North is taking a dangerous road as no-deal Brexit disaster looms

North is taking a dangerous road as no-deal Brexit disaster looms
An Orange Order bonfire in the Sandy Row area of Belfast. Picture: Brian Lawless/ PA Wire

Many years ago, my wife and I went north. It was the first time we had travelled north together, and we were to pick up a wedding present made by Tyrone Crystal. It was for my sister Finola’s wedding, and we had to go to the factory in Dungannon, because it was a one-off piece to commemorate Finola’s life-long interest in prehistoric rock art.

Anyway, we made a serious mistake. We had borrowed my father’s car. When we were stopped at the border by a British patrol, I couldn’t tell the officer the registration number. And when he asked me, I couldn’t produce a driving licence or any other form of identification.

This was 30 or more years ago, when the Troubles were at their height. My stupidity ensured that we were both interrogated, politely but intensely, for more than an hour at the side of the road. Throughout the questioning, we were both extremely conscious that two soldiers stood on either side of us, with rifles pointing in our direction, in case we made a false move.

Eventually, and only because we were able to show them the order form for the piece of glass we were going to collect, we were allowed to proceed. We were photographed, and given strict instructions to return to the exact same crossing point, which was on the main road between Dundalk and Newry.

They even calculated the time they would be expecting us — and, believe me, we didn’t dawdle! That journey is engraved on Frieda’s memory and on mine as a thoroughly scary day out.

It put Frieda off travelling north for a long time, although, years later, I got to know Northern Ireland pretty well (and had a few more scary encounters in the process). I love the place, and its people, most of the time.

But last weekend, we got lost in Northern Ireland once again. And it demonstrated two things about the place: how much it has changed, and how little it has changed.

We were travelling in convoy to a rented summer house in Portsalon, up on the northern tip of Donegal. (By the way, when the sun shines up here, there can hardly be many more beautiful parts of Ireland, with a beach like no other in the world.)

But anyway, Frieda and I were in our car, with our daughter Mandy, who has the gift of being able to sleep soundly for a four-hour journey. We were following our daughter Vicky, her husband Tony, and their three children in their car. They were following Google Maps.

Somewhere between Enniskillen and Omagh, Google Maps decided that “as the crow flies” was the best way to go, and for the next hour we criss-crossed the countryside, never seeing a signpost or a town anywhere. We must have been on every one of the unapproved roads in that part of the world, sometimes in the Republic, sometimes in Northern Ireland. You only knew which jurisdiction you were in based on speed limits changing from miles to kilometres.

All the time, I kept wondering what would happen to these roads, with their interminable border crossings, when Boris Johnston leads Britain out of Europe without a deal.

If we end up with two different tariff regimes, two different Vat regimes, and two different tax regimes, the least that is going to happen is a new smuggling industry. There will be no choice, if Ireland is to remain in Europe, but that these roads, now safe and open, will have to be policed.

That will only be the first step towards a series of trade and economic disasters that will hit this island if there is a no-deal Brexit. No-one who can remember what the border was like could surely ever want to see it back again in any guise. Because Northerners are such hard-headed and sensible people, it boggles my mind that any of them would be willing to allow that to happen. Especially when you think of the rest of the slippery slope down which we will be starting.

But here’s the other side of it. We got ourselves lost on the 13th, the day after the Orange Order and Ulster loyalists march and light bonfires, often stoking violence. Eventually, we got ourselves back on some kind of main road, and passed through a series of villages that clearly hadn’t changed since the days of King Billy.

I remember the bitterness of the “Twalfth” back in the day. I remember the fear and hatred in places like Portadown. I remember the triumphalism of those who insisted on their right to march where they wanted to march, and the humiliation and rancour of those who tried to stop them.

I spent years working on processes aimed at ending that bitterness, at enabling a divided community to become less divided. I thought it was work worth doing, and I used to think we’d had more than a measure of success.

So I have to tell you, there is something deeply dispiriting about passing through pretty little villages, capable of welcoming the world, that are festooned from one end to the next with union jack bunting and images of Her Majesty alongside King Billy. “No welcome here,” is what those messages say.

Maybe the twelfth of July isn’t quite as much an occasion of bitterness as it used to be. But Northern Ireland, to this day, and despite the best efforts of well-meaning politicians and highly skilled and motivated peacemakers, is still a place that sees itself as two communities.

They don’t even have in common the self-interest of protecting themselves from economic disaster. The unionist community in Northern Ireland will follow Boris Johnson into economic oblivion, if necessary — and they’ll do it without a backward glance — because what matters most is never letting the other side be right.

I wouldn't want to finish this column without saying a word about Noel Whelan, who died far too young, last week. When I knew him first, we were both hard-bitten political activists, from opposite sides of the tracks. The likes of him and the likes of me were never going to get on. We met again, though, and this time he was using his immense skills and talents to fight for the kind of causes I had always believed in.

I got to know a man not just of skill, but of empathy. He was a joy to work with on the committees on which we served, because of the sharpness of his intellect, his considerable insight, and his infectious energy.

And he was always a pleasure to meet.

It can be truly said of him that he left a lasting legacy of change, and Ireland is a better place today because of his work, even if it feels like a poorer place because of his death.

Northern Ireland, despite best efforts, is still a place that sees itself as two communities

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