Peace in Ireland is far too precious to be risked by hard Brexit fanaticism
Visiting Belfast for the first time, you are struck most by the contrast between the modernity and vibrancy of its present and the inescapable reminders of its conflict torn past, which abound as an ever present and chilling echo of Belfast and the North of Ireland’s all too recent tortured history.
Because just a couple of miles from the vibrant and modern centre of Belfast — replete with the same packed coffee shops, bars, restaurants and young hipsters you find in every European city — lies the republican Falls Road and loyalist Shankhill Road. Both are so famous/infamous that in their truncated designations— the Falls, the Shankhill — they represent something far more significant and resonant than mere streets of bricks and mortar. You are left in doubt of this significance the moment you arrive on either and encounter wall murals and monuments celebrating and commemorating rival and antagonistic causes which over 30 years of conflict, known euphemistically as the Troubles, accounted for 3000 dead and thousands more wounded and maimed.
Growing up in the seventies and eighties in Britain was to be accompanied by regular news reports of bombings taking place in Belfast, Derry, London, Birmingham, Manchester, and elsewhere. You would read about atrocities and murders and killings at the hands of the RUC, the British Army, the SAS, UVF, INLA, UFF, IRA - so many organisations crammed into this narrow but deadly conflict. And to be sure, those involved were neither to themselves or their respective communities engaged in acts of murder or criminality. Instead they viewed and still view what transpired as, on the republican side, a legitimate armed struggle for national liberation in resistance to colonial oppression and occupation while, on the loyalist side, the conflict was fought in defence of their British identity and status against agents of a foreign power.
Anyone doubting the impact of this period on Belfast and the Six Counties need only take themselves over to Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast. There you are confronted by a sea of graves of predominately young men and women, participants and victims of this brutal period in Irish and British history who if not alive at that time in that place would not now be dead.
With such hatred and enmity in mind, the Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement) of 1998 stands as a rare triumph of diplomacy and compromise in the interests of not so much peace as an absence of conflict. Because as yet there is no peace in the North of Ireland. Both communities remain separated by so-called ‘peace walls’ and the ancient hatred that divides them is yet to dissipate. And in this regard time for wounds to heal and new generations unburdened by the past to come to the fore is a friend, while complacency that the conflict is over never to return is the enemy.
It is complacency that is driving the hard Brexit fanaticism which is now imperilling the fragile absence of conflict in this small corner of northern Europe. As with Trump across the Atlantic, Boris Johnson and his crew are intoxicated with right wing populism, riding a heady wave of impassioned support from an Engerland mob for whom Brexit is a state of being rather than a means to a end.
In a crude departure from classic conservatism, wherein the interests of big business and big capital are its political priorities, Johnson, Gove and Cummings et al. have made a cynical and opportunistic pivot to this Engerland mob, denizens of the so-called and wildly overstated ‘red wall’ in the Midlands, Yorkshire and Northern England, as their social base. This they have done safe in the knowledge that an anti-establishment posture chimes perfectly with the anti-politics of this particular section of the English working class.
And be in no doubt that in the hearts and minds of this demographic the Good Friday Agreement has always been tantamount to a declaration of surrender to the IRA, an insult to the sanctity of British sovereignty which must needs now be reaffirmed with a hard Brexit up to and including the reimposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
This is where are we now: the embrace of Union Jack waving, Rule Britannia singing, purple faced English nationalism as the driver of UK government policy, which at time of this writing is on a collision course with reality.
Sobering in its import and frightening in its implications, this reality is there for all to see in West Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery.
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