Tuesday 20 August 2019

Brexit stirring ghosts of past in fearful Border communities

Troubled times: Children on the streets of Belfast alongside a British soldier on the eve of the funeral of Bobby Sands. Photo: Photocall Ireland
Troubled times: Children on the streets of Belfast alongside a British soldier on the eve of the funeral of Bobby Sands. Photo: Photocall Ireland
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

Where we come from informs our perspective, and our formative years shape our life experience.

I've spent much of my life in a state of semi-denial about growing up in a Border town in Northern Ireland during the Troubles - nobody wants to play the Troubles card.

Like many young people from Northern Ireland, I'm fiercely proud of my roots. But I chose not to study there, chose not to pursue a career at home, in no small part to get away from the conflict that defined our early lives which, in many respects, were completely banal and ordinary.

Childhood flashbacks abound.

The two and three-hour tailbacks at the Border between our home in Newry (where my father is from) and Dundalk (where my mother is from).

The chaos when those tailbacks were not due to customs and trade checks, but due to a bomb scare - or worse - the reason why that stretch of road earned the macabre moniker 'bomb alley'.

The backroads of South Armagh late at night owing to the detour your family had to take because of a security scare.

The sole red light circling, motioning your vehicle to stop. The sudden silence and the growing panic of not knowing, as the red light came closer, if it was the RUC, the army, the UVF or the IRA bidding you to halt.

Fleeting memories. A kind dinner lady in the school yard telling us that the big explosion we heard was a van door closing. The naïve group of small children believing her, despite the sounds of sirens and the sight of black clouds of smoke billowing towards the sky outside of our school walls.

The rattling of bin lids during the night or the British army in your garden in the morning as you went to school. Barely kids themselves, the soldiers were as fearful of us as we were of them.

Mad stuff, when you think of it.

Ever since the Brexit vote, I've challenged myself not to summon the ghosts of the past, not to look at the fraught decision by the British electorate to leave the European Union solely through the lens of the Border and of my youth.

To appreciate other perspectives and other people's life experiences.

I've close friends who are Brexiteers, ardent and sincere ones to boot, who I've implored time and time again to convince me of the rationale of voting leave and the benefits, social and economic, of doing so.

British friends who get the Irish question, but don't think it should get in the way of a definitive break from Europe - and if it's no deal and a hard Brexit that leads to a hard border as collateral, so be it.

You try to imagine such a future in which Brexit might ultimately yield positives, like the way Australia managed when Britain joined the single market - even though it took decades for some sectors to recover.

But it's hard to escape the past or, more correctly, the fear of returning there.

This was brought home to me recently when I compered a number of Getting Ireland Brexit Ready seminars - or 'Brexpos' - for businesses staring down the barrel of Brexit and trying to prepare for unknown outcomes.

Arguably the most visceral Brexpo, a whole-of-government initiative to help steel businesses for a wide range of scenarios, was held in Monaghan which, like many Border towns, is on the frontline of Brexit.

For many in the Border region, Brexit is already here - some businesses have never recovered from the initial depreciation of sterling after the 2016 poll.

It's hard to describe the interdependence of lives and livelihoods in Border areas, the seamless way families and workers traverse invisible lines once peppered with roadblocks and obstacles, physical and psychological.

At the Monaghan Brexpo, businesses were encouraged to diversify - not a bad thing, and something businesses should always seek to do. They were encouraged to pivot to new markets and educate themselves to navigate the forthcoming customs and tariffs jungle.

When told of special Budget 2019 measures to build a post-Brexit customs regime, many shuddered in horror, knowing that is was customs posts that witnessed the first shots of the Troubles.

Business owners asked questions that were hard to hear. Do we treat Northern Ireland as a third country? Do we quit suppliers in the North, including farmers who are our neighbours? Do we quit sourcing products or managing supply chains via the UK? Many already have.

In recent weeks, the political messaging surrounding Brexit has intensified, and not in a good way, on both sides of the Irish Sea.

In holding the Brexpos, the Government is treading a fine line between project fear and the prospect of harsh practicalities.

Businesses are now being told to prepare for the worst as politicians strive for the best deal.

The specifics of the Government's no-deal contingency plans, which have been submitted to the European Commission, have been kept under wraps, presumably to avoid panicking the general public. But do we need to know?

Whatever deal is reached, relationships between Britain and Ireland are fundamentally changing. And decisions made now in the face of Brexit uncertainty could shape this island's destiny in ways we can't yet imagine.

But as a prisoner of hope, the biblical phrase made famous by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I pray that our troubled past will ensure a peaceful future, whatever deal is done.

Irish Independent

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