My very occasional blogs are usually about my practice and observations as an artist. The link between this article and my work is tenuous in that it does not arise from a particular ongoing project. But it speaks to a theme as embedded in my psyche and my creative output as family and self: the balance between Hope and Despair in my native country – or more pin-pointed – in the disputed territory that is Northern Ireland
While Artistic Director of Upstate, (1996-2010), I spent many enriching years as a playwright, director and public artist engaging with communities, audiences and fellow-artists in Northern Ireland and in my home ground just south of the border. I would define that era as a time of peace building.
I continued this “engagement” work, but with less urgency, in a freelance capacity from 2011 to 2015, when peace appeared finally to have settled. Then, in 2016, Brexit hit us, confusing, incongruous and potentially lethal as any ticking bomb might have been, post-Omagh.
In 2018, when I was appointed Theatre Artist in Residence for County Monaghan, I made a few efforts to engage with this new reality through artistic work, but drew back from the enormity of it. While I have avoided it in my work, through all this time, I have journaled obsessively – but never published – my turbulant thoughts on the implicatons of Brexit.
This year, Northern Ireland is 100 years old. In recent days, controversy has gathered around President Michael D Higgins’ decision not to attend a church service which set out to mark the partitioning of Ireland in 1921. Some commentators have stated that his decision was retrogressive. Did we not, after all, relinquish our claim to Northern Ireland when we voted to remove Articles 2 and 3 from the Irish Constitution in 1998? Can we not move on and let bygones be bygones? That particular remark has caused me to return to a journal entry I wrote some weeks ago, before the Higgins controversy erupted, and finally publish my personal views.
I hope this essay (1400 words) might find a few readers and stimulate some honest reflection on the irreparable damage Brexit has done and the subtle way it has changed (utterly!) the context of all talk of peace and reconciliation.
Above all, I hope that the finest and most imaginative minds on this island and beyond might begin to think up new pathways out of the brewing disaster we are living in but failing to name. Certainly tinkering with a trading protocol and providing reactionary forces with phantom causes will do no more than postpone a looming tragedy …
WHAT HOPE FOR NORTHERN IRELAND?
One of the reasons so many people in Ireland were, and remain, appalled by the Brexit Referendum is that no political event in our lifetime better illustrates the failure of a people (the people of Britain) to understand or learn lessons from their own history.
In 1998 voters in both parts of the partitioned island of Ireland collectively set aside centuries of enmity and polled in favour of the Good Friday Agreement.
By an even greater majority, the people of the Republic voted to repeal Articles 2 and 3 of a constitution that had staked claim to disputed northern territory which had remained in Britain’s keep for almost 80 years after their occupation of the southern regions of Ireland ended.
While this momentous 1998 peace accord is usually analysed in terms of its impact within Ireland, it is helpful to reflect on the gift that the Good Friday Agreement was to the people of Britain.
After centuries of sporadic warring between the two nations, and bitter strife locally between British colonisers and their descendants on one hand and indigenous Irish people on the other, Irish voters agreed, en-masse and for the sake of peace, to allow Britain retain dominion in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement also allowed one million ethnic Britons with by-now deep roots in Irish soil to live and look ahead without further fear of armed rebellion.
The key condition was that Irish identity would be recognised as wholly equal in what would remain a British territory but be reinvented as a shared society.
Underpinning or – perhaps more accurately – overarching this concept of a shared society was the relatively new 20th century context of a peaceful and largely borders-free Europe, where Britain and Ireland co-existed as equal members of the European Union. It was a sensible modern-day compromise and an apparent conclusion to a centuries-old history of colonisation and land theft too embedded by now to be reversed, but until modern times ever-raw and ever-oppressive.
And then, no sooner was accommodation reached but, within 18 short years, this generation of British political leaders, and so many of their unthinking followers in England in particular, threw the gift of the Good Friday Agreement back in the faces not only of Irish people and their European allies, but of their own fellow British-identifying people in Northern Ireland.
In extracting themselves permanently from the European Union, Britain removed overnight the only context within which ethnic and national identities on these islands might evolve outside of the historically exclusive tenets of territorial ownership. In simple language, the Brits took back the North. The people of England reclaimed Northern Ireland as exclusively British, and no longer shared-European. Ignorant British voters may not have known – but their leaders most certainly did – that it has never been, and never will be, possible to live at ease in an exclusively British part of Ireland and identify freely and equally as Irish.
The reality, therefore, is that the Good Friday Agreement is to all intents and purposes dead in the water. Irish and European negotiators are currently struggling to protect some of the economic and bureaucratic structures enshrined in the accord which are now in disarray. But nobody appears to be acknowledging that the Agreement itself has no basis anymore. That ship has sailed and with it the only apparent hope of a mutually acceptable accommodation.
If the people of a disputed territory can no longer be “British, Irish or both” as the generous dispensation of shared EU membership allowed, then it follows that Northern Ireland and her people officially can only be one or the other: British or Irish.
Northern Ireland is currently exclusively British once again. You can hold an Irish passport and enjoy rights just as Indian or Dutch people in Belfast may hold Indian or Dutch passports and be entitled to certain rights. But you have no ownership. You cannot be loyal to the only recognised governing polity. You are once again a foreigner in your own land.
While there have been disturbances and the young journalist Lyra McKee had her life taken away in one such catastrophic incident, by and large nobody has taken to armed warfare about this just yet. Sinn Féin, however, are pushing for a poll that would – they anticipate – swing things so that Northern Ireland would secede from the United Kingdom and be “re-united” into a new all-island Irish Republic. If that happened, then Northern Ireland would become exclusively Irish. Republican advocates of this strategy tell us with blithe confidence they are certain one million ethic Britons will accept this four-hundred year reversal and welcome the economic benefits of a future United Ireland.
As if economics has ever had anything to do with identity in Ireland.
While some romantic ideal of a United Ireland may appeal to the naïve among us as well as to more belligerent Republicans, anyone who has ever studied Northern Irish history will know that it can never come about without bloodshed, counter revolution and a different kind of counter repression. Consider Unionist and Loyalist reaction to every perceived threat, however minor, to the Union with Great Britain, from Home Rule to the Civil Rights movement to Sunningdale to the lowering of Union flags over certain public buildings. Every such move has been greeted with mob mobilisation and violence up to the level of murderous pogroms and random assasinations of nationalist Catholics.
Perhaps the reason so few people are facing the reality that the shared identity solution is now off the table is that eternal warfare seems the only corollary, and it is simply too terrible to contemplate. So, politicians tinker around the edges, seeking to salvage or undermine this Protocol or that Annex designed to preserve institutions and trade corridors that were viable only in the brief time of our shared EU history.
It is almost impossible to see how the safeguard of European Union membership can be replaced in the future with any framework that could allow Northern Ireland to be neither one thing predominantly nor the other.
The only possible hope may lie not in an overarching, protective super-national community but through radical new investment in the concept of community at the most local level.
Unless and until the peace-preferring people of Northern Ireland can turn respectively to London, Dublin, Brussels and their own enslaving dominant politicians and say, “Step away for a while and leave us to talk and figure out a way of our own”, the hovering menace of renewed division and suppressed violence will fester until it once again explodes, as it has done cyclically over the past 100 years and for centuries before that.
In short, extreme devolution in tandem with meaningful cross community local dialogue and empowerment may be the last and only hope. But right now, the only people with the means to do this, the power-greedy politicians leading the dominant parties within Northern Ireland, are offering no hope. No real talking, no honest acknowledgment of the true problem – just position-taking and subtle, incremental incitement to violence.
There is some light – it peeps in, in little chinks. While violence has simmered, it has not yet ignited. There is much talk of new identities – gender, intercultural, ability and so on. Young people in a global world, we are told, are ahead of and bored with all that old national identity politics.
But we thought that to be the case too in the heady, progressive 1960s when Protestant and Catholic marched together for Civil Rights, and look what happened. One bomb, one sectarian assassination, one deadly riot, one Twelfth march that turns violent, one street of houses set alight. That is what it takes to drive the well-meaning in a society without safe structures back behind barricades as the old warmongers reclaim the streets. Without structural support and great acts of letting go by current power-holders, young people with all their new ideas and identities will not make it alone. Enmity, hatred and hurt have long memories.
It is pitiful, five years after Brexit, to see politicians still playing games that stir up divisive sentiment. It took just 18 years for Britain, true to form, to unravel the only apparent basis for peace in Ireland. It may take 18 years and more for Ireland to experience the worst consequences. But if things continue as they are, with bad faith now a badge of honour in Downing Street, misguided band-aid approaches from Europe and incendiary cynicism the main currency in local Ulster politics, those consequences will eventually play out.
It would suit all concerned better to prevent this: to speak honestly to the insecurities and ancient fears of the “other” in this still bi-polar society rather than play to their own gallery just now. Ah but that takes local leadership! And where, oh where, will that come from?