On the far side of borders, a new Ireland is taking shape

Posted By: October 09, 2021



Evidence is mounting that Northern Ireland is failing. A different constitutional future seems increasingly likely

Susan McKay. The Guardian. London Saturday, October 9, 2021
(Susan McKay is an Irish writer and journalist whose books include Northern Protestants – On Shifting Ground.)

A powerful new play has just opened at Belfast’s Lyric theatre. The Border Game,

by Michael Patrick and Oisín Kearney, is a fractured love story and a sharp political satire about the legacy of partition. Its setting is an abandoned customs hut on boggy ground beside a broken barbed-wire fence that marks The Border between Northern Ireland, where Henry lives, and the Republic, where Sinead lives. The play is moving, honorable, and just a little bit messy. You get the impression the ending might change in the course of its run. But somehow this rawness at the edges seems quite befitting.

The former lovers, who still appear to be in love, attempt to tell each other why they separated, each of them wounded by the conviction that it was the choice of the other. They have survived, but they are haunted by the proximity of others who did not. There is a ruinous sense of responsibility to the dead. Resorting to desperate hilarity, they come up with a word: “Borderfucked. Twelve letters. The condition of being fucked economically, socially, and psychologically due to the stroke of a pen. Common in Ireland, the Middle East, and all over the fucking world.”

The Border in Ireland, Patrick and Kearney suggests, is misunderstood. “To Dublin, it is a no man’s land, to Belfast, it is a bog of culchies. To London, it is a place of bandits and criminals.” To the likes of Sinead and Henry, it is home. Partition was anything but a clean break.

Brexit has ravaged Unionism. A Protestant businessman from The Border region told me recently: “The DUP didn’t want a deal. They wanted a Border.” They got a border, but it wasn’t the one they wanted. Unionism’s leaders, all men again, gathered last week at the behest of the Orange Order on the steps of Stormont in a show of unity against the border in the Irish Sea. The unionist family lineup included a former loyalist paramilitary – Billy Hutchinson – alongside the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, which berates the DUP for sharing power with Sinn Féin because that party includes former terrorists.

At the Tory party conference, the DUP talked tough at fringe events. Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s leader, intimated again that if the government did not act, he could collapse the devolved institutions at Stormont. The DUP likes the sound of “triggering article 16”, but everyone knows the Brexit deal relies upon some version of the protocol surviving the months or years of wrangling that would follow. So unperturbed was Boris Johnson that he did not even mention the protocol in his speech. The EU is offering what it says are transformational changes. Meanwhile, the business sector wants stability.

Back home, the lord mayor of Belfast turned off all the lights at the City Hall this week to demonstrate disgust at the cruelty of the cut to universal credit. Northern Ireland’s NHS is teetering on the brink of collapse. Evidence is accumulating that Northern Ireland is failing and the British government does not care. Inevitably, nationalists, republicans and a growing number of others are looking to the prospect of a different kind of constitutional future. There is talk about the potential for a Border Poll that could bring The North out of the UK and into a new union with the Republic and within the EU, which a majority of Northern Irish voters never wanted to leave.

Referendums would be required in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. An Observer poll in August found that among Northerners, 49% would vote to remain in the UK, 42% would vote for a united Ireland, and 9% were undecided. Other polls show variations. Crucially, among those aged under 45, there is overwhelming support for unity.

In The North, several civil society organizations are advocating for a new Ireland. They hold public meetings, publish research, debate the merits of citizens’ assemblies, look at international models and consider timeframes. The debacle of the rushed Brexit vote stands as a warning. There is an emphasis on inclusiveness, and the approach taken is non-confrontational. For the most part, people are treading carefully.

There’s a ballad depicting the provinces of Ireland as four green fields, one of them stolen by strangers, and plenty of belligerent songs about the imperative to seize back those six Ulster counties, to make Ireland “a nation once again”.

In 1998 the Republic abandoned its claim to the whole territory of the island, and plenty thought that was the end of it. But peace in The North has had some unforeseen consequences for conservatives in the Republic. Polls show Sinn Féin is now the most popular party, a position it also currently holds in The North. The old enemies Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have contorted themselves into a coalition to keep Sinn Féin out of government. There is much casting up of IRA atrocities during Dáil debates, though bizarrely the role of Sinn Féin in the Northern executive is not questioned.

The writer Colm Tóibín wrote in the Guardian last week that Sinn Féin was “a specter haunting Ireland”, and dismissed as “mystical blather” the aspiration to a united Ireland claimed by the taoiseach and other government ministers. But the latest poll in the Republic shows 67% of people support reunification.

The power of Seamus Heaney’s poetic imperative from 1990 – “hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge” – has perhaps been diminished by how frequently politicians quote these lines. But Heaney understood and honored the tremendous ambition for peace and reconciliation that would come to fruition in the Good Friday agreement. Some of those who campaigned for it were people who had seen loved ones murdered, families destroyed, communities torn apart – by the IRA, loyalist paramilitaries, the British army, and others. They urged people to vote for an end to violence – and to the politics of hatred and competing grievance.

A new Ireland will dismantle power structures on both sides of the current Border and rebuild them for the good of all. It is not dangerous for people to talk about creating a new state based on equality out of the wreckage of two that was sectarian and rife with injustice. To suggest otherwise is nothing but pure borderfuckery.

  • Susan McKay is an Irish writer and journalist whose books include Northern Protestants – On Shifting Ground