If you take a plane from the UK mainland to Belfast, you could believe that everything is roughly as it been since the Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago. It may be difficult, occasionally tense, but not impossible and, crucially, not at war.
There are “peace walls” topped with coiled barbed wire, kerbstones painted in rival colours and rival flags flying at what are called the “interfaces”. But this year, as the police noted, was the first in four decades that there were no bonfires in Belfast to mark the 8 August anniversary of internment. While hotter weather-wise, this summer has so far been cooler in other respects than many.
Say goodbye to Belfast, however, and take the bus west-northwest, to the city now called Derry-Londonderry (by those who prefer not to take sides), and you will soon be enveloped in a rather different vibe.
The bus – linking Northern Ireland’s two major cities – takes two hours, with an extra 15 minutes at present for roadworks. The train takes a little longer. Either way, it will take you longer to traverse the distance between Northern Ireland’s two biggest cities than it takes to fly from anywhere in the mainland to Belfast.
And when you look at the road and rail map of Northern Ireland, you can partly see why. There are reminders here of just-united Germany or, say, Washington DC – places whose fractured transport infrastructure betrays dislocation of a more profound kind. The lines may once have been intended to join up, but they don’t – and not just because the money ran out.
I went to Northern Ireland in the hope of catching something of the mood at what seems a rather crucial time in a place that is – potentially – the Brexit frontline. As it turned out, I was following, unwittingly, hard on the heels of some very important guests.
The previous 10 days had seen Theresa May give a speech in Belfast to defend her already moribund Chequers “deal”. It was a speech that pressed many loyalist buttons, while also recognising that many claimed Irish identity. But it was noted in the province for something else: in her speech, May had used the formulation “Derry-Londonderry” – apparently becoming the first British prime minister to do so from a public stage. This went unremarked on the mainland.
A few days later, Philip Hammond, the chancellor, had made a separate trip to Derry-Londonderry to hold out the prospect of a so-called City Deal – an arrangement already widespread elsewhere in the UK, that gives local authorities more say in how central government money is spent. Belfast is still finalising its own City Deal, but Northern Ireland’s second city is now in line for one, too.
Was such a procession of senior British ministers to Northern Ireland unusual, I asked. Yes, it was – and it stirred memories for me of how senior UK politicians had rushed to Scotland 10 days before the 2014 referendum after a poll suddenly showed a turn towards independence. “Panic? What panic” was the official mantra then, and it could apply again.
So is the Westminster government finally waking up to the dangers that Brexit could present to Northern Ireland – and not just to Northern Ireland, but to the uneasy peace that prevails there, and even to the current composition of the United Kingdom? Arch-Brexiteers argue that there is no risk – indeed, that the whole issue is being inflated out of all proportion by Remainers in their flailing attempts to frustrate Brexit. Boris Johnson is reported to have applied the same profane dismissal to the concerns of Northern Ireland as he applied to the expressions of alarm from UK business.
I would respectfully recommend that they follow me past Belfast (which hogs the bulk of Westminster subventions to the province and stands to survive any adverse Brexit effect better than the rest) to Derry – I’m dropping the Londonderry for practical not political considerations – and just listen to what people say. It would not necessarily be what they expect.
Once upon a time you might have been struck by the sectarian divide, here as in Belfast, which would have split opinion on everything. This August, that was not my first, or overwhelming, impression. The alignments of Protestant/unionist/loyalist on the one side and Catholic/republican/nationalist on the other seem less clear than they were.
Whether you talk to engaged observers, such as Michael Gove’s much maligned “experts” or local journalists, to businesspeople, or to concerned individuals of the sort who crammed into talks organised for this – the 26th – year’s Feile (community festival), even if you just eavesdrop on people chatting among themselves in the walled city’s cafes and bars, you will not have to wait long before you hear such terms as “disaster”, “destruction”, “devastation”.
This is what they fear from a hard Brexit, from a no-deal Brexit, or from pretty much any Brexit that entails the reinstatement, however partial or “technical”, of the border that wends its way just a few miles/kilometres from their city. And they understand, with a stark clarity that seems totally lacking on the mainland, that when (not if) the UK leaves the European Union, there will be a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which will become a fully foreign country.
For younger people, this will be for the first time in living memory.
You can talk about special “bilateral” arrangements as much as you like, about sophisticated Customs technology, or – wistfully – about drawing a new Customs border down the Irish Sea. But no one, it seemed to me, has any illusions. The Good Friday “fudge” that allowed the border to be visible for those who wanted to see it and invisible to those who did not, that allowed Northern Ireland’s population to choose to be British or Irish or both, is coming to an end.
Now you might object that this alarm – and it is alarm – stems largely from the fact that the UK government has not been doing a sufficiently good job of reassurance. Maybe. But if the UK government in Westminster isn’t profoundly worried by now about the Brexit effect on Northern Ireland, then it should be.
The economic writing is already on the wall. The fall in the pound against the euro is not benefiting Northern Ireland. It is sending skilled EU workers home, or across the border. Uncertainty is killing investment. And it is not as though Northern Ireland was flourishing to start with. The Good Friday dividend never really arrived north of the border, and the comparative deprivation beyond Belfast is a shocking indictment of decades of poor government from London and Stormont. The northwest feels as abandoned by the UK as it ever has.
Which is partly why the political writing is on the wall, too. The rioting that broke out early last month – in places where rioting tends to break out – was passed over as an unfortunate little local difficulty. Well, maybe. But levels of violence can also be a gauge of something else: morale, discontent, frustration. What was the trigger? Will it recur? And one reason why local politicians took such a dim view of the Northern Ireland secretary’s tardiness in visiting was that the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, and the members of the currently defunct Stormont Assembly and the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, had made a joint visit to the area more than a week before. What does that say about the engagement of the “mother country”?
But something else is happening, too, which casts a slightly different light on this otherwise depressing scene. Late last month, after the week of riots, after the procession of UK visitors, the former DUP leader, now elder statesman, Peter Robinson used a conference speech just across the Irish border to reopen the taboo question of a united Ireland. In remarks received furiously by some fellow unionists, Robinson said he did not think Northern Ireland would vote to leave the UK, but people should “prepare” for the possibility and “accept the result”.
It turned out that he was giving public voice to a discussion that had already begun, and that discussion exposes very different concerns from the past. It used to be that the power of the Catholic Church was the overriding objection. With the reputation of the church tarnished by child abuse scandals and social attitudes, both among the public and enshrined in law, more liberal than in much of the north, the arguments now are about the place of the British legacy, the economy, and… the NHS (that is, keeping a health service that is “free at the point of delivery”).
It is not clear where this might go. But the conversation now is not just about whether, but how. And allegiances appear to be more fluid, perhaps a lot more fluid, than they were – thanks to generational change in the north, social and economic change in the Republic, and, of course, Brexit.
The size of the majority for Remain in the EU referendum in Northern Ireland showed that it crossed the Catholic/Protestant, republican/unionist divide. A hard border, even the prospect of a hard border, could push the line even further. The result, in the event of a referendum on unification, may not be as predictable as it once was.
What the UK has cooked up, courtesy of our Brexit vote, the ill-advised election that gave the Northern Ireland DUP a casting vote in Westminster, and some cack-handed negotiation with Brussels, is widely seen in the province as a disaster in the making, presaging penury or a return to violence, or both. Or, it could spell the end of the Union and pave the way – Dublin willing – for a united Ireland. Even a year ago, that would have been inconceivable. No longer.