The wrong sort of Irish

A meditation for Brexit day

My father learned his politics in Belfast, where he was born in 1918, four years before the civil war. One of his earliest memories was being pushed to the floor of a tram while Catholics and Protestants shot through the windows from each side of the street that it rattled down. He understood politics as the continuation of war by other means. He saw nothing very wrong in the murder of men he thought worked with the IRA. His father before him was a shipyard engineer who helped to smuggle guns for the Ulster Volunteer force in the crisis of 1912. My father married into another Irish protestant family, and, like them, gave most of his life to the service of the British imperial state; in his case as a diplomat whose last job was helping to negotiate our terms of accession to the European Union in 1972.

Yet when he retired, he took to wearing a shamrock on St Patrick’s Day. He never wanted to return to Belfast, a place he’d left in miserable circumstances after his parents died, but he never felt entirely at home in England either. And because of his birth in Belfast, I now can count myself an Irish citizen. Last year my passport came through. It sits besides the British one on my desk, and there reminds me of all the loyalties that used to bind Britain together, and which Brexit is steadily tearing apart.

It’s a cliché to say that leaving the European Union will lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom, but it’s a cliché because it is obviously true. The Democratic Unionist party kept the Conservative minority government in power from 2015 till last December. At first it was paid off with a billion pounds in subsidies for the province. Now it has been comprehensively betrayed.

This betrayal was inevitable if there was to be a deal with the EU at all. There must be some kind of customs and regulatory border around the European Union, as there is around every trading bloc. This could have run along the political border between Northern and southern Ireland, but that was wholly unacceptable to the EU. It would also mean financial disaster for the Northern Irish economy, something which does not seem to have occurred to the DUP leadership until too late. Or the border could enclose the whole of Britain, as it does now. That was unacceptable to the Conservative Party. The only possibility, then, is the border now proposed, between the whole island of Ireland and England, Wales, and Scotland.

That will also damage the Irish economy, and it destroys the foundational belief of the DUP, that Northern Ireland has more in common with the British mainland than with the south. Reunification looks inevitable within the next ten to fifteen years. Incidentally, the cost of a land border on the island of Ireland is why I believe that the Scots will not, in the last analysis, choose independence from Britain. The complications of a hard border between England and Scotland would be a price too high.

The English won’t miss Northern Ireland in the least. But until twenty years ago, the English were merely one nation among the four in the United Kingdom. Irishmen like my father, along with Scots like Tony Blair, were loyal to Britain, not to England. It was the growth of English nationalism that pushed us all out. That, in turn, was a reaction to the shrivelled status of Great Britain. All my life, England has been a fish that grew bigger in a pond that shrunk, as Britain lost its greatness.

My own earliest memory is of a hallway in Ismailia, a town on the Suez Canal where my father had been sent as the British consul in 1956, shortly before the disastrous Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, to which the Eisenhower government put a brutal and public stop. That was the end of Britain’s pretensions as a great power, and there is a direct line from there to our decision to join the Common Market, as it then was. My father and his fellow diplomats had no illusions about Europe but few about their own country’s power and importance, either.

My father died twenty years ago, still rather a foreigner in England. My son, who is half-Swedish, chose to go to university in Belfast because he wanted an English-speaking country that was neither English nor Swedish. His closest friends were Catholics and Republicans. Some of the wounds of the past are slowly healing there. I don’t suppose that my new passport means I have signed up for an earthly paradise but at least it means that I am now a citizen of a country which has many fewer illusions about itself, and that is something which my protestant forebears would approve and understand.