What are people saying about the Border?
Jude Collins on what he learned by writing Laying it on the Line: the Border and Brexit
A Border Communities Against Brexit protest earlier this year. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
I stole the idea of interviews-in-book-form from an American sociologist with the wonderful name of Studs Terkel. My first venture was close to home, Tales Out of School: St Columb’s College Derry in the 1950s. Then history came knocking and I used the same format to produce Whose Past Is It Anyway? The Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme. The brief illness and sudden death of Martin McGuinness led to conversations with those who had known and worked with the late deputy first minister, and came to print as Martin McGuinness: the Man I Knew.
And now Laying it on the Line: the Border and Brexit. What the climate crisis has done for our sense of the world’s fragile eco-system, Brexit has done for our sense of political stability. The world has watched in amazement as first the UK voted itself out of the EU and then the House of Commons descended from dignified debate to anger and insult and hysteria. So when last year I brought the idea of a Border-and-Brexit book to my publisher, it was a fairly easy sell. We both knew this ugly story was going to run and run.
Who to interview? Availability and time played a part; but there were three main groups I felt the need to consult.
The first was those who live or have lived close to the Border in Ireland. Martina Anderson, as an MEP from Derry, living within three miles of the Border, explained the need to educate the European Parliament on the realities of the Border and its links to the Good Friday Agreement.
Representatives of the Border Communities Against Brexit (BCAB) made clear the fear and anger among local people. Fear that a hard Brexit would have a deeply damaging impact on their livelihoods. They spoke of the myriad cross-Border networks built up since the Good Friday Agreement, especially in the agri-food industry. A visible border of any kind, they said, would damage these businesses; a hard Brexit would destroy them. Dr Conor Patterson, who for decades has worked at helping small businesses avail of the invisible border, cited many instances where small businesses have already begun relocating south of the Border.
Beyond the economic impact, local people spoke of the social impact the closed roads of a hard border would have. The thought of a return to driving 15 miles to see a relative who lived just up the road filled them with indignation. The media have expressed fears of a return to violent dissident republican activity if a visible border re-emerges, and already violent republicans in Derry have taken the life of journalist Lyra McKee But that is background possibility. The foreground reality is the implacable opposition of ordinary people to barriers that would damage their lives socially and economically. Ordinary law-abiding people spoke bluntly of tearing down physical barriers, were they to reappear.
The second category of people I interviewed was those living in the US. Which might seem odd, until we remember the central role that Irish America played in the work that culminated in the Belfast Agreement. Would that have happened without the intervention of President Clinton and the tireless mediation of Senator George Mitchell? Unlikely.
Prominent among US politicians in terms of Brexit is congressman Richard Neal. He chairs the ways and means committee, which deals with US foreign trade deals. He made it clear to me that were the Good Friday Agreement to be damaged by the construction of a hard border, he and others in Congress would block any attempt at a UK-US trade deal.
People such as former congressman Bruce Morrison and Niall O’Dowd were key intermediaries between President Clinton and Irish republicans in the run-up to the Good Friday agreement. This achievement, they told me, was dependent on the continuation of an invisible border in Ireland. During the Troubles, Irish-American republicans played a major role, in some cases, providing weaponry for the IRA. It has been with the support of these Irish-Americans that peace in Ireland was created and maintained. Both Morrison and O’Dowd warned of the dangers of losing that Irish-American commitment to peace if the Border was re-established.
The third group was the unionist community in the north of Ireland. Glenn Bradley grew up in loyalist east Belfast, and frankly admits that he joined the British army under advice from local loyalist paramilitaries. The idea was that he would develop military skills and come back and use them – “bring the war to the IRA” as he puts it. In fact he stayed in the British army and served on the Border for three separate periods. Today, Barr is a successful businessman with European links which he believes Brexit will damage.
Roger McCollum was an RUC inspector during the Troubles and like Barr experienced the loss of colleagues. He too fears that the return of a hard border which he thinks may well escalate – first the customs post, then the policemen to guard it, then the soldiers – until we slip back into the nightmare of the past.
Billy Hutchinson was a member of the loyalist paramilitary UVF and served a long period in prison during the Troubles. Now he’s a Belfast city councillor and leader of the small Progressive Unionist Party. When pressed, he remains tight-lipped about the possibility of a loyalist backlash if the economic border were to be transferred to a line in the Irish Sea.
Significantly, neither the Ulster Unionist Party nor the Democratic Unionist Party responded to repeated written requests for interview. This was disappointing; but perhaps their silence speaks of the insecurity of mainstream political unionism, as distinct from the confidence of such as Barr, McCollum or even Hutchinson.
All of which may sound somewhat grim; but a collection of interviews which includes Joe Brolly and former Derry City goalkeeper Eddie Mahon is inevitably lit up with humour and irreverence. Former taoiseach John Bruton is more sober: “Brexit is an issue which has no positive aspect.”
Compiling Laying it on the Line: the Border and Brexit has been a lively education for me and, I hope, for the reader. It will be launched at Eason’s bookshop at St Stephen’s Green, Dublin on Wednesday, November 27th, at 6.30pm. Senator Frances Black will be the Guest of Honour, and all are welcome.