In last year’s referendum, a majority of Northern Irish citizens voted against Brexit. For the most part, unionists were for it, nationalists and republicans against. Overall, 56 per cent voted to remain in the EU. Along the border with the Republic of Ireland, that figure rose to 65 per cent, though many in these parts did not cast their vote. ‘I didn’t understand it,’ one local man, Mervyn Johnston, told me. On the map, the village of Pettigo, where Johnston lives, is all but obliterated by the strong red line of the border as it staggers drunkenly across the country. At the centre of the village, most of which lies in Co. Donegal in the Republic, is a statue that Johnston says is known as ‘the Quiet Man’. A stone figure in a trench coat and peaked cap makes as if to creep towards the old stone bridge over the fast-flowing River Termon. A plaque explains that it is dedicated to the proud memory of four young men who died there ‘fighting against British forces’ in 1922. ‘There’s a right crowd about it on Easter Sunday,’ Johnston said.
The centenary of the Easter Rising was carefully and elaborately marked in the Republic last year. Its leaders had proclaimed an Irish republic in which all citizens would be equal and the ‘differences fostered by an alien government which had divided a minority from the majority’ eradicated. The Protestant minority, concentrated in the north-east of the country, was not impressed. In 1917 Lloyd George warned Parliament that they were ‘alien in blood, in religious faith, in traditions, in outlook, as alien from the rest of Ireland as the inhabitants of Fife and Aberdeen’. Margaret Thatcher would agree, claiming that Northern Ireland was ‘as British as Finchley’. When Ireland was partitioned in 1921 Pettigo was cut in two. The IRA occupied the village, until the British army moved in to take it back. The men commemorated by the Quiet Man statue were killed in the battle that followed, along with a Northern policeman and a British soldier. When the blackout of 1939 came into force in Northern Ireland, homes on one side of the town were in darkness, while on the Irish side, which remained neutral during the war, the lights blazed on. The IRA made another attempt to remove the border with raids and bombs in the 1950s, but the campaign had little support and fizzled out. The Quiet Man’s gun continued to point across the border into what republicans called ‘British-occupied Ulster’ throughout the Troubles. It still does.
Johnston, who is 77, spends his time in the garage his step-grandfather set up in 1922, fixing up classic Minis and racing them. The garage is beside the river on the Northern side of the bridge. To get to it from the monument you walk past the old Irish customs hut, a rare survivor, made of corrugated iron and painted shamrock green, with yellow window frames.
‘The border runs down the middle of the river – there’s a crow’s foot carved on the stone on the bridge exactly where it is,’ Johnston said. Decades of Irish weather have worn it almost away but he traced it for me with his finger. Big trucks hurtled by – this is a short cut from south Donegal to Belfast and the boats to Scotland and England. ‘When the customs was here it was just a substation – the trucks were not allowed to use it,’ Johnston told me. ‘They had to go through one of the main clearance stations. You had to be careful what you bought on either side. You had to have a special pass and if it was after hours you had to make special arrangements. I wouldn’t like to see that start up again.’ He added that ‘the North men’ would cross the border for certain items, and people from ‘the State’ – as older people still call the Republic – would go to the North.
The European Single Market transformed the border in some ways, but it is still part of life. If a school closes on one side of the border, children can’t just move to a school on the other side – the curriculum and exam systems are separate. Johnston used to have petrol pumps but fuel is cheaper across the border so he gave them up. When his garage is burgled he can’t call the policeman from Pettigo but has to report to Enniskillen, twenty miles away. He can stroll across the bridge for a litre of milk, though if he buys a British tabloid it may be a different edition from the one he’d get in the North. Signs in the South are in kilometres, in the North they are in miles.
It is very clear travelling around the border that the major investor in recent years has been the EU. Domestic investment has tended to be concentrated in Dublin and Belfast, and the border region became and has remained one of the most disadvantaged parts of the island. A scattering of big houses is misleading – many of those who live in them built on family land and far more cheaply than would have been possible in more prosperous parts. However, some of the grander dwellings belong to smugglers, money launderers or others who have turned their location to advantage. In 2006, customs officers and police found thousands of pounds hidden in hay bales on the farm of a well-known republican whose land straddled the border.
During the Troubles that began in 1968 the British army blew up or blocked many of the hundreds of ‘unapproved roads’ and bridges across the border. Grass and wildflowers proliferated, breaking up tarmac with astonishing ease. Towns like Pettigo were cut off from their hinterland. Locals uprooted the ‘dragon’s teeth’ barriers, filled in craters and built makeshift bridges. After the ceasefires of 1994, European funds made possible the fine highways and wide concrete bridges that sweep you across the border today. Pettigo has many ruins and many empty shops, but it also has a new sports and conference centre, courtesy of EU grants.
The walls of Johnston’s garage are covered with photos of motor races – from the 1960s, right through the Troubles, to the present. An all Irish champion, he is also a Protestant and a unionist and a former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment. ‘The garage was blown up by the IRA about six times,’ he said. ‘An army bomb disposal man was killed trying to defuse one of the bombs. There was really nothing left standing on the Protestant side of the town.’ He survived a gun attack. The IRA succeeded in murdering another local man, Ronnie Funston. His brother, Ken, has recently spoken about how his parents, who had got on with their Catholic neighbours, felt betrayed and were too devastated to remain in the area. Ken Funston is a member of a victims’ group that campaigns for the rights of ‘innocent victims’ . Many unionists feel that the human rights machinery of the EU has been disproportionately used in favour of republicans, and reject demands for members of the security forces to be prosecuted in relation to Troubles killings.
Johnston said that by and large there had never been much animosity in Pettigo. ‘We mix and we are friendly,’ he said. He has put his own experience of violence behind him: ‘I never let those things dwell on my memory at all.’ The Termon rises in Lough Derg, a few miles away in Donegal. An EU-funded sign on another stone bridge notes that the river marks the ancient boundary of the monastic lands of Lough Derg. Station Island in the lake is a site of pilgrimage for Catholics – Seamus Heaney set a sequence of poems there involving dreamlike encounters with souls of the dead. Johnston and his father used to maintain the boats that ferry the pilgrims to and from the island. ‘Mind you it was a cold station,’ he says. ‘I was doing my penance.’
Arlene Foster, the now beleaguered leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, grew up in these lakelands. Her father was a part-time police officer and was shot and injured during the Troubles. She lives near the stately home of the late Lord Brookeborough, who, after the Northern Irish state was established, urged Protestant employers not to hire Catholics because their loyalty could not be relied on. He himself, he boasted, had ‘not one about my place’. From the start, unionism had to gerrymander elections in order to ensure the maintenance of what Sir James Craig, who became the first prime minister of Northern Ireland in 1921, called ‘a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state’.
Foster is a former solicitor who won a seat for the Ulster Unionist Party in 2003 and soon defected to the DUP, which staunchly opposed the Good Friday Agreement. She demonstrated a touch of the old Brookeborough arrogance when, as caretaker leader in 2015, she referred to members of the Assembly from Sinn Féin and the nationalist SDLP as renegades and rogues. The DUP has consistently blocked legislation backed by its partner in government, Sinn Féin, including a law to permit gay marriage. It has emerged that while Foster was first minister, grants under a community halls scheme were bestowed on groups linked to the Orange Order, and largely denied to Gaelic Athletic Association clubs. Last Christmas the DUP’s culture minister – a fan of loyalist marching bands – refused a small grant to a Belfast community group which planned to take some children to an Irish-speaking area. The DUP treats Irish with ostentatious contempt and has blocked the passage of an Irish language bill, despite having consented to introduce one as part of the post-Good Friday Agreement talks. There were many such slights. The DUP under Foster acted like majority rule had returned to Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin was effectively paralysed, but denied it, insisting against all the evidence late last year that the power-sharing arrangements were working.
In October, Foster, along with the then deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, went to London to meet Theresa May and discuss Brexit: Foster supported it; McGuinness opposed it. The DUP has been revelling in the British government’s reliance on its votes at Westminster (it has eight MPs; the government has a working majority of 17). After the referendum, the DUP was forced to reveal that several hundred thousand pounds had been channelled through the party to assist the Brexit cause in mainland UK – Ulster was being used as a version of the Cayman Islands. Foster brazened the scandal out, just as she had refused to stand down as first minister during an investigation into the scandal over a botched renewable energy scheme which will cost the public purse hundreds of millions of pounds, and over which she had presided as minister for enterprise. After McGuinness resigned, unable, he said, to tolerate the DUP’s arrogance any longer, though undoubtedly also because he was clearly very ill, the power-sharing government collapsed. Sinn Féin began to speak about its former partner in power like an abused spouse lately escaped from an intolerable marriage.
If you feed a crocodile, Foster declared, it will keep coming back for more. She was referring to her decision to renege on the commitment to Irish language legislation but the reference incensed the Catholic community. She issued dire warnings that a vote for Sinn Féin was a vote for Gerry Adams, with his scary past and his ruthless plans for a united Ireland. For many unionists, Brexit represents a way to thwart the gradual withering away of the border, the uniting of Ireland by stealth. The taoiseach, Enda Kenny, recently praised the Treaty of Rome as ‘one of the greatest peace agreements in history. Without it there could have been no Good Friday Agreement.’ As Fintan O’Toole noted, the agreement made Northern Ireland into ‘a kind of mini EU, a polity that runs, not on unilateral self-assertion, but on painful compromise and awkward consensus’. This isn’t Foster’s style. Her election strategy was to present people with a choice: unionist dominance or republican dominance.
The crocodiles bit back. After the election a grim-faced Foster locked herself in a room with her officials while crocodile-costumed republicans did victory dances with triumphant Sinn Féin MLAs. ‘See you later, alligator,’ one former IRA man shouted after her as she left. For the first time since partition, unionism failed to secure a majority in a Northern Irish parliament. Sinn Féin won 27 seats to the DUP’s 28, and took three of Fermanagh’s five seats, deposing Foster’s DUP colleague Lord Morrow. The results gave a considerable boost to the parties opposed to Brexit.
Thirty thousand people cross the Irish border every day for work. Farmers in the border areas rely heavily on EU subsidies. Irish racehorses are part of an all-island industry which relies on free movement. Irish cross-border trade is globalised. Chinese babies drink formula milk from cows grazed on pastures in Co. Down, brought into the Irish republic for processing and given EU health certification. The UK and Ireland are hugely important markets for each other’s goods and services. The EU has enabled a degree of integration of services between North and South. Cancer patients in the far north of Donegal used to have to make the long journey to Sligo for treatment – now they can go to hospital in Derry, just an hour away. There is a cross-border ambulance policy. Police are able to pursue sex offenders.
Sinn Féin has never been enthusiastic about the EU, and did not mobilise its electorate for the referendum. But now it is taking the lead in agitating against Brexit’s impact on Ireland. During the election its mantra was ‘respect, honesty and integrity’ but soon afterwards the new Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, accused James Brokenshire, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, of talking ‘waffle’. In the European Parliament Sinn Féin MLA Martina Anderson said: ‘Theresa, your notion of a border, hard and soft, stick it where the sun doesn’t shine, because you’re not putting it in Ireland.’ For years Sinn Féin was the only party pushing for a united Ireland, but now the taoiseach and the leader of Fianna Fáil are also suggesting it as a way of keeping Northern Ireland in the EU. The prospect of a poll on unification, known as a border poll, as permitted under the Good Friday Agreement, is being discussed.
The artist John Byrne used to sell replicas of the British army watchtowers that bristled up from the hill tops of Armagh. The fortifications have long gone, and there’s a world of difference between the frightening place Colm Tóibín explored in 1987 in Bad Blood: A Walk along the Irish Border, the still fractious place I wrote about in my 2000 book, Northern Protestants: An Unsettled People, and the place Garrett Carr describes in his just published The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border.* Nevertheless, when Carr asks a farmer if it’s a hassle living on the border, the man replies: ‘Put it this way. I wish you’d take it away with you.’ Carr imagines himself coiling the border up like a lawnmower cable. The prime minister’s assurances about a ‘frictionless border’ with electronic monitoring are widely disbelieved. A friend who lives in the North and works in an EU-funded community centre in the South said she fears the return of the border to the minds of the people. The old questions. Who are you? Where are you from? Do you have any identification? What is the purpose of your journey?