The Long Read - The Severed Harp: How Brexit Threatens The Fragile Peace In Northern Ireland
Once more Ulster finds itself on a knife’s edge. How will this impact England? In this first ever Long Read from Bazake Media our very own Oliver Laughdugry lifts the lid on a violent but not yet forgotten past.
OPINION POLITICS THE LONG READ
Ireland. Éire. The Republic. The Emerald Isle. It has many names, but still less than it’s northerly twin. Northern Ireland. Ulster. The Occupied Six. Putrid Little Statelet. Our Wee Country. Some of them are pretty insulting. That’s just the kind of place it is.
The Irish have displayed a certain reoccurring affinity with murder and bloodshed over the centuries - one only has to think of the celebrity racehorse Shergar slowly and inefficiently shot to death by automatic machine gun fire administered by terrorists with absolutely no veterinarian training whatsoever - for reasons that remain mysterious and lost in the sands of time, but in the late 1990s something truly miraculous happened…
Inspired by a fresh-faced, newly elected Tony Blair the warring tribes of Ulster - split for half a millennia by their intolerant religious creeds - came to a difficult but popular agreement. The Good Friday Agreement (sometimes called the Belfast Agreement because it was announced in Belfast) was announced on 10th April 1998 in Belfast.
And all was well. The slaughter stopped (aside from the occasional drug trade related shooting but I’m sure the general local consensus on that was well, they were probably a bit of a ruffian anyway!).
Ireland in harmony. The EU making the border almost non-existent. Surely this would last forever…
No. It would not. Because, for reasons that to this day remain as inexplicable as they are maddening, the British voted to leave the European Union, a body that had existed without controversy or question marks for the previous several decades, on 23rd June 2016.
That fateful day. The hideous, kick-in-the-face of a day. I will never forget waking up that day* to the sound of my wife screaming downstairs. Bloodcurdling high-pitched wails of fury. ‘Oliver! We’ll have to hire a new f**king cleaner!’ I ran downstairs trying to put my dressing gown on over my naked body to save the children any embarrassment. What on earth had the cleaner done, I wondered.
‘We’ve voted to Leave, Oliver,’ she sobbed, whimpering sensually.
It felt as if reality itself was warping. I didn’t fully comprehend the magnitude of it all at first.
‘But what about the cleaner?’ I asked.
‘She’s from Romania, Oliver. She’s going to be deported.’
‘What?!’ I exclaimed. ‘Immediately?’
With a heavy heart we sacked Elena later that day to comply with the new laws we mistakenly thought were coming in.
That was just one household. Imagine the chaos and confusion in a whole province that was reliant on the European Union not just for affordable domestic labour, but for maintaining the most fragile of peaces. That was the situation in Northern Ireland.
They have reacted with violence. Loyalists (those who wish to remain part of Great Britain) are hopping mad about the Northern Ireland Protocol that allows the principality to remain part of the EU single-market, because it has caused intra-UK trade issues. Have they responded rationally, and engaged in reasoned debate? Of course not! They have taken to the streets to throw petrol bombs, set fire to double decker buses, threaten to shoot border control staff and, on one scarsely believable night of violence, a man named Sandy Row took on the Police Service of Northern Ireland single-handedly for several hours on the streets of County Bealfeirste.
Fears are mounting of a return to the darkest days of The Troubles.
But enough about Northern Ireland. The Troubles affected us in south-east England too, sometimes almost as acutely, with the constant threat of bombs, the public transport delays, and sometimes whole ten minute segments of news broadcasts being given over to horrible reports.
I will never forget the time I experienced the terror of “the mainland bombing campaign” first hand in 1993. Fresh out of university where I had completed a one year law conversion course on top of my history and politics bachelor’s degree, I was applying for any training contract opening I could find at London’s top firms. Very, very competitive but much to my delight I was offered an interview at Raskal & Igglon’s head office in the Temple, central London. 3:30pm on a Wednesday. Then I was offered an even more intriguing interview at 6pm that evening - I was meeting Elizabeth “Lizzy” Sampson for a drink.
Lizzy was the most beautiful young woman in my year at university. Intelligent, confident, good breeding. You name it - she had it. She went on to become a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in the 2001 and 2005 general elections, losing narrowly, before being elected member for Chanton West in 2010.
At university I had admired her from afar, as she had obviously admired me too. This unrealised, unexpressed passion had finally bubbled to the surface like a pan of huevos a la flamenca. She had sent me a simple fax: ‘Olly - fancy meeting for a drink? The Good Mixer, 6 o’clock, Wednesday.’
That was the London of thirty** years ago. Vibrant. Youthful. Whilst my own musical tastes were far more eclectic and less futurephobic, I had to admit the britpop scene centred around Camden had a high-spirited vigour and buzz that made this 24 year old feel alive.
I had a skip in my step for the four days ahead of that drink with Lizzy, I bounced along the filthy pavements of Highbury*** thinking to myself, At last! Our paths are crossing! There had always been an issue getting in the way back in our uni days. She was in the middle of one of numerous flings, or I was in the middle of a fling - or rather, I was stuck with a hanger-on of a girlfriend back home who kept nagging me to come back for weekends, not realising that I had moved on and was now hobnobbing with the next generation of elite at a red brick higher education establishment. No, Cassie - you were holding me back goddamn it.
I floated through my interview that Wednesday afternoon, my head was not quite all there I must admit. By its end I felt an overwhelming sense of calm wash over me as I looked at my watch. I had an hour to get there to meet Lizzy. The Circle or District Line to Embankment and then the Northern Line to Camden. Easy. So very easy.
Except it was not even remotely easy. I made my interchange onto the Northern Line but on its second stop, Charing Cross Station****, the Tube train sat idle for much longer than expected. Murmurs amongst the passengers started. The carriage was uncomfortably packed. I became very self-conscious of my sweating, squeezed between a number of rotund men.
Then suddenly the carriage lights flashed off and on three times. A groan emitted.
The driver’s crackling voice came over the PA. ‘ERE MON, ‘E GOTTA GEET AFF DER TRAIN, DERZ A SUSH PEESH EE OSS PACK AGE ON BARD.*****
I had no idea what on earth that overpaid oaf was saying, but many of the passengers were quickly departing onto the platform. I soon heard from others what was going on. A suspicious package! A suspect device! On the Tube train!
I felt my internal viscera drop in pure fear. Not ashamed to admit now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I flew into a blind panic. I started pushing people out of the way in a desperate bid to get to the exit, clawing at them, I think I may have even sent one toothless elderly crone to the floor. And then, moments later, I had to push and claw my way back past the same people again after I realised I was heading in the wrong direction.
“LET ME OUT! LET ME OUT! PLEASE YOU F**KING IMBECILES LET ME OUT! THESE IRISH BASTARDS WILL KILL US ALL!!’ By this point I was screaming. One man, an total nincompoop in one of those heat-changing Hypercolor t-shirts, snapped at me to ‘Calm the f**k down’ and, in my acutely heightened state, I instinctively sank my teeth into his neck. The immediate taste of gushing blood made me see sense on a cerebral level, but my body was too contorted by horror to unclamp my jaws.
‘You’re gonna cause a bloody crush you thick c*nt!’ hissed a completely hysterical woman behind me and, again instinctively, I sought to quell her distress by waving my arm behind me at head height in the hope that the face I struck with a backhander was hers.
Then, all too predictably, the irrational mob turned to violence. I felt a fist smack into the back of my head and, at last, my jaws unlocked to yelp in pain. The unfortunate man with the gaping neckwound, unconscious, slumped sideways against a horrified Japanese tourist (or possibly student - let’s not be racist here).
Again a fist hit the back of my head. ‘You’re a dickhead, mate!’’ snarled some idiotic vigilante with the voice of a soccer hooligan. I was too penned in by bodies to turn round to confront the thug, but I firmly uttered a warning: ‘I’m a trainee lawyer and I can destroy you.’
By now, all too predictably, chaos had set in. People were crawling over each other trying to get out. I genuinely thought these fools were going to kill me before the bomb had a chance to.
Then, as suddenly and unexpectedly as it had started, the disordered throng of bodies dissipated. The panicstricken group had been limited to a relatively small space, it’s epicentre close to me. Calm heads remained on the outskirts, and they safely ushered us one by one towards the exiting tunnel.
As I hurriedly neared the surface one woman turned to me and said, ‘Oh my god, you’re bleeding. Your mouth and face. They’re covered in blood.’ I bravely told her I would be fine.
Once I felt a safe distance and amount of concrete from the forthcoming blastzone I chanced a glance at my watch. 5:35pm. I muttered expletives.
I grabbed a policeman and demanded to know, ‘When will the Northern Line be running again?!’
‘Not for a while sir, please now evacuate the station.’
‘I PAY YOUR WAGES YOU JUMPED UP LITTLE TURD! I AM A TRAINEE LAWYER AND I WILL BRING DOWN THE CORRUPT, RACIST METROPOLITAN POLICE! YOU MARK MY WORDS!’ I am embarrassed to admit, in the cold light of retrospection, emotions were getting the better of me.
I had to get to Camden Town in no more than 25 minutes. The buses, even if I had wanted to risk my life once more on-board one of those bareknuckle fighting pits on wheels, were either already full or diverted as a cordon was being placed around the station.
I would have to walk. It would take nearly an hour to get there. And younger readers may marvel at this but this was before the widespread adoption of even the simplest mobile phones, let alone Apple iPhones and Google Pixels. There was no option to follow live maps and the like.
When I finally arrived at The Good Mixer, having wasted yet more time mistakenly heading east towards Farringdon, it was close to 7pm. As the beating heart of a London music scene, it was already fairly busy. I searched the pub, desperately looking for Lizzy, but there was no sign of her.
I spied a bespectacled little nerd in the corner who in retrospect I realise was Blur guitarist Graham Coxon and asked if he had seen her.
‘I’ve no idea who you’re talking about, mate. You know you’re covered in blood?’
‘Yes, thank you very much. I am aware. I’ve been caught in a bombscare!’
‘Did it go off in your mouth?’
‘No it did not, you nasty little turd! I simply bit a man’s neck in the ensuing panic.’ I turned to scan the pub again.
And there she was. At the bar. Looking even more beautiful than she had a couple of years before as a go-getting Politics student. And she was talking very convivially with Cliff Bennett, soon to become lead singer of britpop also-rans Chiffon. He was a notorious scenester sleaze. She was far too engaged with his no doubt cringeworthy barrage of chat-up lines to spot me.
Still emotional following my near-death experience an hour and a half earlier, I fell to my knees and rocked my head back.
‘THE IRA DID THIS! THE IRA DID THIS!’ I screamed from deep within, my voice silencing the public house.
‘Oliver! Is that you?’ cried Lizzy, finally noticing me. Then she grimaced. ‘You’re covered in blood.’
‘I’ve been caught up in a terrorist atrocity, Lizzy.’
‘Oh my god, where?’
‘Charing Cross.’ Murmurs of concern swept the pub.
‘Come here, Oliver,’ Lizzy helped me up and held me close to her bosom. ‘Are you hurt? We should get you to hospital!’ I held her closer, to feel her femininity against me. I breathed in her perfume, her delicate body odours, the shampoo/conditioner in her hair. My mind lingered on the physical passion we would be performing later that evening and I almost gasped.
‘Hang on a minute,’ blurted out an unwelcome voice somewhere behind me. ‘I’ve just come through Camden Town station, there’s been no bomb. Apparently some plonker reported a discarded Burger King meal on a Northern Line carriage as a potential explosive.’ There were smatterings of laughter. This raised my hackles.
‘Go on, laugh you diseased rats. HAVE A GOOD LAUGH! HA HA! HA!’ I punctuated my point by grabbing an open bag of popular bar snack KP Nuts from an adjacent table and threw them over my face. ‘Happy now are you?! HAPPY NOW??!’
“Olly…’ whispered Lizzy soothingly. ‘Why are you covered in blood?’
‘Well…’ I knew on an intellectual level I should lie, say I had been accidentally elbowed as the rush hour train full of commuters hurriedly exited the station, or similar. But deep in my irrational gut I thought if I admitted the truth it would emphasise what an awful situation it had been, and she would be overcome with a deep respect for my bravery. ‘Lizzy. I bit a man’s neck and he collapsed unconscious.’
‘It was a nightmarish situation, the mob had taken over Lizzy! It was kill or be killed!’
‘I think you should go home Oliver. Get some rest.’
‘No! No, no, no, no. No!’
‘Yes Oliver. We’ll meet again. Next week maybe.’
‘No! Lizzy, I’m ready for a good night. Please. We can’t let the IRA stop this love blossoming.’
‘I… I… I only invited you out for a drink Olly.’
‘A catch up.’
‘Ooooh!’ I sneered. ‘A “catch up”? Ooooh thank you very much Gerry Adams! YOU BEARDY BASTARD!’ By this point everything had become too much for me and I lost control of myself a little. I jumped up on a table, knocking over a couple of pints of lager as I did. ‘THE IRA HAVE RUINED MY F**KING LIFE! I WILL NEVER FORGIVE THEM!’ I vitriolically screamed. ‘ANYONE HERE IRISH? I WILL FIGHT YOU ALL!’
‘Can you get off the table please?’ sighed the barman.
‘F**K YOU! WHERE’S YOUR MANAGER? LET’S SEE WHAT HE THINKS ABOUT ALL THIS! OR IS HE ON GADDAFI’S PAYROLL TOO?!?!’
‘You’re humiliating yourself,’ opined a woman whose beer I had spilt, shaking her head at me as she feebly mopped the lager off her clothes. I swivelled round to give her a piece of my mind but my motion was too sudden.
I lost my footing on the Carling-drenched table top and slipped catastrophically. My head landed on the neighbouring table, shattering several glasses. I ended up on the floor, covered in cheap lager, dry roasted peanuts and my own blood. I lay there for a couple of minutes, pretending I was dead. I suppose I hoped that would elicit one final night-saving wave of sympathy from Lizzy, but when I sneaked a quick peep I saw her putting her coat on and leaving with that damned rodent Cliff Bennett.
I got up, dusted myself off as best I could, uttered a meek ‘Thanks barkeep,’ and made my exit.
That was the most depressing walk home of my life. Yes, even worse than the time I walked back from the vets with a dead dog in a cardboard box after having it put to sleep so I could continue concentrating on campaigning against Brexit on Twitter.
But thankfully the day was to have one last twist, a final narrative shift that made me feel a little more cheerful. As I passed Paradise Park in Islington I saw two young adults around my own age in homemade unicorn costumes. Glittery cloaks, papier-mâché horns strapped on with elastic, colourful make-up etc. They had a camcorder set up on a tripod and were dancing in front of it. The equipment looked fairly decent so I reasoned they were art students, and had borrowed it from the college.
I stood watching this performance piece for a while, the blood from my injured head slowly trickling down my face and neck. They were obviously producing a piece of video art, no doubt to project onto the stark white walls of a small gallery space, perhaps at an end of year show, or even in one of the haphazard network of art spaces springing up in and around Shoreditch, East London. Their charming Kate Bush-esque moves brought a smile to my aching face.
I was not convinced of its artistic merit as such, but it was undoubtedly a fun spectacle to stumble upon.
Both artists were physically slight. It occurred to me I could overpower them quite easily. Without hesitation I picked up a short rusty piece of discarded scaffolding tube I spotted near the park’s entrance, slowly approached the dancers and beat the hell out of them.
The first unicorn I took out immediately, a sudden unexpected metallic blow to the head knocking them out cold. The second unicorn stumbled in fright but put up a bit of a fight before I managed to get sufficient space to swing the pole cleanly against their face.
I checked both performance artists were still alive******, placed them in the recovery position and pressed stop on the camcorder. I took it and the tripod home with me to watch back at my leisure.
Yes, that bout of violence had made me feel better. Much better. But it was chilling to see - from a first-hand vantage point - how the violence of The Troubles could escalate in a feedback loop of bloodlust, a vicious circle of intolerance that can drag civilised people into horrible, wanton crimes.
Even though I hadn’t killed anyone - unlike many in Ulster, I hasten to add! - I did feel a degree of guilt in spite of understanding the wider sociological context of my act.
Thankfully five years later I was absolved of all responsibility when the Good Friday Agreement led to the freeing of prisoners from across the political divide. To this day I consider myself fully exonerated.
If I may end this piece with one more short, evocative vignette of how The Troubles impacted us on so many levels - politically, emotionally, psychologically - in southern England: my late wife Sarah, whose passing and subsequent memorialisation I covered elsewhere in the Bazake Opinion section, was a very demanding woman, for good or ill.
In the bedroom, on special occasions or in heightened moments of love-making, Sarah would have me adopt a fake Irish accent and act out the role of her parent's jovial yet somewhat dim-witted gardener Patrick, originally from County Armagh on the outskirts of Belfast. Once we got down to the physical act of romantic intercourse, as I felt myself approach orgasm, I would whisper in her ear, in the thickest Ulstervox I could muster, "Sarah, I'm an IRA spy, your father has been deemed a legitimate target for paramilitary execution." She would cum instantaneously, with a violent vulvan shuddering that normal intercourse simply couldn't replicate.
The greatest irony is that two of our children were conceived this way. One whilst I wore a balaclava.
That - for want of a better phrase - undercover terrorist gardener fetish could only come about as a result of the experience of living in and around the M25 area during the Northern Irish The Troubles…. And that is why voting Leave in June 2016 was such an unspeakably reckless thing to do.
If a man as rational as me can be reduced to such barbarity by a simple bombscare, imagine what it does to the simple minds of religious people.
* Strictly speaking this was the next day, as the result became apparent.
** Yes, I am well aware it was twenty-nine years ago rather than thirty. I was rounding it up to allow the dramatic flow of my prose to race along, unburdened.
*** Where I lived at the time.
**** Or, rather, “Charing X” as we adopted Londoners learn to knowledgeably call it.
***** I think it was a Welsh accent, or possibly Scandinavian.
****** I’m not a monster!