Unionism and the Hard Borders of the Mind

I come from County Fermanagh and was brought up in the Unionist tradition. The west of Northern Ireland is a wild and beautiful place - often held to work to different rhythms than the more strident cities and suburbs to the East. The Unionist minority there, perhaps mindful of that demographic deficit, has always tended to moderation. This was more of a ‘live and let live’ space, closer to the Atlantic than the ghetto.

And yet, the legacy of the horror visited on the Protestant population of the Fermanagh border during the Troubles is an enduring reminder of how much remains to be done to reconcile the past with a more hopeful future now much at stake in the current constitutional tumult.

During the 1980s and 90s the Provisional IRA carried out a cynical and squalid campaign of sectarian murder in this small strip of frontier land. No amount of Republican revisionism can erase the cruel and intimate nature of the killings nor its clear tactical intent to push the Protestant minority away from the borderlands where many had settled on farms for hundreds of years.

The character of these ‘townland assassinations’ was invariably brutal and merciless. Bus drivers, shopkeepers, church goers, farmers, neighbours, some part time members of the local security forces, many not, were targeted for execution by an enemy without a uniform that seemed to operate with impunity on either side of the frontier. The terrorists used human bombs created by hostages. Shops were set on fire after the occupants were murdered. Virtually none of the perpetrators of what in other contexts would have been war crimes have ever been brought to justice.  

In the light of this relentless onslaught which claimed the lives of over 40 local people it seems (thankfully) extraordinary that no reprisals were taken on the Catholic community.

The quiet stubbornness that characterises the survivors of this carnage who live on near a border is not even a footnote in the Brexit headlines, yet it will matter hugely as the constitutional cards fall back to earth.

The ties that bind the ‘Province’ to the rest of the Union were tenuous at the best of times

I have always had an interest in the experience of these people, writing about it for a local newspaper in the 90s and eventually broadcasting a radio documentary, The Forgotten Frontier, on BBC local radio. I have tried to capture this quiet tenacity - and its often inelegant character - in verse too:

THE DOGGED PEOPLE

My crowd were taught to be

Whatever you aren't.

Easier than unfolding your heart -

Your curtailed self,

When you're hemmed in

Up against that invisible line,

As real as God.

We were learned well, though:

Being thoroughly outmanoeuvred -

Run almost ragged as the flags

Planted in our hedgerows and halls.

You couldn't have us now if you wanted us.

Our unappeasing face

Is your creation,

Yours alone.

The prospect of a hard land border between the EU and the UK after Brexit has energised Nationalists and Republicans lately and they have, quite reasonably, conflated this with the constitutional question of the future of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland, a long time recipient of Brussels cash, voted to remain in the EU Referendum somewhat outside the parameters of the normal sectarian headcount. A grand strategy is emerging, whipped into being by Sinn Fein that Unionism, perennially fearful, unconfident and insular seems uniquely unqualified to counter.

The recent elections to Northern Ireland’s assembly is an example of an entirely avoidable own goal for Unionism which impact reverberates down those lonely country lanes in Fermanagh. The Democratic Unionist Party, until recently the ascendant voice in the polity, threw away their electoral dominance in a psychologically devastating performance which saw nationalist/Republican parties achieve parity with Unionism at Stormont for the first time since the inception of the state.

Hubris and gracelessness from the DUP rightly alienated moderate nationalists and put rocket boosters on the republican vote. The issue of unity - almost buried in apathy prior to the vote - is firmly back on the table.

Sinn Fein’s tactical brilliance has put them within a hair’s breadth of being the biggest party in Stormont. Crossing that Rubicon would have profound implications for this part of the United Kingdom, whatever the outcome of Brexit. The ties that bind the ‘Province’ to the rest of the Union were tenuous at the best of times:

THREADS

We took Narcissus

For our patron saint,

Coming apart at the seams

In these abbreviate cantons,

With no great persuasion.

Our unrequited fealty,

Our nuclear paranoia

Needs a broader canvass

Than the frayed edges

Of this Kingdom will allow.

It is interesting that Sinn Fein has all but abandoned the notion of Unionist ‘outreach’ characterised, even when it was a ‘thing’, by crass appointments of former IRA terrorists to head up the role. This was an act of astonishing stupidity or utter cynicism depending on where the Shinners sit on your index of infallibility. However it is clear now, at least that post-Armalite Republicanism now sees the United Ireland finishing line entirely on the basis of electoral demographics. Hence, their breathless demands for a border poll, taking full advantage of the SNP referendum demand. For Sinn Fein, hope and history rhymes with headcount.

Sinn Fein has weaponised culture, language, and identity in its unremitting zeal to undermine and dilute what it signed up to

You can also expect to see the tactical use of internationalising the conflict. There is much noise in Republican circles - complete nonsense - of the EU somehow being the guarantor of an international agreement between two close and friendly allies. There is ludicrous shroud waving about physical walls and fences in between allied jurisdictions that had freedom of movement years before the EU was even dreamt of.

The US has featured largely in the Sinn Fein playbook and you can expect them to be called on again to ‘defend the Good Friday Agreement’ in the post-election negotiations, blithely ignoring the fact that at every turn Sinn Fein has weaponised culture, language, and identity in its unremitting zeal to undermine and dilute what it signed up to - a Northern Ireland with a partitionist government firmly inside the United Kingdom.

And again, all this theatricality ignores the overlooked and unremarked feelings of Unionists hard against that ‘invisible line, as real as God’. People who endured so much and have to date said so little. In the end, another Ireland - by no means as inevitable as Sinn Fein appear to believe - relies on Republicans tearing their eyes from the international stage, putting away the vapid virtue signalling and sitting across the table from their Protestant neighbours.

Their paramilitary wing, endorsed, indulged and feted to this day by them, were responsible for almost all the slayings in the killing fields of Fermanagh. When you strip away all the risible terminology of ‘armed struggle’, ‘Active Service Units’ and ‘legitimate targets’, you are left with an utterly cowardly and morally insane campaign where Irish ‘patriots’ selected other Irish men and women for death based on their religious identity and national affiliation. The grief and sacrifice of this act of ethnic cleansing by Republican extremists remains unresolved and with it the hope for any sort of agreed Ireland, whatever the numbers say.

It is this legacy more than anything else which holds the Unionist mindset shut to entirely honourable arguments for a unified island. It is this reality, sooner or later, that the leadership of Sinn Fein, themselves alone, must sit down and look in the eye.  

More of Ian Acheson’s border poetry can be read here.

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