Susan McKay: Brexit is ripping open old wounds
Attitudes in Border regions returning to brutal psychology of Troubles mistrust
Lord Mountbatten’s former home on Mullaghmore Head, Co Sligo: A couple of years ago, Prince Charles was welcomed. Now on the sign to mark his visit, his face has been gouged out. Photograph: Frank Miller
So a clever Channel Four report has shown that the Brit on the street can’t draw the Irish Border, some of them imagining it as a loose girdle draped about the waist of the island, rather than as the noose around its neck which it more accurately resembles. Easy to scoff, but plenty of citizens of the Irish republic are disinterested, ignorant or even hostile when it comes to the jurisdiction that lies beyond the Border, that bourne depicted by unionists, with a mix of sentimentality and defensiveness, as “our wee country” .
In Dublin, the case is extreme. Eyes have long glazed over when the North is mentioned. Belfast is well beyond “beyond the Pale”. During the Troubles, anywhere north of Drogheda was for some “up in the direction” and to be avoided. But even now, even along the southern fringes of the Border a certain silence about it prevails, though thousands cross it every day. Right now, worried shopkeepers watch cars speed by as shoppers take advantage of the favourable exchange rate and head across to Derry, Newry and Enniskillen.
A week ago, I walked the beach at Mullaghmore in Co Sligo. An elderly man came down through the sandhills and set off towards the harbour. He had his hands clasped behind his back, holding a transistor radio, engrossed in listening to a discussion about Brexit and the Border. It struck me that apart from anti-Brexit campaigners, he was one of the few people I have met since I came to work in this Border region of the northwest a year and a half ago who appeared deeply interested in the issue, any issue about the North, actually. I said this to a friend from the area. She said people might have their own thoughts but might not want to risk “provoking a northerner” by airing them in front of me. Maybe. The last time I lived in Sligo, during the 1980s, there was a wariness of the northerner, lest we might be carriers of the Troubles plague.
North Sligo is known as Yeats country. He wrote to Lady Gregory in the run-up to partition in 1921: “I have long been of the opinion that if such a disagreeable people shut the door, we should turn the key in the lock before they change their mind.” He would later accuse the Irish government of driving “a wedge” across the country with its conservative Catholic laws. Seamus Heaney wrote about how when he left the North for Wicklow during the early 1970s, “a wood kerne escaped from the fray”, there used to be talk of “our people” up there. This dwindled as the IRA campaign intensified and collective shame grew. We spoke different languages. In Parable Island from his 1987 collection, Heaney wrote: “To find out where he stands the traveller/has to keep listening – since there is no map/which draws the line he knows he must have crossed.”
The Border was a deep wound. Murders that came to be regarded as shockingly normal in a village on the northern side, would have been unthinkable half a mile away in the Republic. The peace process blurred it, removed the furniture of huts and forts, dragons teeth and craters, opened things up. The customs men vanished. The soldiers went home. No more checkpoints, red torches signalling you to stop in the darkness. No more furtive journeys for smuggled sheep and chickens on unapproved roads. Nowadays they are brought on brisk legal journeys, all playing their allotted parts in global marketing systems.
However, despite “peace money”, decades of economic neglect have left ruined towns and villages on both sides. There’s no government in the North. Now with Brexit, old animosities are being rehearsed. Twitter is full of recriminations that seemed to have had their day long before that medium was even invented. People in the Republic wince at the colloquial aggression coming from unionists, the Taoiseach told by a retired leader to “wind his neck in”, threats of fish wars. They are irritated by northern nationalists’ insistence upon laws to establish cultural equality.
Mullaghmore is where, in 1979, Lord Mountbatten and four other people were murdered by the IRA. A couple of years ago, when Prince Charles came here to visit, he was warmly welcomed. But on the sign put up to mark the visit, which featured a smiling photo of the royal couple, the face of Charles has recently been gouged out. At a traditional music session in a Leitrim village last Friday night, the bloody ballad about the assassination by tenants of the cruel Lord Leitrim was sung. A woman said as she was leaving: “Wasn’t it great to hear the song about old Mountbatten getting his come-uppance?” The Border has left an unhealed scar across the country that has begun, with the Brexit business, to open up again.