Relationship between Ireland and Britain can easily erupt

On a miserably misty mor­ning earlier this week, I drove down the backroads of northwest Ireland, traversing seamlessly between the counties of Sligo, Donegal, Leitrim and Fermanagh.

Autumn had left the hedgerows and trees, winter being felt by the weary cattle and soaked sheep. Over a small stone bridge over a stream emptying into Melvin Lake, I crossed from the Republic of Ireland into the territory of the United Kingdom. The only discernible difference was a change in the colour of the tarmac on the broken and boggy road.

At Garrison, a tidy village at the head of that lake, there were election posters for the candidates running in the constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone on December 12. Across Northern Ireland, there are 18 seats to be won in the UK’s general election.

Last time out in 2017, Northern Ireland sent 10 Democratic Unionist members of parliament to Westminster. They supported the governments of prime ministers Theresa May and largely Boris Johnson through thick and thin, supporting a Brexit that would have imposed a hard international border on that stream emptying into Melvin Lake.

An 11th MP stood as an independent unionist opposed to Brexit. And seven more Sinn Fein MPs were elected but, as is long-standing policy for a republican party intent on the unity of the island of Ireland, they refused to take their seats in the British parliament. To do so would have meant swearing an oath of allegiance, recognising Queen Elizabeth as the titular Head of State.

The lessons here, where history confronts politics

 in a geography of flooded fields, swollen streams

 and steaming livestock, are stark. Try as communities

 might to move beyond the past, they are beholden

 to it in a present tense with the divisions heightened by Brexit

Failing to do so over these past months of endless wrangling, however, has also ensured that the Brexit mess continues to dominate UK politics and the outcome of this general election.

If only those seven had been in the House of Commons for those so close and crucial votes, Theresa May might very well had her deal approved and would, to borrow the current catchphrase of Boris, have gotten Brexit done.

This constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone is pretty evenly divided between Roman Catholic and Protestant on religious lines, equally divided then between Irish nationalist and Ulster loyalist on political lines — and it is where the fault lines of the 800-year-old relationship between Ireland and Britain come to the surface often in very violent ways.

Here, voting pacts are common. Parties won’t run candidates to ensure that voting blocs stay united, that the moderates are sidelined, that voters must choose between the poles to which they are drawn by birth. It is that raw.

It was here, in 1981, that the name of Bobby Sands became known to the world. He was a convicted IRA terrorist, on hunger strike in Long Kesh to be treated as a political prisoner, and to become a key figure as the IRA and Sinn Fein changed from an armed struggle into political evolutionaries.

The moderate nationalist SDLP did not field a candidate, giving Sands a clear run against Harry West from the Ulster Unionist Party. Sands won 30,492 votes, a winning margin of 1,446. He died a month later after 66 days on hunger strike. Sinn Fein and the IRA leadership realised that if they could not defeat Crown forces militarily, they could at least beat them at the ballot box.

Fermanagh-South Tyrone has bounced between both sides in electoral contests since then: In 2015, the seat was Unionist, in 2017, it was won by Sinn Fein. This time around, the SDLP is again standing aside, making it a straight fight between both camps.

Another reality

That the constituency includes part of South Tyrone reflects another reality of Northern Irish politics — many of those 18 constituencies are “gerrymandered”, changed to ensure that nationalist blocs are divided.

Indeed, when the British negotiated the treaty to partition Ireland in 1921, they carved up Ulster’s nine counties, leaving Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan in the 26 that would become the Irish Free State. Leaving the three in Northern Ireland would mean a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland, not a Protestant and loyal one.

Further on, there is the town of Belleek, known the world over for the quality of its pottery — fine and delicate, ornate and with a place in the finest drawing rooms and plates in finest dining rooms.

Back in the bad old days of the Troubles, it was under virtual lockdown, hunkered down behind sandbags, vehicle and identity checks. Today, it is thriving even if there are few tourists visiting its craft shops in late November.

If there is hard border again, if Boris gets a large majority, if Brexit is imperfect, if trade negotiations fail, there will be repercussions to reverberate beyond this sodden soil.

The lessons here, where history confronts politics in a geography of flooded fields, swollen streams and steaming livestock, are stark. Try as communities might to move beyond the past, they are beholden to it in a present tense with the divisions heightened by Brexit. And the future? Well, the fields will be well watered come spring.

Mick O'Reilly is a journalist 

based in Ireland

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