Brexit, a view from over the Border
It’s strange how a deep link with a country can disappear in the flick of one day to the next
Pigeon fancier: A camera-shy Rosemary Jenkinson with her uncle Donald, mother Denise and father James in Trafalgar Square, 1970
For weeks, our news has been dominated by the backstop compromise on the Irish border. The whole Brexit situation has highlighted British sentiments in relation to Northern Ireland – we may be a thorn in the side but they still don’t want to pluck us out. Lately, though, we’ve been beginning to feel more like a part of the DK, the Disunited Kingdom, than the UK.
My Protestant friends try to avoid speculating too much about Brexit. One friend is selling her house and is only concerned about Brexit as to its impact on the housing market. The few who have opened up have talked fearfully of a future in which Protestant paramilitaries might return to fight against Irish unity.
The reason why the prospect of a united Ireland is difficult for Protestants is because they spent 30 years resisting it during the Troubles. The notion of Brexit-inspired unity is therefore inextricably linked with violence. For some of us, the leap is somewhat easier; I have an Irish passport as well as a British one, so that makes me 50-50. In my opinion, if you take up a passport, even if it’s for your own self-serving convenience, it’s totally hypocritical not to accept that you’re part of that country.
The best way to describe this joint nationality is that I have two parents, Ireland and England, and two siblings, Wales and Scotland. If I have to choose between parents, of course I will, but I refuse to choose until it’s necessary. When I was young I remember being adamant about my Britishness, so fiercely proud of it, and, yet, only two generations away, my grandparents were Irish as they’d been born before the formation of Northern Ireland. Being Irish hadn’t made them any less Protestant.
Many Northern Irish have grown up with a close connection to England. I had cousins born in England and, like most of my schoolmates in the Eighties, I went to an English university. It was a breath of sweet liberation after Troubles-torn Belfast. For us Protestants, England was a place where we could be left wing without being cast in our traditional role as right-wing reactionaries. Instead of Free Derry it was Free Nelson Mandela and if there had been a joint degree in demonstrating and pint-drinking I would have surely got a first.
In 1989, my Dad got a job as Berwick-upon-Tweed harbourmaster and relocated there from Northern Ireland, forging even stronger links to England. And, not so long ago, I had to go to London for an operation on my spine which gave me back my life, so I’ll always look on London as my saviour (though, for the record, my surgeon had an Irish name).
Recently, a Sinn Féin supporter admitted to me that he’d voted for Brexit in order to shake things up and destroy the union. Brexit was the bomb without bloodshed that could deliver up his dream. While it’s true that there has been a certain amount of paranoia peddled about a hard border sparking off violence, it’s still a considerable risk. Those of us who lived during the Troubles remember the army checkpoints and the last thing we want is their return. I can uncomfortably recall the time, driving along, when I failed to notice the red Maglite shining in the road and almost ran over a British soldier in the process – luckily, he laughed.
Trade is a huge reason why we need the Border roads to stay firmly open. Northern writers are increasingly looking to the South for work and, in my case, I’m often heading back and forth, as I have a Galway publisher (Doire Press), I teach at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin, and I read at festivals like the Westival. London may still be a literary magnet for many Irish writers and the rewards there are demonstrably high, as evidenced by Anna Burns’ recent Man Booker Prize win. Nevertheless, I’m more interested right now in cultivating that north/south dimension. I really don’t care if you’re Jameson’s or Bushmills; if you’re Easter lily or orange lily; east or west – it’s all just a different brand of the same.
More than ever, during this Brexit confusion, we need to be outward-looking. In October I was part of a Female Lines commemoration event in Derry and, when I arrived to check in at the City Hotel, the receptionist turned to me to ask, “What are you, Bloody Sunday or Civil Rights March?” For a moment, it sounded like “choose your atrocity”! It just highlights the fact that we mustn’t remain trapped within Northern Ireland, obsessed by our own past.
We can’t predict what twists and turns are yet to happen over the whole Brexit saga but, for me, it’s as if my life is foreshadowing the potential break-up. At the beginning of September my father died in Berwick-upon-Tweed, thus ending my last big tangible connection with England. His house is empty, waiting to be sold, and the memories and photographs are sitting in boxes in my aunt’s garage in Co Down. It’s strange how a deep link with a country can disappear in the flick of one day to the next and it’s true that no expectation can prepare you for the shocking reality. Brexit is ultimately about leaving and the problem for us all is that we still don’t fully know who or exactly what it is we’re leaving; or how much in the end we will have to lose.
Rosemary Jenkinson’s book of short stories, Catholic Boy, is published by Doire Press. She has just received a Major Individual Artist Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to write a memoir.