“EVERY time the English tried to solve the Irish Question, the Irish changed the question.” Thus did Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That neatly encapsulate England’s perplexity in the face of Irish political complexity.
Glenn Patterson’s Backstop Land is a response to today’s version of the question. It is a wise and entertaining attempt to explain why issues around the Irish Border have become absolutely central to British politics and the Brexit issues. And the Backstop — that is about the politics of leaving the EU while avoiding the return of a “hard border” at what would then be the UK/EU border.
He writes in a cheerfully informative style. But readers who are from Northern Ireland and those of us who left — for he remarks that 57 per cent of school-leavers leave — will recognise behind that cheerful narrative a real frustration. For it is a sorry tale of inept leadership, of missed opportunity, of failure to rise above the pain and bad memories of generational violence. Northern Ireland has always been at risk of being a place where the first recourse to grievance is violence.
But Patterson also offers us some fascinating insights into aspects of today’s Northern Ireland.
The first is about the Good Friday Agreement. The world outside Northern Ireland heaved a sigh of relief and thought, “Well, that’s sorted at last.” Power has been concentrated in the Sinn Fein and DUP duopoly. They have squeezed out smaller rivals and swallowed the space for compromise in the centre ground.
Yet change is under way. For the first time, there is no guaranteed majority for either Unionists or Nationalists. Smaller parties of the centre — Greens, People before Profit, and, most of all, the cross-community Alliance Party — have been growing.
Patterson sees the murder last April of Lyra McKee, journalist and gay-rights activist, as a key moment. At her funeral, a Roman Catholic priest forcefully challenged the assembled politicians to try again to reach an agreement that would restart the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It was McKee who began to talk about herself as a “ceasefire baby”: she was four when the Provisional IRA ended their campaign of violence. Her article “Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies” was a response to the reality that there had been a doubling of the suicide rate and that more people had killed themselves since the end of the Troubles as had died in them.
All of this speaks of change. It is a new Northern Ireland where 60,000 people take part in a Pride March that includes the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.
And the future? As Patterson says, much of this is in the political unknowns around Brexit. He is particularly aware of the need to address the feelings aroused by the ultimate decision. “I hope the only wounds that need to be healed are emotional, here above all, where this whole enterprise still looks as though it will stand or fall.”
The Rt Revd David Chillingworth is a former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
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