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Blood and Brexit

People jumping off a wall, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 1971
Don McCullin/Contact Press Images
Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 1971

If I dream, it invariably takes the form of being hunted by men with guns—in a house, in a forest, on a street. Sometimes these dreams end with me being shot, sometimes with me stabbing someone. I only ever stab someone, even though, growing up, we had a gun, illegally, in the house—a double-barreled shotgun that my father kept beneath his bed and that we’d use occasionally for shooting rabbits. In my dreams I never see the face of the man I’m stabbing. I’ve had these dreams all my adult life. Maybe they’re common among people like me, maybe they’re not. By “people like me,” I mean people who grew up in Ulster, who from our earliest moments were wary, were used to watching everything for some sign, however small, that things were not quite right.

We lived in Tyrone in Mid Ulster during the spate of tit-for-tat killings, as they were called. We remember all the bombs and evacuations and fear. We remember all the shootings. We remember being turned back from going to school at a checkpoint by masked men with baseball bats. We remember driving around a hijacked burning car we were terrified would explode. Each evening the new scores of dead and injured were reported on the news. The hijackings, the evacuations, the bomb scares. Relatives shot or forced to flee their homes at night. We took an hour to travel the two miles to school every day so the squaddies could stop each car at the sangers—concrete bunkers at either end of town, manned by British soldiers—and check the trunk and look in our schoolbags. The usual checklist of Ulster strife, catalogs of close scrapes and witnessings and griefs. When men tried to break into the house one evening I took and loaded the shotgun, and propped it up on cushions and aimed it at the living room door, sitting terrified in the dark until my parents came home.

In 2018 with the director Brian Hill I made a BBC documentary, The Life After, which simply allowed a few of those who had suffered the loss of loved ones in the Troubles—partners or children or siblings—to speak about their experiences (we got funding for it by making it into an arts show, so I wrote some linking lyrics and little poems based on their testimonies for them to read to the camera). No one ever recovers from the kinds of losses these people have suffered: a daughter going out dancing and never coming home, a brother abducted in a pub and tortured and murdered and dumped on a hillside, a son stabbed on his way home.

According to a 2012 study, Northern Ireland has the highest levels of mental illness in the UK. In 2008 39 percent of the population of Northern Ireland reported experiencing a traumatic event relating to the Troubles. As with all such public admissions, the real figure can be presumed to be substantially higher. A 2015 analysis showed that childhood trauma stemming from the conflict has been a major factor in the development of psychopathology in Northern Ireland.1 Related to these factors are extremely high rates of suicide, by far the highest in the UK. Northern Ireland is also a world leader in the use of antidepressants (at almost three times, say, the rate of England).2 Corresponding to that are high rates of abuse of all kinds, and addiction to drugs and alcohol. The Northern Irish are world-class drinkers.

Much of our lives in the Troubles was spent in a defensive crouch, being wrong by just existing. We were liable to be anxious. An old friend of mine, a Catholic and a fellow poet from Belfast, was in New York City recently and described being told once to “check her privilege.” She had replied that the privilege her identity had given her was a mild form of PTSD. The phrase “identity politics” has a darker resonance in Northern Ireland.

Every evil act I’ve ever seen committed was done in the name of identity. The IRA killed my friend D. in a bomb that shook the windows of the living room I was sitting in because he was a Protestant. The IRA shot my girlfriend’s uncle as he was delivering bread because he was a Protestant. The IRA kidnapped my friend N.’s family and made him drive a bomb to a police station because he was a Protestant. And the reverse is true. The loyalist atrocities were just as bad. In a tiny country of a million and a half people, over 3,500 were killed in the Troubles. Almost 50,000 were seriously injured. We already did identity politics in Northern Ireland: it didn’t work out so well. And while we were waiting around for Northern Ireland to become more like the rest of the world, the rest of the world turned into Northern Ireland: partisan, oppositional, identity-focused.

Northern Ireland is now a different place from the place I spent my childhood wanting out of. I attended Cookstown High School, a large comprehensive with a big rural catchment, and my teacher filled out my form for Cambridge, including choosing the college I’d eventually go to. I’d never been there. No one I knew had been to Oxbridge or anywhere near it. No one I knew had gone to university in England. My father was a grocer’s son from Donegal and didn’t go to university. My mother’s family were farmers from Armagh, and having gotten a scholarship to Trinity, Dublin, she dropped out after one term when she met my father. She did an Open University course when I was growing up.

Cambridge was a culture shock. I was the only Northern Irishman in my year at the college, and I discovered that Englishmen who had gone to public school (that is, paradoxically, private school) possessed a boundless self-confidence often only loosely connected to their talents or intelligence. Seven percent of British children attend public school, though when I attended Cambridge they made up more than half of the students. Class privilege is pervasive at Cambridge, as it is in all British public life, particularly among those who attended the loftier schools, like David Cameron and Boris Johnson’s alma mater, Eton. Confidence, founded or not, and its tone of authority will take you far.

In the college bar in which I worked I can remember having to regularly usher out a certain old Etonian, a nasty drunk, who, when I told him that he had to leave, would scream some variation on Bogtrotter, why don’t you fuck off? or Go back to where you came from, Paddy. He didn’t worry that he’d offended me. It was his privilege not to have to.

Boris Johnson, that quintessential old Etonian, now has the largest Conservative majority since the days of Thatcher; his landslide is being hailed as a mandate for a hard Brexit. It seems certain the UK will leave the EU at the end of January, and that will have severe consequences for Northern Ireland. Johnson’s withdrawal agreement will, by most estimates, devastate the Northern Irish economy: it will bring back the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, introduce a new border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, revitalize the continuing dissident Republican terrorism, precipitate civil disorder and unrest from the Loyalist community, and destroy the brittle peace established with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Watching Johnson interviewed on the BBC just before the election got me thinking again about the Etonian I knew at Cambridge, and his arrogance and racism toward Northern Ireland and the Northern Irish. To hear Johnson lie repeatedly, to witness his bluster and ranting, and his real rage when he was challenged, reminded me that there is a certain type of English public schoolboy who feels entitled enough to act, with impunity, in any way he likes. Johnson is our version of Trump, except that Trump’s entitlement comes from money and whiteness and Johnson’s comes from class. And now Johnson has been given carte blanche by the electorate to enact his far-right agendas.

The British have spent three and a half years discussing Brexit, taking no meaningful action on climate change or poverty or violent crime during that time; and we’re here because Cameron decided to have a referendum to pacify a tiny impotent section of the Conservatives’ Euroskeptic wing, without setting proper parameters, or clarifying what it meant, or even setting a majority threshold to be reached before its result would be acted upon. Ironically, if the referendum had actually been binding and not advisory, they would have been forced to rerun it by now, since the Brexiteers broke electoral laws and campaigned on lies. The chief special adviser to the prime minister, Dominic Cummings—who worked for three years in Russia—has refused to come before Parliament and answer questions about the self-admitted electoral interference that Vote Leave committed.

Even before the election, we were in a situation in which the chief adviser of the prime minister in Parliament was judged to have been in contempt of that Parliament. The corruption is pervasive: Leave.EU—the organization allied to Nigel Farage that Arron Banks (the son-in-law of a Russian state official) funded—received for free (and didn’t declare) the services of Cambridge Analytica, which targeted swing voters via Facebook. Cambridge Analytica, an offshoot of a military disinformation and “election management” company, was cofounded and part-owned by Robert Mercer, the hedge-fund billionaire who helped fund Trump’s election campaign. Cambridge Analytica’s vice-president was Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. Mercer also funded Breitbart News. It’s not hard to see what’s going on here. Cui bono? as lawyers like to ask. The Conservatives, like the Republicans, are in deep with Moscow. Johnson, outrageously, refused to release a report on Russian interference in the Brexit referendum until after the general election in December.

Now that Johnson has his majority, he is threatening to “review” the BBC and Channel 4 (both public broadcasters), and who knows what deals he will strike with the US—on everything from the National Health Service to fracking to food standards—in order to get a trade agreement. Britain, in all of these negotiations, will have no leverage. They will be desperate to get agreements, and their prospective trading partners know it. The idea that the Tories will “Get Brexit Done,” which was their electoral slogan, is of course nonsense, since the actual work of negotiating and ratifying trade agreements will take years—Canada’s deal with the EU, for instance, took seven years to negotiate and was twenty-two years in the making.

Johnson has pledged to review “the broader aspects of our constitution,” including “the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the royal prerogative,” and to set up a “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission that will…come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.” Many fear this is code for enacting revenge against the UK Supreme Court for reversing Johnson’s suspension of Parliament this past September, when he refused to allow Parliament to sit in order to prevent scrutiny of the government’s plan to pull the Britain out of the EU. The manifesto also pledges to “update” the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, and has long been an irritant to the Conservative government, frequently cited against it in cases dealing with everything from taxation to immigration.

In truth, Johnson couldn’t care tuppence about Brexit: he is the sort of man who couldn’t care tuppence about anything, so studied is his nonchalance, so offhand his “brilliance.” He is, like Trump, without principles. The night before he decided to come out in support of Leave, he famously wrote two columns—one for and one against Brexit—for the reactionary newspaper the Daily Telegraph, and it was only his single-minded pursuit of power, it seems, that caused him to choose Leave as being the path most likely to lead to his becoming prime minister. Think about that. Think about someone now speeding an entire country toward a cliff edge they have no idea whether they should go over or not.

Johnson’s attitude to Northern Ireland is entirely typical of his class’s cavalier disdain for the non-English parts of the UK. The Leave campaign repeatedly said that Northern Ireland was not a problem—just as they said a trade deal could be struck in weeks. Johnson likened the Irish border to the boundary between Camden and Westminster. When it became clear that the border was, actually, a problem, Johnson abandoned the much misunderstood “backstop,” moving the border to the Irish Sea.

A note on that: the backstop was a solution that temporarily kept the United Kingdom in the EU Customs Union until a permanent solution could be found to avoid a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. If no “permanent solution” could be found, it would remain indefinitely. It came about when the UK rejected an EU proposal to institute customs checks in the Irish Sea, i.e., between Scotland/England/Wales and Northern Ireland. Maintaining the seamlessness of trade and travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland was a nonnegotiable requirement of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Since Theresa May’s government depended on the ten votes of the DUP, this became one of May’s “red lines.” In its first Brexit white paper, her government confirmed the UK’s observance of the constitutional framework laid out by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. As a result, the EU agreed to the backstop, extending the trade border to the whole of the UK.

But because May’s government fell, and Johnson’s had no working majority with or without the DUP, our prime minister was freed up to play fast and loose with Northern Ireland. Since repeatedly explaining that the technology would turn up to create a miraculously invisible border didn’t wash with the EU, Johnson decided that the integrity of the United Kingdom was a small price to pay for Brexit. (Indeed, it may well turn out that the UK itself is the price.)

Stating the obvious for the ignorant or willfully obtuse, George Hamilton, the chief constable of Northern Ireland, said in a Guardian interview last year:

If you put up significant physical infrastructure at a border which is the subject of contention politically, you are re-emphasising the context and the causes of the conflict. So that creates tensions and challenges and questions around people’s identity, which in some ways the Good Friday Agreement helped to deal with.

Now that Johnson commands a majority sufficient to push through his withdrawal agreement, the DUP will have to stand and watch as he destroys the union they claimed to defend. Johnson—in his last-minute Brexit agreement of October 17—moved the border from the island of Ireland to the Irish Sea, and predictably the Democratic Unionist Party are (in the local parlance) scundered, even though it’s clear to everyone that they helped bring this about. The DUP campaigned for Leave, even funneling £400,000 of unidentified funds to the Leave campaign. Northern Ireland itself voted by a majority of 56 percent to Remain. Many of those who voted Leave—particularly the farmers—are now experiencing buyers’ remorse, as they belatedly realize that EU subsidies will dry up and that markets for their goods (including, now, Great Britain) are not guaranteed.

The level of discourse about the Brexit vote in Northern Ireland was summed up for me by a guy I know named Norman, who at my mother’s wake a couple of years ago explained why he’d voted Leave. Since the living room was mostly full of Catholics, he leaned in close and said that one day he was driving through Coalisland, a Republican stronghold near our town, and saw all the Sinn Féin posters advocating Remain. “Well,” he said, “I thought, if these bastards are voting Remain, I’m voting Leave.”

Now, though, hard-line Unionists are waking up to what their party has brought about, and realizing the level of betrayal to which they’ve been subjected. On October 21 hundreds of loyalists gathered at the Constitutional Club in East Belfast: their message—as Jamie Bryson, a loyalist rabble-rouser and instigator of many of the flag protests, said—was that they “won’t walk meekly and quietly into an economic united Ireland,” which Johnson’s deal proposes. Bryson went on:

The anger is immense…. This was the people speaking. They have said they are fed up. They can take that message back to Boris Johnson. For three years [the Irish prime minister] Leo Varadkar and the Irish government said, ‘There can’t be a border on the island of Ireland where there will be a threat to peace, but it’s OK, we’ll shaft the loyalists and put a border in the Irish Sea.’ They are entering very dangerous territory.

He added, “Tonight was about taking the temperature and it’s sky high.”

The arrogance of the Etonians—of Cameron’s feckless, reckless, senseless decision to hold a referendum, and now of Johnson’s lies and casual betrayals of unionism (the Conservative Party’s full moniker is, ironically, the Conservative and Unionist Party)—is going to bring about the renewal of bloodshed in our battered little corner of the earth. The Good Friday agreement took many years to bring about, but like all truces it can be undone in an instant. Many of those currently being arrested in the province for terrorist offenses are young—that is, they’re privileged: they don’t remember the bad old days.

One of the reasons the Tories had such a huge victory is the malignant and unrelenting right-wing media’s attacks on Jeremy Corbyn. Neither did he help his case by refusing to back Remain. This is also why it’s a mistake to interpret the Tory landslide as a mandate to leave the EU: Labour was not campaigning to remain. In fact, voters frequently portrayed the election as a popularity poll between two much disliked men, and Corbyn was disliked even more than Johnson.

As for Brexit, Labour’s final agreed-on position was that they would renegotiate a withdrawal agreement “within six months” and then put that “credible withdrawal deal” against the Remain option in a public vote. The party committed to stay neutral on whether to leave or remain until a later date. Needless to say, this refusal to take a stand didn’t play well with voters of any stripe. Corbyn now says he won’t contest the next election (having lost two) but has not yet resigned. His stance on everything from anti-Semitism to the IRA (whose terrorism for many years he refused to unequivocally condemn) made it hard for many to wholeheartedly endorse him.

And so, with Johnson’s super-majority being taken as a mandate for a hard Brexit, the UK will travel further along the path to its own destruction. Because the Scottish National Party cleaned up (taking forty-eight of Scotland’s fifty-nine seats), calls for a new poll on Scottish independence will be hard to ignore, particularly as Scotland watches Northern Ireland remain in the EU customs union—even if it means that our country will have to negotiate a situation whereby goods, services, and people will have to undergo checks to reach another part of the UK.

Stephen Barclay, the Brexit secretary, confirmed that arrangements will have to be made in order to move goods or services or people from Northern Ireland to Britain, though Johnson, typically, has denied it. On a visit to the Tayto Castle potato-chip factory in Tandragee, Northern Ireland, Johnson said:

There will not be tariffs or checks on goods coming from GB to NI that are not going on to Ireland, that’s the whole point. The great thing that’s been misunderstood about this whole thing is—there will not be checks, there will not be checks, and I speak as the prime minister of the United Kingdom and a passionate unionist, there will not be checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain! Because we’re the government of the UK, and we will not institute, or enact such checks. The idea that Tayto crisps from Tandragee are going to be affected by some process is just nonsense, so actually Northern Ireland has got a great deal. You keep free movement, you keep access to the Single Market, but you also, as it says in the deal, have unfettered access to GB. We can also come out and do Free Traders [sic].

But saying doesn’t make it so. The Brexit divorce deal of October 17 allowed Northern Ireland to remain “aligned” with the EU’s single market, but also to somehow remain part of the UK’s custom territory, meaning it would supposedly benefit from any future free trade deals. Obviously, in order to strike free trade deals, other countries would have to be assured that the origin of goods in the UK market was certain, and the UK would have to carry out checks on all goods coming from Northern Ireland to make sure they weren’t coming from the Republic, i.e., from the EU. Checks on goods would also have to be performed the other way around, on goods coming from Britain into Northern Ireland. When Johnson made these claims, for months, he either didn’t know what he was talking about—which is possible—or he was lying. Also likely.

Since Johnson’s proposed withdrawal agreement will commit the EU (in the form of the Republic of Ireland) to check on goods coming from Northern Ireland to make sure they are coming from Northern Ireland and not England or Scotland or Wales, a border will also have to be operated between the North and the Republic. Anne McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, characterizes the arrangement thus:

The Prime Minister’s current deal effectively gives Northern Ireland two borders…. Anyone with a vested interest in the Northern Ireland economy [needs] to recognise the major risks to business growth and job creation and the serious consequences for young people seeking a career in Northern Ireland.

Ironically, the arrogance of Cameron and Johnson—in conjunction with the self-defeating stupidity of the DUP—may well do what a hundred years of killing couldn’t. Ireland was partitioned in 1921, and it may be that next year, or soon after, a border poll is held that will bring about a United Ireland. The DUP lost two seats in the December election: in North Belfast Nigel Dodds was unseated by Sinn Féin’s John Finucane (who benefited from a pro-Remain alliance with the Social Democratic and Labour Party, or SDLP; the Green Party stood aside), and in South Belfast Emma Little Pengelly lost to the SDLP’s Claire Hanna (with Sinn Féin and the Green Party standing aside). Following the election, Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin president, said, “It is now impossible to ignore the growing demand for a referendum on Irish unity and I want to reiterate Sinn Féin’s call for the Irish government to establish an all-Ireland forum on Irish unity without delay.”

The rationale for holding a referendum after twenty years of relative peace is strong. Since the two communities in Northern Ireland now have comparable sizes (the last census, in 2011, puts the figures at 40.8 percent Catholic and 41.6 percent non-Catholic Christians), the decision on whether or not to join the Republic will also be one of whether to rejoin the EU. The old binary national and religious distinctions would be complicated with economic questions, and questions about whether the Northern Irish want to be yoked to insular self-defeating Little Englanders who couldn’t care less about them, or to the largest single market in the world, which, for whatever its faults, was founded on the postwar ideals of peace and fraternity and prosperity.

Where I grew up, Mid Ulster, the member of Parliament since the late 1990s was Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, a leader of the IRA. At a dinner once, I was seated next to a lawyer who’d worked for George Mitchell, the former American senator who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement, and she told me that McGuinness was responsible, personally, for the deaths of three hundred people. I didn’t need to be told, but it was better than being buttonholed at a friend’s wedding years ago by an American literary agent eager to tell me that he’d just signed up a countryman of mine, “a great statesman” named Gerry Adams, another alleged IRA leader. American ignorance is one thing; imperial arrogance is another. And it’s imperial arrogance that is leading my country, again, into ruin. There will be bloodshed, and the blood will be on Boris Johnson’s hands. No matter how many lies he tells, or Latin tags he quotes, or stupid jokes he cracks, that blood will not wash off.

—December 19, 2019

This article originally appeared in somewhat different form on the NYR Daily.

  1. 1

    See Siobhan O’Neill and Nichola Rooney, “Mental Health in Northern Ireland: An Urgent Situation,” The Lancet, November 8, 2018.  

  2. 2

    See Jon McClure, “New Data Shows Northern Ireland Is a World Leader in Prescription Drug Use,” The Detail, November 17, 2014.