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Bomber Boys and Borders – Is Northern Ireland really going back to the future?

A British paratrooper takes a young girl in his arms to comfort her after she had been hurt in the bomb blast in Donegal Street, Belfast. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The breathtaking disregard with which some Brexiteers are now treating the Irish peace process show how little they understand the issue, and what is at stake, says PETER MILLAR, who saw the Troubles up close

It was a surprisingly sunny Saturday afternoon in Belfast; I was walking with two other teenagers towards our favourite record shop (vinyl was the only option in 1972), when all of a sudden a bone-shuddering roar filled our ears and my tousled Marc Bolan hairstyle was filled with tiny shards of glass.

The glass had come from the windows of surrounding shops shattered by the blast from a restaurant blown up by a bomb. Two died and 130 were injured in the attack on the crowded Abercorn. By good fortune, I wasn’t counted among them. My mess of tangled curls had protected me.

Emergency services and armed police flooded by. Pumping adrenaline, we ran for the train station and the 12-mile journey home to the relatively quiet seaside resort of Bangor. It was the first direct impact the ‘Troubles’ had on me. The second came just weeks later when in the early hours of the morning I was literally blown out of bed as a 200k bomb obliterated Bangor’s Main Street.

Both events took me back to a photograph taken a decade earlier of a six-year-old boy in a tweed short-trousered suit holding the tassel of an orange banner depicting 17th century warriors led by a bewigged man on a white horse: William III (of Orange) leading his troops across the River Boyne.

I was honouring the tradition of one side of my family by marching to Finaghy Field where every year Northern Ireland’s Protestant ‘ascendancy’ – or, rather, their working-class foot soldiers – paraded their cultural supremacy. I sat in the crowd enjoying the martial bands, and listened to speeches that denounced the pope as the ‘whore of Babylon’, causing me to ask awkward questions of my prudish parents.

As I grew into my teens cynicism happily prevailed. I realised that ‘King Billy on his steed’ who led the town parade was a local drunk struggling to hang on to his farmhorse. Even before the bombings I had begun to avoid the marches and retreat to the seafront with a few friends, a bottle of cider and the occasional joint.

I asked myself what people had against Catholics. When I finally got to meet some, I realised we had lots in common: an interest in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. But then the conflict was never really about religion, but about culture and national allegiance.

In Northern Ireland, ‘nationality’ was, for the Protestant community, an expression of what they weren’t: Irish, but not proper Irish. The Scots, Welsh and above all the English, used those labels alone to express their identity, with ‘British’ tacked on as an afterthought. Only in NI was the word ‘British’ used first and foremost.

My first opportunity to vote, in 1973, was a referendum: on the inner-Irish border. With a heavy heart at wasting my newly-acquired franchise, I spoilt my vote: the 1921 partition had been deliberately gerrymandered to create a pro-British majority, and little had changed. The vote was a fraud with the result pre-ordained.

The second was also a referendum: on membership of what would become the European Union. I voted enthusiastically ‘Yes’. I had studied French, German and Spanish, ‘European’ seemed suddenly to be a new identity, one that I could identify with, one that was inclusive rather than exclusive, in the worst sense of the latter word.

As a student at Oxford University I had a brief flirtation the romantic Brideshead myth of ‘Englishness’. But I also acquired an Irish passport and hitchhiked around France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany. I took Interrail to Italy, Austria, Greece and Yugoslavia.

At a campsite outside Dubrovnik, I was robbed of railcard, money and even shoes, and hitched barefoot back to Belfast. Turkish Gastarbeiter bound for Cologne fed me tomatoes and flatbread in the back of their truck. A Belgian couple picked up this rain-soaked ragamuffin at a German petrol station. A Dutch pair gave me the money for my ferry fare across the Channel.

I spent a year living in Paris as part of my university course, becoming fluent in student slang, then a year in Brussels as a trainee reporter for Reuters, and subsequently in East Berlin and Moscow. I have spent extended spells as a reporter in Warsaw, Prague, Belgrade and Budapest. I saw the fall of the Berlin Wall as a new beginning for Europe. Britain applauded but then turned off the television.

Back ‘home’ the killings had continued. I lost two schoolfriends to the Troubles: one at age 21 by a bomb in a bar near Queen’s University, another who joined the police and was shot dead in an IRA ambush.

The north-south border was as grim as I remembered it: concrete blockhouses with barbed wire, armed police and soldiers, regular targets for IRA attacks. But there was just a hint of change in the air. I was sent back by the Sunday Times to cover what turned out to be an evolving peace process.

I got to know Davy Irvine, a former Ulster Volunteer Force man who had been jailed for bomb offences but had repented and was working for ‘reconciliation’. I met Martin McGuinness, the former IRA man who made the crucial phone call to then British PM John Major.

The 1998 Good Friday agreement was little short of a miracle, a genuine agreement to differ that allowed both sides to put an indefinite stop to the need to declare an inflammatory victory. The border disappeared, and peace slowly took hold.

Then Britain forgot about that too, forgot the psychological and economic role played by both countries’ membership of the European Union. Britain refused to join the Schengen open borders agreement signed by every other western European country, including those outside the EU, save Ireland, prevented by the need to keep open the border to the North.

The Irish embraced the euro as an affirmation of their commitment to the European ideal. British chancellor Gordon Brown rejected it, as much for personal political reasons as financial, a move perversely hailed despite the decline of sterling with no tangible advantage to exports.

Had Britain joined, the Irish conflict might have melted away for good, the border as irrelevant as that between Germany and Austria, where the only way you know you have crossed is a difference in speed limits and petrol prices.

Now, we face that same English failure to see the bigger picture, that Europe is not just about trade, but about building the interests of nation-states in common rather than in competition, an achievement to be hailed. And discarded at peril.

Peter Millar is a journalist and author of The Germans and Europe, a Personal Frontline History (Arcadia Books 2017)

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