Suddenly our land border with the North is back in the news with our Taoiseach adopting a much more strident stance on the re-establishment of a hard border. Moving across the border is now a seamless exercise. This week I crossed the border a couple of times and on both occasions there was very little to indicate that I had moved into a new jurisdiction – at first there were just the clues of changing road signs. However, the deeper one ventured into Northern Ireland the more it became apparent that this was a very different place. Around Banbridge you are presented with Union flags galore fluttering from lampposts informing us all that this is no longer an Ireland as we might know it.
Of course, this is not a province with just one formal political border: there are a multitude of frontiers. There is a fascinating psycho-geography to contemplate and up country, around the Antrim coast, you get the constant sense of passing through one psychological jurisdiction into another where ownership over the land is clearly contested. Flags are part of the story, but there are other elements to bear in mind. Walking the Causeway Coast on Sunday, I was anxious to watch the hurling semi-final. I enquired whether there were any pubs nearby who would show it. I timidly asked about Bushmills as a venue and both at the hotel and in a taxi was given the “you’re having a laugh” kind of look. There was one place within range – a smallish bar on one side of Portrush where the hurling occupied a relatively discreet place in the snug. We passed through Bushmills on the way home, decked out in Union flags from one side of the town to the other. To return briefly to the theme of a previous column, for the home of Bushmills whiskey and a town anxious to attract tourists from the Republic, it was a touch too much on the authentic side. It was an exhibition of a form of hyper-Britishness that exists only in Ulster. Back in Ballycastle, just a short drive up the road, the psycho-geography of the Troubles was more subtle: no flags but instead a high concentration of GAA colours.
Driving Southwest from the Causeway down towards Fermanagh the road signs were a lexicon of violent trauma: Ballykelly, Greysteel, Strabane, Claudy, Omagh, Enniskillen. The signs not only point you in the right direction but also back in time to a highly contested past. The writer Ian Sinclair pioneered the idea of psycho-geography, taking as his canvas East London.
His observations consist of how geographic space feels and how the past is inscribed into the landscape. The North is densely marked in this regard. David Bolton, a 61-year-old retired social worker and senior manager in the health service in Northern Ireland, has recently published a book on the mental health impact of the Troubles. The statistics he brings to the table should give us all pause for thought. Quoting research, Bolton states that of the North’s population of some 1.8 million, around 500,000 have been affected by the Troubles, with 200,000 somehow “bereaved” and 34,000 people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With this much pain and distress Northern society still needs minding.
So debates focusing merely on the economic risks around the re-imposition of a border are too reductive. This propensity to focus on the numbers is a characteristic of politics in the Republic. It reflects the discomfort of our politicians in dealing with the North and is yet another legacy of the Troubles. However, with time passing there is a sense that the present generations– and here I am making reference to Varadkar and Coveney – are more willing to keep it real and call it as they see it. They don’t want a return to check-points, where instead of looking for signs of a change we see the formal apparatus of the State as soon as we encounter the border.
Brexit raises the prospect of the North being cut off from Europe, of being dragged down the plughole of British imperial nostalgia. It is a crucial historical juncture for Ulster. The open border has made the North a more comfortable place for the Nationalist population. The fluidity around the border has allowed the agenda to move on to a more rights-based approach to politics, where the focus has been on such concepts as parity of esteem and away from the zero sum game of sovereignty.
In Ballycastle they were mostly amused by the fetish of flag-flying in Bushmills. If the North follows the rest of the UK in drifting away from Europe and the Republic and the fences along the border reappear, this sense of live and let live may dissipate. The relationship between the psychology of the citizenry and the landscape in the North is a delicate one and needs care and attention; more attention than it currently receives in the Brexit debates.
The economic border is one thing – there are other borders that will continue to exist. Borders that divide towns, streets and even families. A letter this week to the Irish Times pointed out that we might do well to broaden the focus from same sex marriage in Northern Ireland to mixed marriage between Catholics and Protestants. So omnipresent is the border that it is occasionally reconstituted in the marital bed. Brexit will raise the barriers, flag-flying will take on greater importance, the past traumas will again leak into the present and the pain will come back to those that suffered during the Troubles. The road signs are not just lexicons of trauma, they are a reminder of the care that is needed and the value of the Good Friday Agreement. There can be no return to a hard border.