Blood and Brexit

Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

Wreckage forming a barricade after a riot, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1981

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 Mid Ulster during the spate of tit-for-tat killings, as they were called. We remember all the bomb scares and evacuations and fear. We remember all the bombs. We remember all the shootings. We remember being turned back from going to school at a checkpoint by masked men with baseball bats. I 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.

Last year 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. 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 anti-depressants (at almost three times, say, the rate of England). 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 were 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 last week 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, of course. The loyalist atrocities were just as bad. In a tiny country of a million and a half people, over three and a half thousand were killed in the Troubles. Almost fifty thousand 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. Unfounded confidence, the 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 as I’d tell 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.

Last week I filled out my postal vote for the upcoming British general election, and watched Boris Johnson being interviewed by a political journalist, Andrew Marr, on the BBC. It got me thinking again about the public schoolboy’s 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 actually challenged, reminded me of those public schoolboys who felt entitled to act however they liked with impunity. Johnson is our version of Trump, except that Trump’s entitlement comes from money and whiteness and Johnson’s comes from class.

The British have spent three years discussing Brexit, taking no meaningful action on climate change or poverty or violent crime, and we’re here because David Cameron decided to have a referendum to pacify a tiny impotent section of the Conservative’s euro-skeptic wing, without setting proper parameters, or clarifying what it meant, or even setting a majority figure to be reached. 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 former special adviser to the prime minister, Dominic Cummings—who worked for years in Russia—has refused to come before Parliament and answer questions about the self-admitted electoral interference that Vote Leave committed.

We are now in the situation where the chief adviser of the prime minister in Parliament was judged to have been in contempt of that Parliament. Leave.EU—the organization allied with Nigel Farage that Arron Banks (the son-in-law of a Russian state official) funded—is also related to Robert Mercer. Mercer funded Bannon and Breitbart News, and co-founded and partly owned Cambridge Analytica, which targeted voters with ads on social media leading up to Trump’s election and to the Brexit referendum. 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, refuses to release a report on Russian interference in the Brexit referendum until after the general election.

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 off-hand 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 for the reactionary newspaper the Daily Telegraph—one for and one against Brexit—and it was only his single-minded pursuit of power, it seems, that led him to choose Leave as being the path most likely to lead to his becoming prime minister. Think about that. Think about someone now steering an entire country toward a cliff edge he cares not at all whether we 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 has no working majority with or without the DUP, our prime minister is now free to play fast and loose with Northern Ireland, which comes naturally to him. But it appears that repeatedly explaining that the technology would turn up to create a miraculously invisible border didn’t wash with the EU. So 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 Johnson has moved the border from the island of Ireland to the Irish Sea, and predictably the Democratic Unionist Party are—in the local parlance—ripping, even though it’s clear they helped bring it about themselves. 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 Fein posters advocating Remain. “Well,” he said, “I thought, if these bastards are voting Remain, I’m voting Leave.”

Now, though, hardline 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 went on: “Tonight was about taking the temperature and it’s sky high.”

The arrogance of the Etonians—of David Cameron’s feckless, reckless, senseless decision to hold a referendum, and now of Boris Johnson’s lies and casual betrayals of unionism (the Conservative Party’s full moniker is, ironically, the Conservative and Unionist Party)—is going to prompt 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.

At next week’s general election it looks like the Tories will get back in, so malignant and unrelenting have the right-wing media’s attacks been on Jeremy Corbyn. Neither has he helped his case, refusing to back Remain. One might ask how many elections he has to lose before he resigns. Plus, his stance on everything from anti-Semitism to the IRA (whose terrorism for many years he refused to unequivocally condemn) has made it hard for many to wholeheartedly endorse him. If Johnson gets the majority that the polls currently predict, he will take it as a mandate for a hard Brexit, and so we will travel further along the path to our own destruction. Northern Ireland will be left 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, has 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 stated:

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 last-minute Brexit divorce deal Johnson announced with the EU on October 17 allowed Northern Ireland to remain “aligned” with the EU’s single market, but also to somehow effectively remain part of the UK’s custom territory, meaning it would supposedly benefit from any future free trade deals. In fact, and 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 in fact coming from the Republic, i.e., from the EU. Checks on goods would also have to be performed the other way round, 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.
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 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 Fein’s Martin McGuinness, a leader of the IRA. I had dinner once 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” called 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.

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