Return of checkpoints will be more than an inconvenience
Border checks and what they symbolise will play strongly in any post-Brexit Border poll
British soldiers, Co Fermanagh, in 2002. Just because soldiers might not be part of the story any more does not mean they won’t be remembered in the North. Photograph: PA
It was all very pleasant in the bar of the fancy Edinburgh hotel that evening a couple of years ago: a group of us, friends from university in Belfast, had gathered to celebrate the imminent marriage of one of our number. A nice Scottish man in a kilt had greeted us in the foyer, warmly welcoming us to his country.
And then, as we settled with our menus, he picked up on our accents, all of which were clearly Irish, from the North, and his face started to beam. We waited.
“Northern Ireland? You’re from Northern Ireland? Ah, I love Northern Ireland. It was one of my best postings.”
Immediately, instinctively, all of our heads descended and none of us spoke. The waiter merrily continued to praise the North, even mentioning the towns he knew best.
Still, we said nothing. All of us, educated, confident women, were at a loss as to how to deal with this: a man who was apparently asking us to join with him in reminiscing on what we of course knew was his time as a soldier. We knew that those towns were places that housed barracks and we knew that he was the right age to have patrolled our streets. What we didn’t know,however, was how his time there could not have taught him to keep quiet about it unless completely sure of his company. It was the basic lesson of living in the North and the very thing that had left us dumbfounded.
We used to incorporate these soldiers into our childhood games: cycling around the yard would involve several pretend checkpoints where one of us would ask the “driver” for identification and the purpose of their journey this afternoon. In my family’s case, we had grown up sacrificing perhaps an hour of our Sunday to queues at Border checkpoints between Tyrone and Donegal, or considerably longer if there was a big GAA match across the Monaghan border in Clones, or a bigger one in Dublin, such as the one due to take place on September 2nd this year. It was normality, but not one that allowed for normal interaction with soldiers, a fact that had trumped our manners in the hotel several decades on. We recovered ourselves, our friend took our orders, and there ended the conversation.
A generation in the North is now wondering what Border checks must have been like in the past and what they might be like in the future if brought back from the dead, thanks to a Boris Johnson-inspired anti-miracle.
They wonder how it would feel to be confined to an almost-stationary car on a boring country road for an indeterminate period, essentially against their will and because people somewhere else were making choices about their lives. The more mature among us can promise it’s no fun, soldiers or no soldiers. Think sitting on hold to your insurance company, but with substantially less entertainment value and much less reward.
Where this fits into what former DUP leader Peter Robinson somewhat surprisingly acknowledged earlier this month as the “battle for the union” is an intriguing question.
In June, a survey carried out by Queen’s and Ulster universities found 55 per cent of people in the North would vote to stay in the UK if given the choice, with 22 per cent of respondents saying they would vote for a united Ireland. Just before that, a BBC survey had 42 per cent in favour of a united Ireland compared to 45 per cent favouring remaining in the UK. Significantly, more than a quarter of respondents to that survey said the Brexit vote had made them more likely to choose a united Ireland.
Any Border poll campaign would surely throw up other issues too
It is obviously difficult to quantify the extent to which individual factors lie behind this; but the real prospect of limits on their movement will definitely have helped to concentrate some people’s minds, whether they remember previous checkpoints or not. And the horrifying idea of “stop and search” zones, as pitched last week, would almost make an observer think the British government is trying to make a united Ireland more attractive in the North.
Any Border poll campaign would surely throw up other issues too, many of which would be unexpected, in the way of all political races.
A European identity
Aside from the enormous emotional draw of saying goodbye to the UK and copper-fastening Irish identity, other imperatives for a united Ireland include a desire to retain a European identity and the protections that this includes within EU law. Playing against this would be understandable practical fears, with the loss of the NHS at the top of many lists.
Never underestimate the popular notion that people in the South simply don’t want the North
There would also be doubts about education, and the loss of status that would come from exiting a small, defined pond (albeit within a massive one) and entering a larger one that already has its eminent classes. And never underestimate the popular notion that people in the South simply don’t want the North, and would not welcome its people or create policies to accommodate them.
For now, though, the return of the checkpoint is the big one, and just because soldiers might not be part of the story any more does not mean they won’t be remembered in the North if a poll does materialise any time soon.
- Una McCaffrey is assistant business editor