By Peter Makem
Ireland is suddenly a lonely place. Old securities have been shattered since the people of the United Kingdom — specifically the people of England — voted to leave the European Union, voted Brexit, an abbreviation of British exit. The majority of the people from Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU.
It is all the result of a civil war in England, a revolt against the indifference of government both in London and the EU along with a traditional Little Englander mentality that was never comfortable in Europe in keeping with England’s historic” isolated island” mentality and an ongoing nostalgia for the Days of Empire. These two forces combined to defeat the 45-year-old solidarity of the EU with the UK and which the British government thought was impregnable. The Brexit faction did not actually think they would win and so were essentially mounting a campaign of protest to give the established order a bloody nose.
But they actually delivered a knock out punch and shocked both themselves, the UK government, Europe and the world — and shocked Ireland, North and South more than anywhere as so much of the Peace Process was only possible, because both the Republic and the UK were part of the same greater club of Europe.
It will take a while to work out the full damage, if actual foundations are affected, if the damage is structural, or if only the roof and the windows have been damaged. It’s a meteor out of the clear blue sky.
I come from a border area. Twice in my lifetime I saw the cross border roads being cratered and blocked off with iron bars. Twice I saw the local people arrive with tractors and spades and hacksaws and reopened them enough so that vehicles could pass again. But to cross by the approved roads—notably such main roads as between Belfast and Dublin—meant long queues at checkpoints involving police, army and customs—reminiscent of aspects of Eastern European conditions. Suddenly that was all gone with the Peace – not with the actual drama of Berlin when the wall came down—but a massive uplift of relief like having a stent inserted into a blocked artery. The rivers of life flowed free again, the border leaped out of history and was gone. Then came Brexit and the vote, and old dreads returned in all their darkness.
I’m not an economist but nobody seems to know what is happening or what is going to happen. Farmers are in a special dark worrying about grants, the entire export/import balancing act is changing, so much is in trouble. I know that thousands of people here in the North have been applying for Irish passports as new visa problems have arisen and they want to maintain direct links with the EU for holiday and other travelling purposes. An Irish passport—which everybody in the North is entitled to under the GFA—maintains EU identity even though up here we will no longer be living in the EU.
Immediate proposals to have an All-Ireland “Crisis” meeting has fizzled out. Proposals from Sinn Fein for a new border pole have been rejected. Proposals that the North remain in the EU because the majority here voted against Brexit have been dismissed by London.
Can you imagine the state of Pennsylvania voting to leave the Union because of some long standing economic or social resentment of the Federal government and that what began as a protest movement gathered momentum until the entire state awoke shocked that in fact the majority actually voted to leave. 200 years year of political and economic cohesion are over and the new nation of Pennsylvania is on its own, a new border, new tax laws, new currency and banking structure, new foreign policy, new trading partners sought and on and on.
While the South of Ireland gained independence from the UK in 1922, it was largely a nominal thing. The South remained in the sterling area, had the same trading conditions, had open borders in that Irish emigrants going to England to work did not require a passport, and could vote in England. In fact there was no border between the South and England, but there was definitely a border between the South and the North owing to the endless political tensions. So as I write, the border here no longer represents the division of Ireland, but has a new status as the division of the European Union, the only border left in Europe. Yes. We are suddenly a lonely Island, and exposed to the elements in a way few thought possible a mere month ago. The island of Ireland is currently united in disillusionment.