Paul McNamee: The border between past and present

"As if Brexit wasn’t tricky enough, the Irish border question is becoming the pivot on which everything is turning"

I can understand if the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is fed up with the Northern Ireland bit.

For nearly 30 years a dirty little war murdered and maimed and made a mess of itself and infected much else. And now, as if Brexit wasn’t tricky enough, the border question is becoming the pivot on which everything is turning.

The idea that the Good Friday agreement could be dismantled because of a mess around Brexit negotiations does not sit easy

Councils in the rest of the UK are sailing close to the wind. There is barely enough money to keep the lights on and to empty the bins. Don’t even start on social care and vital homelessness provision. Council taxes are going to balloon.

There is a growing crisis in prisons. The NHS, while not on the floor, needs a lot of oxygen. And yet eyes turn west to the six counties.

The population of Northern Ireland is 1.8million. That’s fewer people than fall under West Yorkshire local authority care. Essentially, the equivalent of Leeds-Bradford is holding the rest of the UK to ransom.

So, I can see how this may annoy.


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But it matters. If you’re Northern Irish between 40 and 55, you were born right into the Troubles. All of your early, formative thought was constructed during that nasty, horrible, brutalising war.

If you weren’t born there, here’s what happens.

You waken up, you switch on the radio, you hear about somebody, or some people, being shot, or blown up. You work out which side it was, do a calculation on numbers, and mentally work out the retaliation, how the balance will change. That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, you’ll know somebody, somebody who was shot or arrested, or blown up. Everybody eventually knows somebody.

And then you go to school and do all the normal things and in later years when people ask about it you’ll say, sure it was normal! And you’ll make a joke and pack it all away.

But it wasn’t normal, was it?

Imagine if that was repeated over years in Sunderland, or Basingstoke, or Aberystwyth. Or anywhere.

Then, one evening many years later, you’ll watch TV show Derry Girls and in its incredible last five minutes all will race back and hit you like a train. Those things you’d packed away.

The Good Friday agreement will be 20 years old in a few weeks. While the bright dawn of it faded, the incredibly engineered solution that it brought, built by tough and fearless men and women, has proved a bulwark against a return to the darkness. The idea that this could be dismantled because of a mess around Brexit negotiations does not sit easy.

Of course the will of the people must be respected. There was a referendum and the majority voted to leave the EU. While an increasing number of people may baulk at this, not to go through now would have huge democratic implications.

But there is a need to stop grandstanding, to stop trotting out meaningless, banalities about leaving meaning leaving. It’s the time for grown-ups to stand up, to meet those they disagree with and come to resolutions.

It is time to get serious and get it right.

The alternative is no alternative. Because we don’t know how the story ends this time.