I took part in a Liverpool Literary Festival, Writing on the Wall event recently, its title was ‘Writing Across Borders’. The title was mine, I had the idea of inviting Paddy Osborne who wrote Baxter’s Boys set in Dublin with a leading Scouse character. So ‘Writing Across Borders’ was to explore my Liverpool Irish characters and background and Paddy’s Irish Liverpool football manager. Paddy then suggested we invite Jane Buckley a writer originally from Derry, who after a long time abroad was now back in her home region.
All good, except that what started as a cultural exchange, between Liverpool and Dublin, now had to deal with the immediate and historic political situation. The day we were having the online panel event Boris Johnson was in Belfast trying to stitch together his coalition of reactionaries. He had marchjed the D and T UPs to the top of the protocol hill and marched them back down again, ‘over my dead body’ he announced about checks in the Irish sea, the checks were not over his dead body and the ‘oven-ready Brexit deal’, turned out to be dangerously undercooked.
So how do we talk about writing and borders in this situation? In preparation for the event, ideas were spinning around in my head, borders can be legal, geographic, cultural, or political, they can be imposed by the straight line of imperialism as in Africa or The Middle East, or they can be demanded by national struggles for self-determination.
The phrase that allowed me to gain some kind of perspective was Everything or Nothing, in British Irish relations, the borders meant everything or nothing.
Nothing for my parents and the tens of thousands of migrants who came from Ireland over the decades and hundreds of thousands over the centuries, no immigration process, no passports, my grandfather came in through Garston Dock and went out to his death in the channel in the final days of WW2. The ebb and flow in the Irish sea were of people to and fro, unencumbered by borders.
Everything if you were nationalist in The North where your life and many deaths were defined by opposition to the border. A border imposed as a denial of the self-determination of the Irish people, as expressed in the 1918 general election where Sinn Fein won an overwhelming majority. As a loyalist, the border was the backbone of your identity without which the state and your world would collapse.
Since the Good Friday Agreement under which you could have an Irish or British passport, culture, and identity without question, the border has receded in relevance, except to those whose position of power and privilege relied on it, and the divisions it created in society. Without the division between Orange and Green, without the question of borders. How do we pay the electricity bill? What’s happening to the health service? How you answer these questions becomes more important.
When you can choose your identity freely, then many will decide identifying with Boris and the group who caused this crisis, is like relying on an arsonist to put out the fire, even if this bonfire does have a union jack on top.
Within the EU borders have been or are being lowered, it is within the UK that borders are rising as more and more people find that rallying to the Monarchy and the flag doesn’t pay the bills, feed the kids, or provide security.
My new novel ‘Across The Water’ set in Liverpool and Ireland is out now.