Four reflections on Brexit and borders on the island of Ireland.
You will never know unless you go
A fisherman clad in a green anorak sits in a boat on a golden-hued lake as a lilting Irish voiceover intones “Everyone has heard of Northern Ireland, but what’s it really like?” Next, we spy a woman serving the fisherman’s gleaming catch at a dinner table overlooking Lough Macnean in County Fermanagh. This is quickly followed by a young boy standing in a steam train cab as it winds across a vertiginous clifftop overlooking the swell of greenish blue and ombre browns of one of Northern Ireland’s spectacular beaches: Downhill Strand in Derry/Londonderry. The boy’s voice enthuses, “I bet you haven’t got beaches this long.” As the train disappears, we are greeted by the booted feet of a man crossing a rope bridge fixed filigree-like over the ocean between looming cliff tops in County Antrim. The sepia light is dreamlike, drawing us into what seems like a place apart. To close, fiddle music clouds the air and a smiling older woman sitting at a candlelit bar counter tells us, “You will never know unless you go.”
“The Northern Ireland you will never know unless you go” advert was created by the Northern Ireland tourism board in the 1990s. It was broadcast on television in the Republic of Ireland in an attempt to show a Northern Ireland distinct from the conflict (known as the Troubles) and sectarianism that had come to define it. The advert was one of my first experiences, as a Southern Irish child, of Northern Ireland. Like many Irish people living in the Republic of Ireland (with the exception of border counties) I had never been to Northern Ireland and would not visit for many years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. My experience of Northern Ireland during the Troubles was a mediated one. Watching this advert in tandem with newsclips of bombings, protests, and children being prevented from walking to school because of their cultural identity obliterated the desire to see even the most beautiful of landscapes, shrouded in the myth and magic of another, more ancient Ireland. The advert revealed the ghosts in our story—the borders, abandonments, and wounds that have placed a stranglehold on relationships on the island of Ireland since partition in 1921. These are the walls that have shaped us all (see also Carr 2017), maybe even more so those who fear to cross such caesuras of national self-definition.
The 2018 Booker Prize winner and Northern Irish writer Anna Burns (in her superb novel Milkman) sums up this paranoia of geography and identity as a “hair-trigger society”; the threat of this trigger preserves the troubled fault lines of this small wounded island of Ireland.
We were afraid to cross this border.World is crazier and more of it than we think
“How could we be refugees? A refugee is someone who is forced to leave their own country. We don’t recognize the border nor will we ever—perhaps internally displaced might have been a better term.”
I sit shaking in an empty classroom in a town close to the border. I have started to ask the man I am interviewing about the experience of Northern Irish Catholics who came to the Republic of Ireland at the start of the Troubles, deemed political refugees by the Irish State. I am not prepared for his anger. I am not prepared for him shouting at me as I leave the room that this issue of the border “is not over yet.” He is a Northern Irish ex-republican prisoner. I have insulted his Irishness with a fraught line of questioning.
A drive from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland in 2019 will bring one past large protest signs indicating border communities’ stance against Brexit and the possibility of a hard border. To understand why the return of a hard border is so concerning, one has to understand the long history of colonialism, conflict, and partition on the island. When the “Irish Free State” was founded in 1922 and partition lines excluded the geographical region now known as Northern Ireland, the Irish State worked hard to instantiate a particular kind of Irishness closely bound up with the new territorial state. Out of what was once a 32-county Ireland, 6 counties remained as part of the United Kingdom. In the main, the Irish (Catholic) population in Northern Ireland accurately (and acutely) felt a strong sense of abandonment, which would infuse generational positionalities with respect to the Republic of Ireland for many years (and perhaps still does). There were multiple paradoxes embedded in the building of an Irish Free State vis-à-vis the United Kingdom, and a bordering process that engendered physical and imaginary walls within walls. Intrinsic to this was the positioning of an Irishness deemed as fundamentally opposite to Englishness—with a policy of Gaelicization featuring large in the Irish State’s poetic reinvention of Ireland and Irishness (see Ferriter 2019 and O’ Toole 2018). As such, relationships on the island of Ireland after partition were often imbued with a form of misrecognition that continues to eclipse our commonalities and connections.
The bullyingly oppressive agenda of Brexiteers in the United Kingdom is utterly inimical to a Northern Ireland and cross-border relations forged anew through years of peacemaking and reconciliation. “Regimes of ignorance” (Dilley and Kirsch 2015) have consolidated the worldview of Brexiteers who feel justified in their intolerance, calumnies, and fabrications. This has been particularly acute with respect to statements made about Ireland, one examples being Tory MP Priti Patel arguing that the threat of food shortages in Ireland could be used as leverage against the Irish State’s stance on the border. What is most striking is how little of the history of colonialism and conflict on the island of Ireland is known on mainland Britain. Whether down to a paucity of historical education or a broader disidentification with the foundational buttress of the “United Kingdom,” the outcome remains the same: a culture of elitism reigns, one benighting other ways of relatedness and belonging. Inherent in this is an unwillingness to consider the lives of those living in the margins of the United Kingdom and the material and symbolic implications of Brexit on their everyday experiences.
The Northern Irish crime writer Eoin McNamee (2019) has said of all of this that “It is not that we will refuse to go back to the border as it was. It is that we cannot go back, any more than Germany could return to the Berlin Wall, any more than Argentina could go back to the disappeared.”
A hard border is understood as an offense to the dignity and rights of people in Northern Ireland who believe in the absence of one as betokening a sense of cultural unity on the island; the seamlessness of movement, the easy to-ing and fro-ing of the everyday distinguishing an Irishness transcending of borders and walls.
“Jacob Rees-Mogg you’re right. You don’t need to visit the border… you need to have lived here.” Actor Stephen Rea in the short film Brexit: A Cry from the Irish Border.
We cannot go back to this border.
The Dublin–bound bus I am travelling on from Belfast is stopped. There are no markings, no signifiers, but I know from my multiple crossings that we are close to the border. Irish (the Gardai) and Northern Ireland police officers (the PSNI) board our bus. An abrupt PSNI officer asks me for my passport. I do not have it on me. I do not need to have it on me. I tell him so.
I have developed a keen awareness of the walls and borders on our island. I am conscious of it in my work and it infuses my language in the classroom. It is the ambiguity of these walls, borders, and identities that I struggle most with in everyday spaces in Northern Ireland. How do I describe who I am, where I come from, or where I am in a given moment? Southern Ireland, down South, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, the North of Ireland, up North, Northern Irish, Irish, British, British-Irish, Irish-British, the United Kingdom, the border? In the confusion of my language of place and person, my hesitations and silences—all indicators of political and cultural positionalities—I embody the particularities of a border crosser on the island of Ireland.
A rich repository of work by artists, photographers, writers, and anthropologists documents the everyday lives and experiences of border dwellers and border crossers on the island of Ireland. Anthropologists Hastings Donnan and Thomas Wilson have written extensively about the agentive power of border lives (see also Graham 2017). For Donnan and Wilson, borders exist “as countless points of interaction, or myriad places of divergence and convergence” ( 2010: 7)—the Irish border encapsulates this profundity in complex socio-political and historical ways. In a moment of crisis such as this, there is an imperative to read this work that evokes the complexities of both dwelling with and crossing the Irish border as well as thinking on the symbolic borders and walls that continue to maintain spaces of identity politics and irreconciliation across Northern Ireland (see the extensive work of Dominic Bryan and Neil Jarman; and Zenker 2016).
The Good Friday Agreement brought about a broader acceptance of and freedom to carry a multiplicity of identities in Northern Ireland. As the Northern Irish writer Jan Carson (2019) eloquently says of such experiences, “Like many people in the North of Ireland I have two passports. I go through a psychological wrestling match each time I approach the check-in desk. I’m still working out who I am.” For some, this particular concatenation of identity and place remains a challenge of the imagination (see also Vieten 2019). Yet, recent social scientific research evinces a shift toward an embrace of a Northern Irish identity no longer affiliated with the dogmas of central political parties and encompassing of all the fluidity of the region (see Hayward and McManus 2019). This is what the Northern Ireland poet Louis MacNeice summed up best (and long before the Good Friday agreement) as the fact of “being various” on the island of Ireland.
With the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union accompanied by increased unrest in Northern Ireland, the politicized quagmires of identity, place, and nation in the remaining spaces of irreconciliation have once again become alarmingly compounded. It is these walls new and old that threaten to undo the immense peacebuilding and cross-border work on the island of Ireland (see the work of Roger Macginty). The dormant voices and conjured remembrances of an egregious hard border and conflict engender grave apprehensions among those of us who live and work here, regardless of political and religious ideology.
We have lived this border.
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses
“I am tired of living beside this border,” the short, gray-haired woman tells me as I ask about daily life in a beautiful medieval village situated on the border with Northern Ireland. “We want to move now, as far South as we can, away from what will surely become a troublesome place to live again with Brexit.”
My bed and breakfast host narrates the difference between life near the border during the Troubles and after the Good Friday Agreement. Although her love of this abundant place so bound up with Irish myth and legend illuminates her face as she speaks, Brexit, old tensions, and the resurrection of symbolic, metaphoric, and real borders has propelled her to place her home on the market and move.
Brexit has awoken the issue of a united Ireland. While the Good Friday Agreement has provisions for a vote on unity, the issue has long been aspirational, a desire positioned in the distant future. Yet, many versions of unity exist through a broad range of cross-border cooperations from ambulance services to sporting associations- many of which Brexit may well jeopardize. Legal scholar Colin Harvey (2019) tells us that the question of unity is a necessary debate in a “radically new context that demands fresh thinking.”
The debate on unification, while embracing discussion of new ways of being Irish in a united Ireland, is also replete with potential for opening old wounds and enduring tensions that Fintan O’Toole (2018) shrewdly terms “inherited anxieties.” In the wake of the referenda on same-sex marriage (2015) and abortion (2018), the Republic of Ireland underwent somewhat of a rethinking of what contemporary Irishness should look like in favour of a “post-Catholic” (Ganiel 2016), postcolonial, and more European Irishness (see O’Dubhghaill 2019 for more on this). The prospect of unity brings a new hue to this reimagining.
We are tired of borders.
Note: The titles of reflections two through four come from “Snow” by the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice.
Fiona Murphy is an anthropologist working in the School of History, Anthropology, Political Science, and Philosophy and a fellow of the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security, and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She works on displacement issues in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Australia.
Anthony Haughey is an artist, lecturer, and researcher in the Dublin Institute of Technology where he supervises practice-based PhD students. His scholarly writing has been published in more than 80 publications and his artworks are represented in national and international public and private collections. He is an editorial advisor for the journal Photographies, a board member of Fire Station Artist Studios, and a member of the Arts Council Acquisitions Committee.
Cite as: Murphy, Fiona. 2019. “The Emerald Curtain.” Anthropology News website, November 15, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1311