace in Northern Ireland is a sparkling jewel in the former prime minister’s crown, perhaps the most precious legacy of the Blair era. But peace in Labour is more elusive. Comrade Corbyn’s plot to airbrush the previous party leader out of the picture is personal. Refusing to share a Brexit referendum platform with Blair and wishing to put him in the dock over Iraq were political. Northern Ireland is more intimate: Corbyn was pilloried for IRA talks and Blair threatened to withdraw the whip after the Islington North MP met Gerry Adams before the 1997 election. The Labour plan, by the way, is to keep the celebrations real – focusing on humble folk, not grandees such as Blair.

Beleaguered Tory Europeans call Brextremist backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg – the hard-line European Research Group’s even harder line no-dealer – “Lord Snooty” behind his back. The Edwardian poshie, who orchestrates Theresa May’s taxpayer-funded Militant Tendency (members of the Brexit party within a party are able to claim “research” fees on expenses), is beginning to grate. My irritated snout moaned that the Beano was more fun and twice as informative as the Tories’ own Lord Snooty.

Labour’s Brexit fissures are getting bigger but Remainers are also far from united. I’m told that Andy Slaughter MP is yet to forgive Chuka Umunna for an “ill-timed” pro-EU amendment to last June’s Queen’s Speech, which led to Slaughter’s sacking from the front bench for voting to stay in the single market. The word is that a looming customs union showdown could trigger more Labexits unless Jezza embraces tariff-free trade.

Cold war warriors encouraging a dodgy Czech spy to smear Comrade Corbyn couldn’t be further from the truth about his foreign adventures. In Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Corbyn recalled spending a night in Burundi pumping up footballs. The club offered to donate shirts for an aid trip but he asked for the balls to be shared by entire African villages. He was War on Want, not Kim Philby.

Screaming patriot Andrew Rosindell, the chairman of an obscure flags and heraldry committee, is to host a lecture in parliament on the Union Jack. I once witnessed the Romford Tory MP dress Buster, his bull terrier, in a flag waistcoat to greet Maggie Thatcher. She walked past without noticing.

A Tory MP mused that Iain Duncan Smith was nearly nicknamed “Smithy”, not “IDS”, for his 2001 leadership campaign. Smithy would still have proved a lousy commander.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia