Seam and Friction

Brexit, Northern Ireland and the Arts.

Colin Graham

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Back in 2000 one of the funniest Irish art projects of recent years was staged. John Byrne’s The Border Interpretative Centre, amongst its many manifestations, took over the breeze-block border hut on the Newry-Dundalk road and turned it into ‘The Border Interpretative Centre’. The comedian Kevin McAleer, speaking at the opening ceremony, gave due praise to the impressive Korean border, and remembered with fondess Germany’s then just-demolished but once excellent border. But, McAleer said, there is no border like our own wee border. And, after all, it’s the one thing on the island that binds us all together.

British government post-Brexit discussion of a hard border or a soft border, and, more recently, a ‘seamless and frictionless’ border (which makes it sound like an elasticated support bandage) seems unaware of the serious point inside McAleer’s humour. The physical invisibility of the Irish border has only enhanced the delicacy with which it needs to be understood. What is most politically and culturally alarming about the British government’s inept handling of the situation of Northern Ireland post-Brexit so far has been the recent move to comprehend the Irish border as an economic entity.

There is a deeply unpleasurable irony in this. The border which divides the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland is now held in place by an internationally-validated agreement based on a recognition of the identity politics which brought that border into existence. The past twenty years have tried to sublate those identity politics to everyday politics and economics, while knowing that the balance of those identity politics can be upset and, possibly, ‘the conflict’ reanimated. Brexit, meanwhile, is the reinvigoration of nationalism within England, partly brought about by the devolutionary nationalism in the Celtic ‘peripheries’ – whatever the arguments for Brexit, their zero-sum position will always be that ‘Great British’ interests come first (and this can mean deliberately fooling yourself and others that ‘national interests’ always equal economic interests).

Certainly it’s a possibility that what underpinned the Troubles in the North could be made resurgent by the ideological shift to the right in the UK (and the oxygen which the forces behind Brexit get from Trump’s victory in the US). The depressing outcome towards which we are moving is that the UK government, while inhabiting the rhetoric of Brexit, thinks of the North and the border primarily in economic terms – and the outcome of this will be a long-term and increasing neglect of Northern Ireland. The anomaly of the North is an irritation to the process of Brexiting and seems to have led to a ‘solution’ to Northern Ireland’s difficulties post-Brexit through a banal economic model that imagines Northern Ireland as a kind of supply-side transit zone – one vast warehousing area for facilitating the movement of consumer goods and tariffs.

Speaking in Dublin on 30th January 2017, Theresa May twice said she wanted the post-Brexit border to be ‘seamless’ and ‘frictionless’. It was an odd phrase to use, apparently appearing from left-field. Its recent provenance (for her) only became clear a few days later when the ‘White Paper on Brexit’ was published. There too the phrase appears. Paragraph 4.4 contains this sentence: ‘When the UK leaves the EU we aim to have as seamless and frictionless a border as possible between Northern Ireland and Ireland …’. The paragraph appears under a subsection headed ‘Economic ties’. The sentence goes on: ‘… so that we can continue to see the trade and everyday movements we have seen up to now.’ Leaving aside the delusion that the Common Travel Area can still pertain as it did before the UK and Ireland were in the EEC, when Ireland is in the EU and the UK isn’t, the future status of the border, and of Northern Ireland, is being extrapolated here from logistics. That is, Northern Ireland’s future is not being imagined through the Good Friday Agreement, or the ideals of human rights, or a determination to develop a lasting civic culture – it is being imagined by starting with the easiest ways in which to transport goods across national borders using new technologies. ‘Seamless’ and ‘frictionless’, used in this context, are terms derived from the haulage industry and from supply-side theories of the movement of produce. In effect, the UK government is signalling that the solution to the post-Brexit Irish border problem will be through electronic numberplate recognition on lorries. The poverty of thought and imagination, the utter lack understanding for the actuality of twenty-odd years of difficult implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, are staggering.

Whatever way we might characterise post-Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland, the process was meant to move towards accommodation, leading to persistent co-operation, and then perhaps to some kind of overcoming of the ‘difficulties of the past’. The Agreement itself rests on a too-often-unspoken, flawed pragmatism – that it accepts and builds on the irresolvable nature of the identity politics of the North and that it therefore preserves sectarianism within itself, like a woolly mammoth just visible through its political permafrost. It is arguable as to whether the consociational model of politics (a kind of practical, trickle-down-liberalism approach to conflict resolution) has worked in Northern Ireland. But because of the Good Friday Agreement, or despite it, the culture of the North, and its artistic output have changed since then. While my generation continues to cast an eye back to the living ghosts of the Troubles, younger artists and writers increasingly understand the North as a part of a global, or at least a western, polity. And they understand their lives and their art through the issues which define, allow and trammel living today: the liberation and confusion of digital existences; the continued policing of the human body and its desires alongside a capacity to undo those laws; the emptiness and pleasures of consumer culture; an existential understanding of locality and landscape; the metaphysics of lives lived in a world which is capable of deriding love and empathy. All that, and much, much more has been happening in Northern Irish writing, arts and culture in the past two decades. And it has been a wonder to behold. How threatened such an artistic culture will be in the coming years is  unknowable, but it is clear that it will not be nurtured by the Brexit and post-Brexit processes, either ideologically or practically.

The arts in the North, as with the arts everywhere in the western world, are dependent on government funding. It is hard to imagine Northern Ireland coming out of Brexit with a better deal on its block grant than it currently has. Brexit is likely to mean a contracting UK economy. And this is before the political kickback begins, when the post-Brexit Tories have to come up with some plan for managing the economy. Add this to the incapacity to imagine Northern Ireland as anything other than a barcode-reading service system for imports and exports, and the economic and cultural future of the North looks grim.

The primary tragedy of Brexit will be a political one. It will see some currently undelineated form of a fading ‘Global Britain’ hoisted on the petard of its own post-imperial sense of its place in the world. But beyond that, and for now, the tragedy of Brexit for Northern Ireland’s future, and for its current generation of young artists and writers, is that they have to pit themselves against the power grab made by an older generation of middle-Englanders, revivified in their nostalgia by empty promises. With this, there is the legitimisation of xenophobia, racism and neo-fascism, which is difficult enough to face down for the very reason that it is ideological, and so threatens to invade every facet of human culture where it cannot already be sure that it has a foothold. Weakening the Northern Irish economy (and thus impoverishing its cultural life) while failing to recognise that Northern Ireland is not just about economics is a dangerous ploy. Adding reduced and toxic forms of nationalism to the inevitable social inequality which will result from Brexit looks potentially disastrous. Let’s hope that it is not enough to unravel the political institutions in the North permanently. And let’s hope that the artistic and intellectual voices who have emerged in the past twenty years in Northern Ireland, in all their tenderness and vehemence, their eccentricity and their forcefulness, refuse to be cowed or silenced, and that they continue to be heard, discussed and thought about. Voices that are different and new and imaginative and critical and insubordinate have never been more important in talking back to the ugly monotones of xenophobia and cruelty. In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the world, this is even more vital now than it has been for a generation.