The UK's callous disregard for Northern Ireland has felt like a betrayal

Written by Laura Kelly on 9 April 2019 in Comment

Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, in large part because they could see what seems to have eluded Theresa May: that EU membership was part of the magic that made peace possible

Image credit: David Anderson

Pin-up pop star Fran O’Toole was machine-gunned so many times in the face, when he was murdered alongside two of his Miami Showband mates, that his head was almost completely destroyed. The Miami Showband was one of the most popular live acts in Ireland in the early 70s and had particular importance for the young people of Northern Ireland, for whom they offered a respite from the relentless sectarianism of the time. No one cared whether you were Protestant or Catholic when you were dancing to the showbands.

Recently the subject of documentaries on both BBC Four and Netflix, the 1975 Miami Showband killings were one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles. The renewed interest in their story – largely forgotten outside Northern Ireland – is a timely reminder of what is put at risk by irresponsible Brexit gambling over a hard border in Ireland.

On the evening of 31 July 1975, the young men in the band were on their way home to Dublin from a gig in Banbridge when they were stopped at a checkpoint. The uniformed men who pulled them over attempted to plant a bomb on their bus, but it exploded prematurely, killing two of the would-be bombers. The remaining gunmen opened fire on the dazed band, killing three of them and injuring two.

Three members of loyalist paramilitary organisation the Ulster Volunteer Force, all also either serving or former members of the British Army’s Ulster Defence Regiment, were convicted of the crime. Relentless years of campaigning for truth by surviving band member Stephen Travers – himself lucky to escape with his life after being shot with an exploding ‘dumdum’ bullet – uncovered persistent accusations of involvement by British military intelligence agents. It’s believed that the plan was to plant the bomb on the band’s bus to frame them as terrorist supporters and therefore precipitate harsher border checks.

For those of us who grew up in Northern Ireland, stories like this and the better known Bloody Sunday murders are part of the fabric of our identity, our understanding of history – and of our frequently strained relationship to the state.

It’s through the prism of recent history, in which a bunch of lads who just wanted to bring a party to those who sorely needed it might be used as pawns in a war on home soil, that I heard Conservative peer Lord King on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme say that the border in Ireland is a “bargaining chip” that should not have been played so early in Brexit negotiations with the EU. And it’s why my blood boils that this opinion is now so mainstream he was not even challenged on his desire to risk Northern Irish lives in order to thumb his nose at Brussels.

Since the hard-won miracle of the Good Friday Agreement, it has been easy for the rest of the UK to forget the social, political and psychological scars that still criss-cross Northern Ireland. The short memories of some in the British establishment are in stark contrast to the more robust recollections across the water. There are weak points in my homeland to which we’d do well not to apply pressure.

Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, in large part because they could see what seems to have eluded Theresa May: that EU membership was part of the magic that made peace possible. It squared the circle by allowing everyone to behave as though there was no border to fight over, and by gifting us all an overriding identity. No possible Brexit can do that.

The peace process was only possible because of the efforts of both John Major and Tony Blair’s governments to rebuild Northern Irish trust in the British state, to convince us they would no longer play games with the lives of innocent Northern Irish men and women and that the days of the British Army murdering people on UK soil were over. Brexit has done no one’s trust in the UK Government any good, but the callous disregard for Northern Ireland has felt like a particular betrayal to those of us who took a leap of faith in the 1990s.

The current government is not worthy of that belief. They have repeatedly undermined the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, and not only through their cavalier attitude to the maintenance of an open border. Their marriage of convenience to the DUP calls into question their even-handedness towards the communities of Northern Ireland, and has further hampered ongoing campaigns for the extension of equal marriage and abortion rights to the province. Their competence is questionable following the admission by the clueless secretary of state, Karen Bradley, that she did not understand that nationalists did not vote for unionist parties during elections.

In Belfast for Mother’s Day, I found a city daubed with campaign posters for the upcoming council elections. Sinn Fein posters pointedly shout loud for marriage equality – gesturing to the progressive moves made by Ireland in the last few years. Until recently, I believed that most in Northern Ireland were happy to let sleeping dogs lie and maintain our current equilibrium, but with trust in the UK Government at an all-time low, a progressive, united Ireland looks ever more tempting.

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