the great divide

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Growing-up in the frozen north during the sixties it came as some surprise to learn that I was the product of a ‘mixed marriage’, an oft frowned-upon union of a protestant and a catholic. In a region where schools, estates, sports facilities, teams and community centres were demarcated along strict sectarian lines I admit to having been bemused by the whole malarkey and never truly understood the rivalry, let alone the hatred. On Saturdays in the park my brother sported the colours of City and I the red of Liverpool. Consequently, even during the worst of ‘the troubles’, I never fully grasped the antipathy between the cat-licks and the proddies and, in a juvenile manner, wanted everyone just to roll along.

Now, as barricades, petrol bombs and burning buses are again sadly becoming a feature of Belfast life, it’s time to look at what’s rekindling the old rivalries and animosities. Twenty-odd years after the signing of the Good Friday agreement had finally unlocked peace in Northern Ireland, I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say I hoped we’d seen the back of those dark incendiary days. 

The founding purpose of the EU was to ensure peace and relative harmony. A continent mired in centuries of conflict and warfare needed to mend its ways. And quick. As members of this exclusive club, both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were able to blur the border a little, allowing, in practice, those in the north to identify as British, or Irish, or both, or how so ever they wished, without too much grief. Yep, it was a fudge, but it was a practical, working fudge that was openly supported by everyone concerned. Since January this calm, pragmatic solution has been blown apart.

Once Britain chose to extricate itself from the EU, and its single market and customs union, there would have to be a border. The only question was whether it would be on the land or in the water. This is an inescapable non-negotiable reality. The former would appal catholic nationalists and the latter would aggravate protestant loyalists. Through his hasty, ill-conceived Northern Ireland protocol, Boris Johnson, irrespective of his empty rhetoric, chose the border to be in the water, with the obvious result that loyalists now recognise the very tangible difference between themselves and the mainland, and feel betrayed.

The issue now is to make the protocol work to the satisfaction of the two parties. And who’s going to make it work? Certainly not the current incumbent, Brandon Lewis, who is no more savvy than his predecessor, Karen “I didn’t realise nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa” Brady and it needs to go to the top of the tree. Uh oh. Boris Johnson’s former right-hand man at the Foreign Office, Sir Alan Duncan, doesn’t appear to hold his boss in too high a regard. Called an “embarrassing buffoon” by the MP for Rutland and Melton from the early 90s until the last election, he went even further by recently stating on the record that the prime minister was “a clown, a self-centred ego, a joke with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgment. He is an international stain on our reputation.”

When asked by Bojo “Why don’t Europe take me seriously?” Duncan claims he replied “Look in the f***ing mirror!” Ouch. With friends like those…