‘Your Ma’s a Hard Brexit’:

The Guardian, Northern Ireland, and the Irish Border

Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

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On 29 March 2017, UK Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, which sets out the process whereby member states may withdraw from the European Union (EU). That day, the front page of the UK’s national daily newspaper The Guardian was emblazoned with an image depicting an incomplete jigsaw puzzle of ‘Europe’, which is now missing a large section of the northwest that has come loose. It floats away somewhere lower down the page, into an abyss. In place of this northwesterly bit there is a white space used as a text box, which proclaims: ‘TODAY BRITAIN STEPS INTO THE UNKNOWN.’[i] [Fig. 1 below]


    In Ireland, North and South, the immediate response to this image on social media was twofold. Firstly, people questioned why The Guardian names ‘Britain’ rather than ‘the United Kingdom’ as the polity exiting the EU, a statement that omits Northern Ireland from the equation. Secondly, they demanded to know why, in the picture, ‘Britain’ appears to include Cos. Leitrim, Donegal, and Cavan – three counties located in the Republic of Ireland (the latter two are in the province of Ulster). Apparently Co. Monaghan (also in the province of Ulster) is allowed to stay in ‘Europe’, and it is left behind, still connected to the Republic. Not only does this image conflate ‘Britain’ with ‘the United Kingdom’, it also visualises an inexplicable re-partitioning of Ireland and a reabsorption of three of Northern Ireland’s sister counties from the Republic into ‘Britain’.

     The Guardian declares itself a ‘centre-left’ publication; however, others would argue that its politics are securely centrist – neither leaning one way nor the other. Nevertheless, this picture indicates that its centre is potentially Westminster. In this ‘map’, the national newspaper’s vision of Brexit appears to align with that of the right-wing, neo-imperialist Brexiteers who engineered this political crisis. As Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole points out in that very same newspaper, Brexit is fuelled by an English nationalism which is neoimperialist in its construction.[ii] Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU; yet as UK territories they are being dragged out of it (and the Single Market) against their will. Furthermore, some right-wing Westminster MPs are encouraging the Republic of Ireland to do the same in order to facilitate cross-border trade between the latter and Northern Ireland. (See ‘Irexit’). On the other hand, the EU has promised that in the event of Irish reunification, the entire island would remain safely within the fold.

    Once more, Northern Ireland finds itself caught in the middle. Nearly twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which supposedly ‘ended’ the Troubles, the statelet is subject to renewed national attention. In the wake of the Brexit referendum, the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the UK snap election which forged the Conservative-DUP alliance, Northern Ireland is at an impasse.[iii] However, this roadblock must be lifted since the Irish border is the UK’s only land boundary with the EU. Discussion about whether this frontier would revert to a hard border or remain a soft border raises questions about politics and economics but also, crucially, identity and ideology.[iv]

     In April of this year Northern Irish writers Sean O’Hagan and Glenn Patterson responded to Brexit in The Guardian.[v] A year on from the referendum, the newspaper also commissioned playwrights to create a series of ‘Brexit Shorts: Dramas from a Divided Nation’ in June 2017. These short films explore the ‘drama’ of Brexit from a pan-UK perspective. The series includes a film by Northern Irish author Stacey Gregg, who ‘moves between’ London, Dublin, and her hometown of Belfast, ‘enjoy[ing] what she calls her dual citizenship.’[vi] Gregg’s short is entitled ‘Your Ma’s a Hard Brexit,’ and it is directed by Amy Hodge of Headlong Theatre.[vii] The caption for the film, which is set in Belfast, states: ‘“We know what it means to be divided.” A mother reflects on Brexit’s consequences for Northern Ireland.’

     The film opens with the series title, ‘Brexit Shorts: Dramas from a Divided Nation,’ transposed onto a computer-generated ‘map’ of the British and Irish Isles, which are miraculously reconnected after being separated on The Guardian’s front page several months earlier. However, the rest of Europe is nowhere to be seen. It is another curiously neoimperialist ‘map’, which features design elements that evoke the prior one but in a different way. For this time, Ireland is de-partitioned. The ‘map’ in the opening credits of the film renders the islands a uniform shade of grey, with nothing to indicate the existence of the Irish border or the fact that the Republic is a separate state. The graphics zoom in on Northern Ireland – still the same shade of grey – then cut to moving, colour film of the neighbourhood of West Belfast. This transition to colour film and to the divided site of West Belfast is striking, for it undercuts the monolithic vision of grey uniformity in the previous ‘map’. And yet the colour film maintains a wash of greyness courtesy of the ubiquitous Belfast rain and fog. The camera also pans across the large grey expanse of a peace wall in West Belfast that separates the Lower Falls Road and the Shankill Road, traditionally republican and loyalist communities, respectively.

     Peace lines were first constructed by the British Army during the Troubles and, paradoxically, more were put up after the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, ostensibly for the ‘protection’ of those who live along sectarian community borderlines. There are approximately twenty miles of walls, peace lines, and interfaces in Belfast, a city that is only six miles across at its widest point. In 2013 Stormont vowed that it would remove the walls within a decade, by 2023, as part of a new political initiative to ease sectarian tensions. However, there has not been an active Northern Ireland Executive since power-sharing collapsed in January 2017, which has caused major delays for government projects. The Brexit vote further complicates the issue of removing the peace lines because, as the protagonist of Gregg’s film points out, the majority of Northern Ireland’s peacebuilding funding comes from the EU.

     The opening of ‘Your Ma’s a Hard Brexit’ establishes Belfast as a place crisscrossed by visible and invisible boundaries and no-go zones. The panoramic view of West Belfast is transected by a long stretch of the peace line. The film further disrupts this urban vista with jump cuts to various sectarian community estates, and it hovers momentarily on shots of gable ends displaying propagandist murals. The camera lingers on one gable end whose graffiti have been painted over with a dark shade of grey. They are still faintly perceptible underneath this greywashing. The Belfast City Council required many propagandist murals to be painted over after the Agreement as part of its ‘Re-imaging Communities Programme’, an effort to de-sectarianise the cityscape.[viii] Nonetheless, in the film, new scrawls in white spray paint have appeared on top of this background. They cancel each other out, with the message ‘U.V.F. 1st BATTALION’ currently holding pride of place. UVF stands for Ulster Volunteer Force, a loyalist paramilitary organisation, and the graffito indicates that the estate is a loyalist stronghold. This shot features the grey, graffitied gable end at the centre, framed by a brick wall to the right and houses to the left, with the camera off-centre, positioned as though it is peering round the wall to observe the estate’s occupants. This perspective is evocative of CCTV cameras, remnants of the surveillance culture which is still prevalent in Belfast. The light grey post of a streetlamp appears to divide the dark grey gable end in two, with the white graffiti messages placed on either side. Concrete road barrier poles encircle a woman and her son within a ring of urban standing stones.

     In her directions, Gregg writes: ‘Woman walking with schoolchild, holding their hand. She walks along the peace-line though we mightn’t notice this straightaway. She is a Protestant, working-class woman from the area. Her tone is neighbourly, mischievous, familiar, stoic.’[ix] The unnamed protagonist is played by Northern Irish actor Bronagh Gallagher. She is on the morning school run with her young son, played by Thomas Keown. Along the way she regales us with an amusing family anecdote. She starts,See my daddy. My daddy. He has my head melted. My Craig’s workin away, right? Skilled labour. Contract work. If ya wanna work, ya have to go after it. He’s been everywhere, across the water, Isle a’ Man, you name it. Well. He’s applied for his Irish passport. (Comic grimace) My dad near blown a fuse. Craig’s gettin an Irish passport!’ The first utterance in the film begins an impassioned soliloquy about Brexit against the backdrop of the peace line. It is the physical manifestation of a psychological divide, and as such it is also evocative of the Irish border. Gregg presents us with conflicting opinions on Brexit, which are levied by the woman’s monologue. As she walks and talks, the camera moves to a closeup of her face, and she speaks animatedly about her family’s mixed reactions to news of the referendum results.

The film jump cuts to a high, rusted, silvery metal peace line fence draped in crumpled Union Jack bunting, then back to the woman, who continues to walk alongside it. She exclaims, ‘Dad’s eyeballs are out on stalks: (dad voice) “But […] but you’re British! You’re Protestant! People didn’t go signin up to the UVF and knockin skulls in for 30 years so your fella could jump teams when he fancied it!’ She continues:

     I ses, Dad – Ian Paisley Jr was tweetin about getting an Irish passport! Dad’s huffin 

     and puffin, but I couldn’t give a toot. If it means he won’t be seen off for work, he’s 

     Irish! (Awful Irish accent) ‘Tap a’the marnin to ya begorra begorra!’ Aye!

     She glances down at her kid, who laughs. She pulls a silly face.

     Is your mummy a glue bag or what?

    (To us) Dad and the rest of them were near dead for Brexit.

     As a prominent MP for the DUP and a son of Reverend Ian Paisley, Ian Paisley Jr’s use of Twitter to urge his constituents to obtain Irish passports demonstrates the new platforms and contradictory viewpoints of the post-Agreement, post-Brexit referendum present.[x] Paisley Jr is fiercely opposed to republicanism and the idea of a border poll. However, he states on Twitter, ‘My advice is if you are entitled to second passport then take one. I sign off lots of applications for constituents…My advice is to take as many as you can especially if you travel to different world trouble zones.’[xi] As Gregg recognises, this statement is ironic given that Northern Ireland has long been a ‘trouble zone’, and obtaining an Irish passport is a legal act of claiming an Irish identity. This mention of Paisley Jr in the woman’s monologue juxtaposes the perceptions of father and son (the Paisleys) and father and daughter (Gregg’s characters), thereby illustrating generational shifts in outlook towards Northern Irish self-identification.

     The film’s director Hodge cross-cuts the woman’s speech with a barrage of shots: tattered Union Jack and Ulster flags; a faded homemade sign taped to a window with the slogan ‘PROUD TO BE BRITISH’; a gable end on Crimea Street bearing messages from ‘ULSTER TO ENGLAND’; an enormous mural on the Shankill marking the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, who reigns over a bus stop covered by a KFC advert; another mural at Hopewell Crescent off the Crumlin Road depicting children standing amidst the rubble of the ‘SUMMER OF ‘69’. Sign upon sign upon sign. This plethora of signifiers is constitutive of the city’s sectarian geography, which is embedded in its otherwise grey visual landscape and which often provides its only source of colour in the film.

     The woman explains that she works on ‘the Interface Project – the Interface is along the peace-line here, between communities,’ and affirms that she and ‘the ones at work are all remain.’ She pauses for a quiet moment of reflection, then states, ‘Like, we know what it means to be divided. We’re not too bad at that ourselves! But sure, it can’t be half the country’s wrong, can it?’ As she makes this remark, she passes by a mural commemorating the Battle of the Somme, which bears a fresh wreath of fabric poppies. Across the street, adolescent boys who should be on their way to school play unsupervised on a stretch of waste ground. It is littered with trash and surrounded by boarded up, graffitied buildings and another tall stretch of the peace line. The boys appear to be hemmed in by the built environment and its palimpsestic history of conflict. As the woman and her son walk to school, it becomes apparent that all of Belfast is enmatrixed within its politically charged cityscape. The implicit question here, as in much of Gregg’s work, is what the future holds for the children who are raised in this setting.

     The camera returns to the woman, who resumes the story about her husband. She states, ‘Craig was sayin about the border. I’m sorry, I can see that’s not gonna work out well. Sure, Lord so and so from Westminster can say nothing’s gonna change, but see once that’s the only land border for immigration and terrorists, I can’t see them sittin on their hands, do you?’ The camera zooms in on her face and she asks the viewer directly, ‘I remember the border, do you? Wasn’t much craic. Here’s us just getting on with the south.’ This closeup shot and her shift to the first-person pronoun ‘I’ indicate that the latter question is her own, rather than Craig’s. She continues, ‘They say themens in Westminster never think about us ones over here, and I used to think sure that can’t be true, it must just be that they don’t understand; sure they’re never over here. Ah, they’ll stick a few checkpoints on that border and next thing you know we’ll have a referendum for a united Ireland […] then everyone in Northern Ireland’ll be Irish.’ Although she delivers this last statement as a joke, it illustrates effectively the malleability and arbitrariness of borders, whether they are geopolitical, identitarian, or both.

     Much of Gregg’s oeuvre examines the dynamic of ‘themens and usens,’ a binary which is applied frequently to Northern Irish society but which has universal resonance. In the script, Gregg writes, ‘Zoom out to reveal the interface barrier, looming above them and stretching off into the distance.’ She recognises that the term ‘interface barrier’ is oxymoronic, and in the film she explores the ambiguities of ‘peacekeeping’ discourse and infrastructure. The peace line is both a barrier to keep people from crossing over to the ‘other side’ and an interface – it has openings that are spaces with the potential for intercommunal connection. The woman concludes, ‘At the end of the day, if you’ve your head screwed on, get your Irish passport: you’re European and you’re British. Go after the work. And sure, that’s the best the young ones can hope for, isn’t it?’ Gregg finishes the script with the direction, ‘Out on the child,’ and the film ends with a closeup of the boy as he continues to walk along the peace line. In her short film Gregg charts an alternate, claustrophobic ‘map’ of Northern Irish spatial and cultural geography, and traces how identity functions as a performative response to this environment.

     In his review of the series, Toby Young, associate editor of the right-wing, pro-Brexit UK magazine The Spectator, declares that ‘The Writers of the Guardian’s “Brexit Shorts” Have Swallowed Project Fear.’[xii] He remarks of Gregg’s short, ‘It’s not a fully-fledged drama — more a piece of agitprop. And it makes the same point over and over again, namely, that if the UK leaves the European Union there will inevitably be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.’[xiii] Young cites ‘the need to preserve the soft border’ as ‘a priority of both sides in the Brexit negotiations,’ which was ‘confirmed by David Davis and Michel Barnier on the first day of talks.’[xiv] Tellingly, Young bases his assessment of Gregg’s film on reports made by Davis, the Conservative MP and Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and the French politician Barnier, European Chief Negotiator for Brexit, ‘on the first day of talks.’ This is a thoughtless statement given that Brexit negotiations have proven to be drastically changeful since the referendum results were revealed in June 2016. Furthermore, although Gregg’s film is a monologue, it is not one-sided. It conveys the voices of the woman, her husband, and her father. Significantly, her son does not have any dialogue; he does not have a political voice because he is too young to understand the situation. The only utterance that children make in the film is laughter, a narrative device which highlights their innocence.

     Gregg and Hodge explore the paradoxical nature of Northern Irish society via filmmaking techniques such as juxtaposing imagery, intercutting dialogue with an onslaught of visual signs, and by portraying different forms of greywashing. The grey visual tones within the film include the city’s atmosphere itself, for it is constantly overcast; the vast grey span of the peace line; and the City Council’s efforts to paint over Belfast’s sectarian graffiti with an ineffective grey coating. This short film portrays the city of Belfast as a small grey area that is circumscribed by increasingly larger ones: ‘Northern Ireland’, ‘Britain’, ‘the United Kingdom’, and ‘Europe’. These concepts function as floating signs within the film, much like its title. ‘Your ma’s a hard Brexit’ is framed as an insult that one child would shout at another, without knowing what a ‘hard Brexit’ means. The irony here is that no one, including the adults, knows what a ‘hard Brexit’ means because it has never happened before. The closing credits of the film state: ‘THE GUARDIAN: THE WHOLE PICTURE’. However, the conflictive cartographies of the newspaper’s front-page jigsaw puzzle, the graphic ‘map’ of the British and Irish Isles in the series’ opening credits, and the sectarian geography of West Belfast in the film exemplify the fact that viewers never get the whole picture. As Gregg and Hodge indicate, we only get part of it, and it is washed in shades of grey.

[i] See Chris Johnston, ‘The Difference 44 Years Make: How the UK Press Said Goodbye to Europe,’ The Guardian, 29 Mar. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/mar/29/the-difference-44-years-make-how-the-uk-press-said-goodbye-to-europe, accessed 29 Mar. 2016.

[ii] See Fintan O’Toole, ‘Brexit is Being Driven by English Nationalism. And it Will End in Self-Rule,’ The Guardian, 19 Jun. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/18/england-eu-referendum-brexit, accessed 19 Jun. 2016.

[iii] DUP stands for Democratic Unionist Party, a right-wing, Eurosceptic party that currently has the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The DUP has strong links to the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, founded by Ian Paisley, as well as historical ties to loyalist paramilitary groups.

[iv] See Colin Graham’s essay ‘Seam and Friction: Brexit, Northern Ireland and the Arts,’ for an incisive analysis of Brexit’s implications for Northern Irish identity politics. Honest Ulsterman, Feb. 2017, http://humag.co/features/seam-and-friction. Accessed 1 Feb. 2017.

[v] See Sean O’Hagan, ‘Will Brexit Reopen Old Wounds with a New Hard Border in Northern Ireland?’ The Guardian, 23 Apr. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/apr/23/northern-ireland-brexit-border-old-wounds-troubles, accessed 23 Apr. 2017; and Glenn Patterson, ‘Life on the Edge: How Will Brexit Affect the Northern Irish Border?’ The Guardian, 15 Apr. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/apr/15/brexit-northern-irish-border, accessed 15 Apr. 2017.

[vi] See Helen Meany, ‘Stacey Gregg: Restless Writer Whose Scripts Fizz with Tricky Questions,’ The Guardian, 27 Sept. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/sep/27/stacey-gregg-women-birth-choice-scorch, accessed 27 Sept. 2016.

[vii] See Stacey Gregg, ‘Your Ma’s a Hard Brexit,’ The Guardian, 19 Jun. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/ng-interactive/2017/jun/19/brexit-shorts-your-mas-a-hard-brexit-stacey-gregg-bronagh-gallagher-video, accessed 19 Jun. 2017. Headlong Theatre is a London-based company that tours the UK.

[viii] The Re-imaging Communities Programme was launched in 2006.

[ix] All quotations are from the online version of the script. See ‘“Your Ma’s a Hard Brexit,” a New Play by Stacey Gregg – Read the Script,’ The Guardian, 19 Jun. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jun/19/your-mas-a-hard-brexit-a-new-play-by-stacey-gregg-brexit-shorts. Accessed 19 Jun. 2017.

[x] Reverend Ian Paisley was a prominent loyalist politician and Protestant evangelical minister who protested Catholicism, ecumenism, and homosexuality. He instigated loyalist opposition to the predominantly Catholic Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland and was closely linked to loyalist paramilitary organisations.

[xi] See http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/unionist-ian-paisley-jr-mp-constituents-apply-republic-of-ireland-eire-passports-a7102761.html

[xii] Toby Young, ‘The writers of the Guardian’s “Brexit Shorts” have swallowed Project Fear,’ The Spectator, 24 Jun. 2017, https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/06/the-writers-of-the-guardians-brexit-shorts-have-swallowed-project-fear/, accessed 7 Sept. 2017. For more on The Spectator’s pro-Brexit stance, see the editorial ‘It’s Time to Defend Brexit,’ 20 August 2016, https://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/08/its-time-to-defend-brexit/, accessed 9 Sept. 2017.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

Bio Note

Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is an academic and a dual specialist in Irish and Caribbean Studies. She is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). She is author of Decoloniality and Gender in Jamaica Kincaid and Gisèle Pineau: Connective Caribbean Readings (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Dawn has also published in Irish Studies Review, Breac, Dublin Review of Books, Callaloo, The Irish Times, and the Sunday Business Post.