Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

~ Robert Frost

Less than a week ago, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Let that sink in. I haven’t – yet. Buoyed – and delightfully distracted – by the progress of both the Ireland and Northern Ireland football teams in the 2016 UEFA European Championship, I have yet to absorb the ramifications of Brexit. It’s complicated, because it concerns who I think I am. Let’s face it, my cultural identity has always been a bit suspect, depending on who might be in the room. Declarations of nationhood have always raised an eyebrow – British, Irish, Northern Irish or an Ulsterwoman – and, casting a wary eye over the past 40 years or so, could also be dangerous, if not fatal. I have been away for a long time, yet I have not forgotten the bombings and bullets, and roadblocks and the border, or the subtle (and more overt) means we employed to determine one’s religion – one’s fate.

In May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast, based on his interviews with the people who lived there, Tony Parker makes an unsettling but astute observation that those born and brought up in Northern Ireland often display a mutual need to know, from the start, about a person’s background, so they are safe to continue in the conversation and in the wider relationship, without saying the wrong thing, “the wrong word.”  I too have danced this dance, taking cues from our last names, the names of  schools we attended, the way we pronounce an “H” to help establish “who we are.” “Derry” or “Londonderry?” “The Troubles,” “the struggle, or “The Irish Question?” “Ulster” or “The Six Counties? to determine the borders between us.

So who am I? Well, to the chagrin and confusion of some friends and family back home, I consider myself Irish first – and European – and British too, but only when it’s convenient. My “documentation” suggests a split identity. I have an Irish passport, but because I was born in Northern Ireland, I may also carry a British passport. If I’m honest, the latter has been more for the sake of expediency at airports.  A resident in America, my permanent residency card clearly states Ireland as my country of birth, but my birth certificate states my birthplace as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Sometimes, I am considered one of her Royal Majesty’s subjects; other times, I am not, like the time a waiter in a bar at Heathrow Airport refused to accept my money because, although Stirling and legal tender, it was printed on a Bank of Ulster note. My money had identified me as something other than acceptable to him.

I have never forgotten the way he made me feel, and in the moments after the news that the United Kingdom had voted to leave the EU, I felt something akin to that way again. Sickened and scared. I didn’t want to leave the EU. Northern Ireland didn’t want to leave either as evidenced by its vote, but here we are. Out of it. It is early days, of course, and we’re not sure what it means. How could we? Our destiny appears to have been an afterthought.  Still, some of my younger friends back home and my American friends here, are telling me to calm down. Don’t panic. Why panic?

Why panic? 

To explain, I need to go back – to a place of panic, to the country that made me, to a border and men with guns asking to inspect our papers or rolling below our car to check for a bomb underneath it; to men in uniform examining my daddy’s driving license to confirm – presumably – that he wasn’t a terrorist. Does that elicit a little panic? It should.

The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has all but disappeared in recent years, in large part because of  our common membership in the EU and EU laws enacted from 1998-2014, the most recent of which confirming what we all know – that we have a long way to go in terms of reconciliation. Accordingly, funding from the EU has supported much of the Peace Process, recognizing that it will not happen overnight. Sensible people know that once a wall, a border, goes up, it takes time to tear it down. It becomes a part of our external and internal geography, at once keeping us apart and a part. Therefore, it makes sense that the EU would formulate long range plans such as its current PEACE IV project intended to run through 2020. It was designed to promote reconciliation through targeted engagement with young people, education, and the creation of shared spaces in areas most affected by the conflict.

We were making slow and steady progress. Look at us now! Northern Ireland is a tourist destination, and even though I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I smugly boast to my American friends that I am from County Antrim where much of it is filmed.  Belfast, where I lived in the 1980s, is now a bustling cosmopolitan city. No more armed security checkpoints, no more a “no go” area –  the time has never been better to visit, urges National Geographic.  The Good Friday Agreement and EU laws contributed to the creation of this Belfast that I love so well, so why wouldn’t we want to remain in the EU? It gave us the kind of city we could only have dreamed of some forty years ago.

I wonder if those who voted so vehemently to leave the EU stopped to consider the price of peace – and perhaps more importantly – if the UK would continue efforts to maintain what we have already accomplished.  Did they stop to consider the possibility of a return to the way things were, to the reality of Northern Ireland’s past, to the devastating loss of life during The Troubles, some 3637 people killed and God only knows how many more horribly injured, such as these following the bombing of the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast in 1972, when I was just nine years old:

One girl has lost both legs, an arm and an eye. Her sister has lost both legs. A male victim lost two legs, and a female lost one leg and one arm. Another female lost one limb, and three of the injured have lost eyes.

Did some of those who voted to leave also forget that the violence and pain of our Troubles was not confined to Northern Ireland?  England – the mainland – suffered too. Horribly.  Rewinding the mental tapes, I recall black and white news reports of Aldershot, of cars packed tightly with explosives that blew up outside The Old Bailey and in Whitehall; The M62; bars in Guildford, then Birmingham; and, Warrington, Canary Wharf, and Brighton. And more, so many more.  Following one of these atrocities, I recall someone on the radio remarking that it “would give the Brits a taste of The Troubles.” Let that sink in.

Why panic? 

I can’t help it. Sitting in my Phoenix living room, shortly after the results of the EU referendum were announced – and knowing that my mother and father and my friends back home would be waking up to the news – Martin McGuinness called for a border poll on a United Ireland. An unrealistic and opportunistic move,  but still it awakened in me the fear of a return to the Northern Ireland of my childhood, to the violence which ripped so many of our families apart.

And I wept. 


In the days before the Referendum, I had been ecstatic, rejoicing along with thousands of football fans – the Green and White Army and the Boys in Green – as both teams from our tiny island made it to the Round of 16 at the EUFA European Championship. Hailed as the best fans in the world, we sang through every match, singing on even in defeat, long after the final whistle:

Such pride. The last time I experienced such a feeling was in 1994.  A visit back home had coincided with the miracle of Ireland qualifying for the World Cup. The country was jubilant, its factories, offices, shops, even banks, all closing early so everyone could make it home, or to the pub, in plenty of time for kick-off at the Ireland v Italy match being televised live from Giants Stadium in New Jersey. We had thought of going out to the pub to watch the first-round match, but my father convinced us to stay at home, have a few jars, and watch the match from the comfort of the living room. So we gathered around the TV and held our breath as Ireland went up 1-0 against Italy at Giants Stadium. Like Boston Red Sox fans prior to the 2004 World Series, we were afraid to look.

The second half of the match was well underway when two men in boiler suits, their faces hidden behind balaclavas, stormed into a tiny packed pub back home – The Heights Bar, in the village of Loughinisland, County Down. With an AK47 and a Czech made rifle, they shot madly and indiscriminately at the sixteen men who had gathered around the bar to watch IrelandNWS_2014-06-09_NEW_014_31936901_I5 take on Italy. They killed six of them, and according to witnesses, the two gunmen laughed as they made their getaway. The first killed, Barney Green, was 87 years old, someone’s grandfather, the oldest victim of The Troubles, and as I recall from the stories that later poured from that heartbroken village, he had put on his best suit to mark Ireland’s making it to the World Cup. In the same moments, the delighted Irish football team was making its way out a Giants Stadium awash in green, held aloft by the chants of 60,000 supporters, anticipating champagne and a night of revelry, only to be silenced and sickened by news of what had happened in a country pub back home.

Six minutes into Ireland’s match against Belgium in France last Saturday, football fans were asked to stand in silence to mark the 22nd anniversary of the murders of those six men slaughtered in the Heights Bar.  I thought of their families and all that had been lost, of recent painful revelations about collusion, of reconciliation as a still-elusive thing. I thought of how far we had come, that Northern Ireland’s youngest football fans have never known a bomb scare, a security checkpoint, a civilian search. I thought of their grandparents and their parents – people my age – who are still anxious and recovering from decades of sectarian tension. Traumatized by it, but hopeful, in large part because of the symbolism of an open border and the free movement across it afforded by membership in the EU, that we were well on the road to recovery.

Now what? Given that immigration is at the crux of the Brexit vote, then it would make sense presumably for the UK to restrict its border with Ireland (still a member of the EU).  What will that mean for Northern Ireland and its precarious peace? Early days, I know, but I also know that the Peace Process is still relatively new, with The Good Friday Agreement signed only in 1998. We are still figuring out how to live in peace, many of our walls are still erect. And yes, for the most part, the violence has ebbed, but the distrust and suspicion remains, creating a breeding ground for the kind of panic that has settled in my chest. What was possible seems to have been snatched from us.

We were only just beginning . . .

The rather patronising English joke used to be that whenever the Irish question was about to be solved, the Irish would change the question. And now, when the Irish question seemed indeed to have been solved, at least for a generation, it is the English who have changed the question.

~ Fintan O’Toole