Opinion

The Irish border question – who's going to blink first?

Michael Hughes says someone’s going to have to admit the Brexit-related battle is a naked farce

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - JULY 20: British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a keynote speech at the Waterfront Hall on July 20, 2018 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister is on a two-day visit to Northern Ireland. During her visit, focussing on Brexit and the deadlock at Stormont, she will visit the Irish border and discuss the potential impact of Brexit with Northern Irish businesses. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

When I started work on my novel Country, just over two years ago, the subject matter felt very remote. Some days, I wondered if I was wasting my time. Would anyone want to read a story about the end of the Northern Ireland conflict, set around the border? It was yesterday’s news.

Even worse, I had decided to borrow the structure and characters of Homer’s Iliad, the epic poem about the dying days of the Trojan War. I had a hunch that the nature of armed conflict hadn’t changed in a few thousand years, and the glory and doom of those mythic Greek heroes would ring just as true when transposed to the world I’d grown up in.

The trouble was, I really didn’t know the Iliad very well. And if my book made a mess of retelling a timeless classic of world literature, I had to accept that only one of them was going to come out of it looking bad.

But the more I dug into the ancient poem, the more things came into focus. The avenging Greeks of the original became a rogue IRA unit, scheming to attack an army base near the border and end the recent ceasefire. The Trojans became the British forces, personified in the SAS captain Henry, my equivalent to Homer’s great warrior Hector. And the callous, scheming gods of Mount Olympus became the politicians on both sides, casually manipulating the fates of those fighting on the ground, mere pawns in their petty power games.

More unexpectedly, as I finished the first draft and emerged blinking into the real world, I saw that the news had caught up with me. The Irish border was a big story again. Try as the politicians might to dismiss it, this little local difficulty was refusing to shut up and go away.

So where does ‘The Emperor’s New Brexit’ end? Will that little border bring the deluded to their senses?

And the more nonsense I heard talked about Northern Ireland and Brexit, the more I found myself thinking of another old story with a few parallels to the current political situation: The Emperor’s New Clothes.

As I saw it, the Irish border was the awkward little boy calling shenanigans on a mass delusion. And as in the folk tale, everyone is eventually forced to stop pretending, and admit that the wonderful thing they’ve been promised simply doesn’t exist. Surely the Brexit story would end the same way, with the foolish leader humiliated and abandoning the throne.

At least that’s how I remembered it. I was enjoying the conceit so much that I went back to read the Hans Christian Andersen story. But what I found was a very different ending.

In the original, the fraudulent weavers persuade the entire administration that anyone who can’t see their glorious creation isn’t fit to hold office. So when the king finally sees what they’ve come up with, he’s just as scared of losing face, and declares it a huge success.

But when that little boy points out the blindingly obvious, and the whole kingdom starts to laugh at him, the ruler doesn’t flee in shame. No, he brazens it out, and the story ends with him parading proudly on, naked and shameless.

So where does ‘The Emperor’s New Brexit’ end? Will that little border bring the deluded to their senses? Or will they carry on ignoring the facts in front of them, too proud to admit they’ve been had?

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The Good Friday Agreement holds Northern Ireland poised between its two histories, finely balanced, offering just enough to both sides to let them face their common future together. Any kind of Brexit swings a baseball bat towards that delicate equilibrium. Something has to give.

Country-by-Michael-Hughes1

One option is the so-called hard Brexit. However this might work in the long term, the short-term reality will be checkpoints and customs posts. The invisible border becomes solid once again, and Northern Ireland is pulled closer to the rest of the UK. But the Irish government says it won’t accept this, and the EU promises to back it up.

In another option, Britain and Northern Ireland get their own separate Brexits: one hard, one soft. This effectively puts a new border in the Irish Sea, but the end result is to push the Six Counties back towards the Republic, and smooth the path towards eventual reunification. The DUP won’t accept this one, and they won’t hesitate to bring down the current government to stop it. The third option is a soft Brexit for the whole UK. Of course, the Tory right say they won’t accept that. Stalemate.

But what seems bafflingly difficult for both the politicians and the commentators to accept is that there is no fourth option. There just isn’t. Next year, one of those three will come to pass. The only other scenario is to ignore the referendum result, and stay in the EU. Fat chance.

As a Remain voter born and raised near the border, I’m still hoping for a soft UK Brexit. And not just to keep the peace in my homeland. For we find ourselves in the bizarre situation where both main parties are pro-Brexit, but for entirely opposite reasons.

The Tories want out because they think it’s a socialist conspiracy. Labour wants out because they think it’s a neoliberal conspiracy. And call me a Centrist Dad, but that’s enough to tell me the EU must have been doing something right all these years.

Country by Michael Hughes is out now (Hodder & Stoughton, £12,99)

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