It is for their rivers and their lakes “fair jumping with salmon” that playwright Frank Mc Guinness’s Ulstermen charge to their death in the Battle of the Somme.
In his play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, revived for 2016 in theatres in Dublin and Belfast and London, he located his Ulstermen going into their tragic battle as natives of this beautiful island, springing from its soil and sustained by its waters.
This was a huge and important imaginative leap for a playwright who grew up on the border during the Troubles, in a Catholic, nationalist tradition which explicitly rejected the Protestant tradition as an invasive species.
Why does this memory keep recurring as we prepare to leave 2016 behind? Because the most unlikely outcome of this year of remembrance is that a United Ireland is back on the agenda. And for me it is back on the agenda because we live on a small island and nature knows no borders.
People are talking of “hard” and “soft” borders but few seem concerned at the possible impact of Brexit on Ireland’s environment. There is next to no environmental law which does not originate in the EU.
As Tony Lowes of Friends of the Irish Environment says, without EU environmental law “We are the emperor with no clothes”. And he points to the interesting fact that Northern unionists may have fiercely rejected union with the South but have not rejected being ruled by EU law.
With Northern Ireland out of the EU the Assembly will not have to translate EU directives into national law. They can even take out the bits that are in there.
This would impact implementation of the Water Framework Directive which protects our freshwater systems and the Habitats Directive which protects our biodiversity on this side of the border. In some cases and in some places it would make implementation impossible.
Green Party MLA Steven Agnew says the implications of Brexit for the North’s environment have made some steadfast unionist Greens, who even campaigned against the Greens becoming an all-Ireland party in 2004, call for a United Ireland.
Coming himself from a strong loyalist community, he says he experienced the Brexit vote as a body blow. With the leaders of Alliance, Sinn Fein and the SDLP he has taken a case, which is being considered by the UK Supreme Court, that triggering Article 50 to leave the EU is inconsistent with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
“Control in an independent state in the context of the international environmental challenge is a nonsense”, he says.
Because Northern Ireland’s environmental law is completely devolved and he worries where a DUP-led administration will lead when it comes to the environment: “Sammy Wilson’s attitude is we are responsible for 3% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, we can do whatever we like”, he says.
Every time the North backs out of a commitment under EU environmental legislation the whole island will be impacted. Agnew points to the implications for water quality of the Assembly vote to stop installing water metres in new houses.
We are as bad ourselves, of course. The Republic’s implementation of the Water Framework and Habitats Directives has been so poor that in many cases the directives might as well not have been there.
But they are there. That is important. The directives and our EU commitments on climate change are the only hopes we have that this island can ever be prosperous, peaceful, clean and green.
The truth is that even if there is no “hard” border for people there will be a renewed attempt to draw a “hard” border for natural resources. There has been a dispute between North and South about the ownership of the waters of Loughs Foyle and Carlingford, for instance.
After the Good Friday Agreement it was kicked to touch by way of the Loughs Agency. But the Brexit vote was barely in before the new secretary of state of Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire was claiming that all of Lough Foyle was in the UK.
Louth county councillor Mark Dearey (GP) thinks it’s quite possible the UK will attempt to claim Carlingford Lough as well as there is dispute as to where the high water mark is and what it means for control of the lough.
He paints a compelling picture of how interconnected our natural resources are along the border: “Three-quarters of Co Louth is in the Neagh/Bann River Basin. The River Fane rises in Monaghan, flows to Armagh, it is the border for seven miles before ending up in Co Louth where it supplies 40,000 people with their drinking water.”
There is already evidence of diesel-laundering going on along the border and affecting water quality to the point that it is explicitly monitored before the water reaches the taps. Dearey accepts the EU water directive is not working as it should.
But he says Brexit threatens every shred of regulation protecting natural resources in border counties. As an example he mentions the “toothless” Loughs Agency and says mussel dredging is still happening in Carlingford Lough where bird life is being affected.
But having an agency which could potentially co-ordinate North and South to protect the Lough is far better than having none.
The possible implications of Brexit for the natural environment of this divided island go on and on. Dearey questions whether Northern farmers will continue to accept an intervention price for their beef, for instance.
Will there be pressure on them to compete globally by using growth hormones and how could the South protect its food chain?
Brokenshire has already said the UK will withdraw from the EU Common Fisheries Policy and it is policy which few environmentally-minded people can support.
But what fair and sustainable fishing policy is possible in our waters if UK fishermen are not part of it? The fish don’t observe any borders and rising water temperatures are changing their migratory habits.
Who and how will disputes between Irish and UK fisherfolk we resolved if the UK does not recognise the European Court of Justice?
I’m writing this from the north-western tip of the island. We drove from Dublin to get here, skirting the Donegal village in which my mother grew up unionist and Google reveals a relation drilling with Carson’s UVF to keep Ulster in the UK.
I’m no unionist but still, as a committed European and a pacifist, I never thought I would find myself writing in favour of renewing the discussion around uniting the island.
But I do so now and I do so here. Not because “Only our rivers run free”. But because free is the only way rivers know how to run.