On 21 November, I will be taking part in the Dingle Literary Festival in Ireland. The event is titled Writing Across Borders. The title was mine; opening a dialogue with Irish author Patrick Osborne whose Baxter’s Boys is set in Dublin. Writing Across Borders was conceived to explore the literary symmetries between my Liverpool-Irish characters and Patrick’s Dublin-based Liverpudlian football manager, Pa Baxter. Patrick (or 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 very day we were having the conversation, Boris Johnson was in Belfast trying to stitch together his coalition to ‘get Brexit done’. He has since marched the D and U 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.
A border running through human hearts
The situation has devolved further with a Sinn Féin-led executive boycotted by the DUP over the NI protocol and fresh elections now looming. So how do we talk about writing and borders in this situation? In preparation for the event, ideas have been spinning around in my head, borders can be physical, 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 since WW2 and the hundreds of thousands over the centuries; no immigration process, no passports, my grandfather came in through Liverpool’s Garston Dock and went out to his death in the Channel in the final days of WW2. My dad from Wicklow came through the same dock after the war. The ebbs and the flows in the Irish sea were of people migrating to and fro, unencumbered by borders.
Everything if you were a 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 Féin won an overwhelming majority. As a loyalist, the border was the backbone of your identity without which the state and your world would collapse. Today with talk of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ borders it can all seem confusing, at heart, it is about identity and democracy.
Who are we with or without flags or lines on the map?
Since the Good Friday Agreement under which you could have an Irish or British passport, culture, and identity without question, the border between North and South had 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 promotion of borders, questions of how we pay the electricity bill and what’s happening to the health service become much more important.
Identities are multi-faceted, personal and political, there is no doubt that when borders are imposed on those identities whether personal, political, or geographic then those borders will be challenged and crossed. My first novel Under The Bridge followed the struggles of Irish immigrants and Scousers of Irish descent in Garston post WW2 through ‘The Troubles’ up to the present day.
Within the EU, borders have been or are being lowered, within the UK cultural borders are rising as moves for Scottish independence, and Irish Unity grow, and there is an increase in regionalism. Despite the Queen’s death, more people will find that rallying to the monarchy and the flag doesn’t pay the bills, feed the kids, or provide security and that our idea of ‘who and what we are’ should lie beyond the flag we’re asked to rally around.
You can find Jack’s books here