Theresa May dodges potshots in a place called F-e-r-m-a-n-a-g-h
British PM seeks refuge in Co Fermanagh from Boris Johnson’s Brexit potshots
PSNI officers chat with a Garda on the Border in Belleek, Co Fermanagh, during Theresa May’s visit to the area. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Theresa May travelled to the most westerly point of the United Kingdom on Thursday as part of her two-day Northern Ireland visit designed to try to provide reassurance about what “Brexit means Brexit” means.
She could tell she was on the Border when she called to the Belleek Pottery before teatime, because just across the river Erne bridge, on the Donegal side, a Tricolour was flying on a hill at a place called The Battery.
As locals know well, that was where the IRA launched fairly regular sniper and mortar bomb attacks on the local Royal Ulster Constabulary base during the Troubles. But May was in no danger in Belleek, as the PSNI and Garda were securing the farthest point of the realm.
The prime minister probably felt safer on the frontier in Co Fermanagh in any case, judging by the potshots from the likes of Boris Johnson she has been dodging over in London over the muddle that is the UK quitting the European Union.
But Downing Street wasn’t taking any chances. Calls to the Number 10 press office on Thursday morning elicited some rather Kafkaesque explanations about why reporters couldn’t simply and specifically be told where she was going.
“The prime minister will be in – I’ll spell it for you in case I mispronounce it – F-e-r-m-a-n-a-g-h during the day,” said the official.
“Big county, which part?” The Irish Times inquired.
Downing Street would let us know after she’d been and gone, said the official.
Moreover, as was confirmed separately, the PM would not be talking to the press.
This was odd, considering that the purpose of her visit was to broadcast a message that there would be no hard Border across the bridge over the Erne, or at any other North-South crossing, or indeed down the middle of the Irish Sea.
Other British prime ministers generally haven’t been timid about fielding reporters’ questions in Northern Ireland – Margaret Thatcher, for instance, would swat away awkward queries with a metaphorical swish of her handbag — but May appears averse to the cut and thrust of such engagement.
Not an issue was the line from Downing Street: all relevant matters would be addressed in a speech she is delivering on Friday, which the press would be permitted to attend, we were told.
But Number 10 would not confirm where she was visiting.
Still, it didn’t take much detective work to find out; from early Thursday Northern Ireland’s famed dogs in the street who know everything were more than willing to disclose that she would be at Belleek Pottery to meet Border businesspeople.
And even that meeting was rather peculiar. The local chairwoman of the Belleek Chamber of Commerce, Bridie Gormley, who runs a pub and a guesthouse, was invited by the pottery to meet the prime minister. But, Gormley added, when she got there she was excluded from the meeting.
“But I don’t think her visit to Belleek is going to make a big difference one way or the other,” said Gormley. “I think it was just ticking another box.”
At least she got to see the prime minister. Among the Belleek businesspeople who did not was Louis Culkin, who has shoe shops in Ballyshannon, Co Donegal, 6km away, and in Irvinestown, Co Fermanagh, 32km away, and Patsy McAuley, who is a funeral director in Belleek.
McAuley explained that such is the “geographical lie of the land” that quite frequently he would bury people from the North in Ballyshannon and people from Co Donegal in Belleek. He feared that Brexit would lead to bureaucratic “pandemonium” for cross-Border bereaved families.
Culkin said his message to May would have been “rerun the referendum”.
“I am not prepared to sit at customs checkpoints. We did that a long time ago and we have moved on from it; I don’t want to go back to that.”