Unsettled Northern Ireland, the place nobody quite understands
Backstop Land explores the place and identity of the North in these Brexit times
Everything about Northern Ireland in the countdown to October 31st ha almost reduced to – a single word: Backstop. Photograph: Getty Images
Towards the end of May this year, on one of my too-rare trips to London, I nipped in to talk to my editor at Head of Zeus, Neil Belton, about a novel I had just finished called Where Are We Now?, that being pretty much the only question anyone I knew had been asking in the previous three years. (Well, that and “When, when, when will it ever stop?”)
In the course of the conversation, Neil lamented how little people in the rest of the United Kingdom understood about Northern Ireland, despite its being so central to the outcome of the protracted Brexit negotiations. I said it wasn’t just the rest of the UK: some of the ways in which Northern Ireland was discussed elsewhere in Europe, including the rest of the island of Ireland, had me scratching my head . . . were they talking about the same place I was living in?
The words “miracle” and “Good Friday Agreement”, for instance, regularly appeared in close proximity. This despite the fact that for two and a half years and counting we had had no Assembly (only its second longest suspension to date, let it be remembered); that sectarianism was rampant, not least among politicians; and that loyalist and republican paramilitaries were still killing people.
I mean, I voted for the agreement, cried hot tears when it was endorsed, would vote for it, and cry the same tears, again. But miracle? Imagine the hospitals of New Testament Galilee, the morning after the loaves and the fishes. Imagine the queues of people presenting with symptoms of food poisoning.
Neil asked me if I thought there was a book to be written: not about the Border – there had already been two excellent recent books on that; not about the UK’s decision to leave the EU – there had already been shed-loads of books about that; but about Northern Ireland itself in the countdown to October 31st, about a place that had, for the previous couple of years, become synonymous with – at times, it seemed, almost reduced to – a single word: Backstop.
Maybe, I said.
We’d want to get it out by the autumn, Neil said.
And I said . . . F*ck.
And then, to myself, a few hours later, already on the train to the airport and home, Why not?
So that was my summer taken care of.
I decided at the outset that with events moving so fast I wanted to have some way of commenting on what I had written earlier in the text, sometimes earlier in the same day. I decided I wanted footnotes. Footnotes get a bad rap. “Too academic,” is the charge. To which I say, is the Sky red button academic? Is googling to see who that is playing the flatmate of Kate Ashfield, who plays Simon Pegg’s girlfriend in Shaun of the Dead, even while watching the zombies eat Dylan Moran, academic?
One of the last things I added to the text – as summer turned to autumn and the book was due for delivery – was a footnote about Boris Johnson and his painted packing cases. A surprising number of people had said to me while I was writing the book that the packing-case buses were all part of the Boris plan: a hijacking of the algorithm, intended to deflect online searchers from the almighty whopper plastered all over that red-liveried Leave wagon back in spring 2016. “We send the EU £350m a week . . . Let’s fund our NHS instead . . . Vote Leave . . . Take Back Control.”
This too seemed to me instructive: everyone was trying to second-guess everyone else; in the summer of 2019, even inanity was taken for cunning, or profundity. I would say it was a world ripe for a figure like Chance the Gardener, the unworldly central character of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1970 novel Being There (memorably portrayed by Peter Sellers in the film adaptation a decade later), who becomes for a season the trusted adviser to the rich and very powerful with his limited repertoire of phrases – “First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.” I would say it but for the fact of Jeremy Corbyn, speaking like Chance on half speed, giving a whole new meaning to (gardener pun alert) gnomic, and unlike Kosinski’s character fooling nobody at all.
Johnson was back on his hobby . . . vehicle, I suppose, during the Conservative Party conference at the start of October, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, “I like buses”. He had included in his campaign for Mayor of London in 2008 a promise to bring back the iconic double-decker Routemaster, and, almost as soon as he was elected, enlisted the services of Wrightbus of Ballymena, in the parliamentary constituency of North Antrim: Paisley Country. Jeff Wright, Wrightbus’s principal shareholder and son of the founder of the company, is also the pastor of Green Pastures church on the Galgorm Road in Ballymena. The church’s growth – it occupies a 100-acre “campus” (the only things we did that size in the old days were police stations and army forts) – was aided by £16 million of investment from – well, what do you know? – Wrightbus.
Wrightbus went into administration the week after I sent off my manuscript to Head of Zeus. A proposed rescue deal nearly fell through when Wright started haggling over the price of another parcel of land. Many of the 1,200 workers faced with redundancy protested, on the final Sunday of September, outside the Green Pastures church. One carried a placard with the line from Matthew’s gospel, “You cannot serve both God and Money”: “God and Mammon” is the (King James) version I learned.
Maybe with chips, you can’t. But in the North Antrim evangelical’s book right now (I was going to add cook to book there, but it might have been misconstrued), it seems you can do it pretty much any other way you like.
It was never going to be possible, of course, to write a book about the present moment without it becoming the moment you stopped writing the past. I already knew marriage equality and abortion reform – completely unforeseen back in May – would come into effect before publication, although whether they had happened or not I was always intending to call one of my chapters Uppa Queers in celebration of the slogan on the T-shirt worn by Green Party councillor and LGBT rights campaigner Mal O’Hara at his first council meeting.
Whether those long-overdue reforms make this place less of a “piss-take of the world”, to quote (as I do in the book) Belfast poet Scott McKendry it’s perhaps too early to say. (Call me greedy, but I wouldn’t mind having a f*cking government.)
As I write this piece, meanwhile, and equally unforeseen back in May, or even the week before last, the word backstop seems about to be relegated again to one of the denser columns of the Oxford English Dictionary, back- combining form, between “backslide” and “backstory”. I wonder at moments whether inadvertently I haven’t written a (recent) history book.
But then, Brexit itself was only ever one part of what interested me.
When I said that the decision to write the book was my summer taken care of, I didn’t mean to suggest that all I did was sit in my room and type. Since my schooldays, I have been a devotee of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal (I’m trying to adapt it for screen), which, across its 24 cantos and 96 pages, moves repeatedly between the great public events and the more intimate details of its author’s days and nights in his adopted city of London in that final autumn before the outbreak of the second World War (other terms are, I realise, available). I have never needed too much persuading, but, taking my lead from MacNeice, I went out this summer with a zeal. Far out, now and again.
I went to Galway – the other side of Galway – and back in a single day. And everywhere I went people I talked to, or overheard talking to one another, had something – often lots and lots of things – to say about These Times. It was a summer of capital letters: capital letters and unbuttoned opinions. I was staggered by some of what I heard, south of the Border as well as north. Actually, south of the Border maybe even more than north, the glee with which the UK’s travails were met; glee spilling over occasionally into something much nastier. The opinion seemed to be that “the English” were good value for it, although the fire was not always so precisely targeted (fire rarely is.).Here’s the thing with prejudice, it’s not wrong because it’s directed at you, or me, it’s wrong because it’s wrong, whoever it’s directed at. Shit, but there you are. We don’t get to take our turn.
Even after the book had gone to the printers, I was jotting things down, as though for another footnote, just one more . . . to include, say, the chat I had with a friend, who works in TV, making programmes for broadcasters north and south.
The great pioneering Northern Irish broadcasters of the 1960s and 1970s, like Davy Hammond and Tony McAuley, he tells me, made films that aspired to bring us together. Now we make programmes for ever-more compartmentalised audiences: the Irish language strand, the Ulster Scots. It is, he says, a microcosm of life here since the Good Friday Agreement. It didn’t succeed in creating a common identity, instead it allowed us (encouraged us even) to live in cantons.
“I have heard things said lately while I have been out filming that I have not heard for 20 years. I feel . . .” he thinks, and I know what he is going to say before he says it, because it’s the word I have been using myself. “Unsettled?”
It’s moot whether the backstop has gone completely, or just migrated into the middle of the Irish Sea.
Wherever it is, that unsettled feeling, which grew unchecked in the hothouse that the backstop and what it was responding to helped create . . . that, for now at least, remains.
Backstop Land by Glenn Paterson is published by Head of Zeus, at £13.99, on October 31st