Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Breaking down the barriers

When I was a youngster, the only British people I knew wore uniforms, pointed guns, and seemed to have hatred in their eyes.

For a couple of years in the 1970s, my parents lived right beside a militarized border which contained watch towers, a barbed wire fence, and was patrolled by heavily armed soldiers.

Crossing the bridge between Donegal and Tyrone was an ordeal; my parents and their friends had to psyche themselves up for routine journeys to places like the nearest supermarket or dentist's.

On one occasion, I remember my father being hauled out of the car by the men in uniforms after he dared to speak back after a long and tiring day spent visiting cousins in Monaghan.

The people of Lifford never knew whether or not they would be hauled out of their cars at gunpoint by young men from places like Sheffield and Sunderland who probably hadn't a clue why they had been sent to Northern Ireland in the first place.                          
Nigel Farage MEP addressing the European Parliament yesterday

Even though I was only five or six years old, I can still remember the agonizing fear in the car as we used to approach the border; our parents cajoling us to be as quiet as mice in the back in case we'd antagonize a hostile, or perhaps even trigger-happy, young soldier.

I remember a customs post up in flames or bombs going off, lighting up the night sky across Lifford and Strabane.

Some neighbours used to celebrate terrorist murders because some of them really believed that the victims deserved to die and you could almost feel the tension and hatred in the air.

People never mixed with the "other side". They'd go to separate schools, play separate games, work in different places and live in different neighbourhoods.

"Our" side had the GAA and Catholic schools, "their"side had cricket or rugby. To this day many people in places like Derry cannot bring themselves to support the Northern Ireland football team which is why James McClean, from the Creggan, plays for the Republic even though he grew up North of the border.

Two teams, a nation divided, and yet we live in peace in 2016.

In the 1970s, some members of my tribe, the Catholics, used to claim that there was no point in even looking for a job because discrimination was institutionalized. In those days it was almost impossible for a Catholic in Derry to get a Council home.

When 14 unarmed people were shot dead during a Civil Rights march my parents decided they'd had enough and they managed to orchestrate a move back to Galway. They did not want their five children to grow up in such a tense environment.

That tension was still in the air when I used to travel to Derry to cover Galway United games for my local newspaper in the 1990s.

You always felt fear or discomfort when you crossed that border and watched the military helicopters flying over the Brandywell on Sunday afternoons, even though the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the deeply unpopular police force) had an unwritten agreement with Derry City that they would not enter the football ground.

Years passed before I really got to know English people. Even when, as a third level student, I spent lengthy summer holidays working in London, I only really mixed with the Irish or Jamaicans; there was a lot of distrust of the Irish, while the IRA "campaign" provided a negative backdrop to our experiences as young migrants in the British capital.

It was in London that I first encountered casual racism, but I knew that didn't mean there were more racists in the UK than back home in Ireland. In those days, you could probably count the number of black people in Galway on two hands.

For me, strangely, the catalyst for change was my love for scuba diving. My two regular diving buddies on the west coast of Ireland both had young families and didn't have the time or the money to travel with me on my underwater adventures.

So I booked the first of many holidays to Egpyt and - shock, horror - found myself on a boat full of English people. I braced myself for a tense week and, yes, sometimes there were cultural misunderstandings or comments made through ignorance rather than hatred.

My fears were unfounded and I even began to make life-long friends who would contact me twice a year to see if I'd like to join them on trips to the Red Sea. By mixing with each other, by sharing our passion for a wonderful hobby, we broke down barriers which we had allowed to build up over generations.

During a wonderful gap year in 2010, I became a professional scuba diver. Every day I mixed with English people at Blue Planet Divers, some of whom had military backgrounds and had even served on tours of duty, pointing guns at Irish Catholic people in Northern Ireland.

Some of them also became life-long friends.

At the turn of the Millennium, I also renewed my love affair with Liverpool FC, honed as a child in the 1970s back in Ireland. I travelled all around Europe with Scousers and could not feel more accepted or have had more fun.

I'm never going to sing 'Rule Britannia' or 'God Save the Queen', but by mixing and having the 'craic' with English people I have completely banished the prejudices I built up in my mind as a child.

With the Brits having voted to leave the European Union this week, Ireland is in shock as many of us worry about an uncertain future as an isolated island off the north-west coast of the vast continent.

Everyone is focusing on the perceived racism and xenophobia of some of those who voted for Brexit last Thursday.

How quickly we forget how undemocratic, or even anti-democratic, the EU has become.

When our parents voted to join it in the 1970s, the European Economic Community led to economic prosperity on an island which had been ravaged by decades of stagnation, unemployment, and hopelessness.

They didn't vote for a system which would allow bureaucrats in Brussels to bully small countries such as Ireland, Greece, and Portugal.

They didn't vote for a dictatorship which would tell the Irish people that they made the "wrong" choice when they rejected the Lisbon and Nice treaties.

They didn't vote to impose severe hardship on the Greeks or to make a murky deal with an awful Government in Turkey, just to keep the migrants out in the face of growing racism across many of the 28 member states.

They didn't vote for the annihilation of Irish fishing rights or a loss of power by nation states which ensures that the Irish Government no longer seems able to decide whether or not it can abolish deeply unpopular water charges.

They didn't vote for a parliament which refused the right to Irish MEPs to comment on a vote which will have more of an impact here than anywhere else yesterday. Luke 'Ming' Flanagan MEP, from one of the most remote regions in Europe, claimed that he and the other MEPs from the Republic were effectively being 'gagged' yesterday.

But Brexit proved one thing, emphatically - ordinary people across Europe feel alienated from the EU institutions which govern them.

The EU needs reform, it's just that people like the racist Nigel Farage MEP (UKIP) and opportunist Boris Johnson MP (Conservative) are not the ones to provide the solutions.

It's a sad day for Ireland when our nearest neighbour and biggest trading partner leaves the EU, but in all of the noise over xenophobia and racism let's not forget that there were very valid arguments about how undemocratic the EU has become during the Brexit debate too.

This is a time for healing wounds and building bridges.

Nobody wants to see a militarized border separate the Republic from the North again.

Luke 'Ming' Flanagan MEP,
not allowed to speak yesterday
And few want a divisive vote about a United Ireland right now, either. Not while a million people see themselves as British, even if the Britain they know seems to be falling apart.

Before we talk about that we need to start following the same teams, drinking in the same bars, living in the same neighbourhoods and mixing with each other to break down the barriers.

I had to go all the way to Egypt and Thailand to learn that I could make friends with ordinary English people, and be accepted for who I am, yet how many of us have made no effort to find out about the "others" who live just down the road.

Racism and xenophobia only fuel ignorance and offer no solutions, while isolation is simply impossible in the 21st century.

I do think British people made the wrong decision last Thursday, but only a fool would claim that the EU is not in need of sweeping reforms.

As for the border; well, nobody, but nobody, wants a return to the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s. There are too many connections between our two islands and our communities within this island to allow that to happen.

It's a time to build bridges, not to put up new fences, customs posts, passport controls, and watchtowers, long after many of us were so happy to see them being dismantled.


  1. A very thoughtful article. I agree the EU badly needs reform, but I think ireland leaving the EU and some people on Facebook is not the way.

  2. Very good article but why do you parrot the lie that Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson are racists, why is someone a racist (btw they want a reduction in all immigration not a stop to it, which includes Europeans )to sustainable numbers, why do you repeat this lie (also can you provide evidence for this claim?)? do you support unlimited or comtroled immigration?

    1. I thought it was appalling that Farage used a photo of poor refugees fleeing war-torn Syria to highlight his anti-immigration credentials.

      He has history.

    2. I'm no fan of Farage, but I'd be hesitant to call him racist, and Boris definitely isn't, I refuse to follow the left in calling anyone who's worried about immigration xenophobic or racist. It's become clear that not all the people flooding into Europe are legitimate refugees, take a look at the most recent pics of migrants plucked from the sea off the coast of Italy for example. You'd be hard pushed to pick out a Syrian from the swathes of Africans, and other countries in the middle east. I don't have any problem helping people, but I do have a problem committing cultural suicide. In a generation or two some will have adapted to our way of life, but many won't, more ghettos like the ones in the UK, Belgium, France, Germany, the list goes on, will appear, and are you honestly going to tell us that we should accept the dangers that this poses? No. There are countries much closer to home refugees should be going to. To choose to come to Europe says only one thing - economic migrants. No to that, and no to the left's constant agenda of labeling us as racist.

      Aside from that, a very well written article.

    3. Hi Grumpy, I didn't call Boris a racist, I called him an opportunist. Which seems very appropriate given events in the 24 hours since I wrote the blog post. He spotted a chance to have a 'go' at his old Etonian buddy Cameron without ever thinking the consequences through. Google Nigel Farage and racist together and you will find many examples where he used race and the scapegoating of minorities to further his cause. Let's not forget that there wouldn't be thousands upon thousands of Syrians desperately trying to get into Europe if the US and UK hadn't meddled in Middle Eastern affairs over a decade ago.

  3. Very well said Ciaran. I've have been reading Brexit articles all week (including most of what you've mentioned above) and thinking more and more that the EU is rapidly becoming a Superstate that has plans to fabricate future wars like the US has been doing in the middle east and Libya. It will be demanded that as part of our EU membership, we will have an obligation to "defend" Europe by mobilising our army when we will not want to get involved and want to remain neutral. This is a very real possibility that Irish people need to be aware of. In addition, now that we will soon be the last English speaking country in the EU, it will be good for investment opportunities, but every poor refugee will come flocking here to get free language training and welfare benefits from the "friendly generous Irish" now that the UK will not be an option for them. We need to be careful, but our corrupt politicians are EU puppets so I'm genuinely worried for the future of our great little country.

  4. I enjoyed this article more than any other I have read. It was both reasoned and informed and furthermore made me think. Thank you.

  5. A very insightful article Ciaran, keep up the good work, math thĂș.