Shellfish Politics – An Irishman’s Diary about the diplomatic complications of Lough Foyle

 Cathal McNaughton/PA

Cathal McNaughton/PA


When I composed “A History of Ireland in 100 Euphemisms” here some years ago, one of the terms I didn’t have room for was “Foyleside”. Describing the area where the river Foyle meets the sea, it’s a politically correct alternative to the disputed names of the local city, and much easier than saying “Derry-stroke-Londonderry”. Hence Foyleside Shopping Centre, Radio Foyle, the Foyle constituency, and so on. Rarely has a natural feature so dominated the nomenclature of an urban environment.  

It’s a case of water over troubled bridges, I suppose.

But as I had somehow forgotten until the Democratic Unionist Party reminded us this week, Lough Foyle is itself disputed territory, and has been since partition. The UK claims it fully, up to and including the foreshore on the Donegal side. Ireland rejects this, asserting a counterclaim.   And although both jurisdictions have somehow muddled through on the issue for a century, it now threatens to become yet another complication in the event of a hard Brexit. A local version of the Cod War is unlikely: most cod occurs inland in Northern Ireland, where it often coincides with shoals of underemployed politicians. But what is already happening on Lough Foyle, seafood-wise, is a huge increase in oyster-farming.  

According to BBC’s The View programme this week, there are now 30,000 oyster trestles there, as farmers exploit the lack of regulation.

It’s not the first time entrepreneurs have mined confusion over Northern Ireland’s coastline. As early as 1923, the owners of a pleasure steamer operating between Belfast and Bangor were prosecuted for selling alcohol on Sundays. They had thought Stormont’s jurisdiction did not extend to any coastal waters. Courts decided otherwise.

Lough Foyle was always more complicated, however.  

During the second World War, even a de facto sharing was problematic as, at low tide, warships could enter the inlet only on the “Éire” side of the median. They entered anyway.

Then there was the Troubles, during which the IRA targeted British merchant shipping in the Lough. When they sank a Liverpool coal vessel, the Nellie M, in 1982, both governments believed it had happened in their waters. This raised the possibility that both might insist on paying compensation. The Nellie M’s owners duly lodged claims on either side: £850,000 each.  

But in a gentlemen’s agreement, the bill was quietly split.

Getting back to Foyleside’s rampant oyster industry, which a local Sinn Féin representative has likened to the “Klondyke” gold rush – it brings yet another twist to a nationalist ballad of the 1960s, Only Our Rivers Run Free.

As you may recall, that song expresses despair about the prospects of Irish liberty using metaphors from the natural world, eg: “When apples still grow in November, when blossoms still bloom on each tree/When leaves are still green in November, it’s then that our land will be free.”

But as I’ve argued here before, many of these once seemingly impossible things have since been achieved through global warming. And whether we accept that the river Foyle runs free or not, who could have imagined in the 1960s that its farmed oysters would one day emerge as symbols of liberty, not just from the British government, but government in general?

At the very least, they hint at the special status Northern Ireland could enjoy post-Brexit, if such a thing were not anathema to the DUP.  

Instead, that party’s leader courted controversy again this week when contrasting “narrow and exclusive” Irish nationalism – the same nationalism that pools sovereignty with 27 other EU states and is notoriously happy about it  – with her vision of unionism which, Brexit and all, is said to be broad and inclusive.

Among those now trying to persuade Brexiteers to think again is the French celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy: “BHL” as he’s known. He’s bringing a one-man show to London, which will take the form of a “two-hour stream of consciousness monologue by an imaginary French writer”.  

If that doesn’t bring the UK to its senses, surely, nothing will. But then, according to the Financial Times, BHL does not refer to the UK, or even Britain, anywhere. He speaks only of “Angleterre”.  

In my dictionary, “Angleterre” means “England”.  

French being the language of diplomacy, however, it may also have a broader meaning more suited to Arlene Foster’s vision of inclusive unionism.  

That being so, I wish BHL’s compatriot Michel Barnier well as he continues to push for a soft border between the Republic and the territory that, in a new euphemism, I shall henceforth calling Angletéire.  

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