Wednesday 19 October 2016

Another Walled City

To anyone who knows Berwick upon Tweed this will look very like the walls for which Berwick is famous, but these fortifications are not on the border between England and Scotland but in a city that's now close to the border between UK-administered Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Everything about the place is so controversial that even choosing what to call it has political overtones. Its original name was Derry, in 1613 it became Londonderry, it is now referred to officially as Derry Hyphen Londonderry, and it's currently the fashion to call it LegenDerry, which I like.

The walls of Derry are similar to those of Berwick but more complete and with more imposing gateways through them. They are of course a big draw for visitors - so much so that an English accent surprises the locals less than it does in Belfast - and you are expected to stroll around the complete circuit and admire both the views and the structure of the walls themselves. I've done my best, but I can't see this defensive structure as anything other than oppressive.

This photo is taken through one of the crenellations in the wall, looking down on the Bogside area. The tourist info panel says that the nearby Royal Bastion was built to give a clear field of fire over the Bogside, back when it was the field of approach of an enemy army rather than a housing estate, but if I were living there now I would always have the feeling that the forces of the state could start firing down on me at any time.

Within the walls of Derry there are some of the most beautiful Georgian streets I've ever seen, and that's presumably where the rich merchants originally lived. Just outside the walls is where the poor people lived, and seemingly still do. I have never seen any other city where the historical distribution of power and wealth is expressed spatially in such a stark way. I don't find it conducive to a carefree holiday stroll.

This is one of the entrances / exits to the wall. It doesn't have actual gates any more, but during the Northern Ireland Troubles the British army blocked off some of these arches and set up checkpoints there. I've seen a photo, and I really think that it would cure anybody of finding walled cities romantic or picturesque. I don't suppose being shut in /out was any more enjoyable in the 17th century than it was in the 20th.

I've trudged round four different museums that between them cover every shade of political and religious opinion on the history of Derry-Londonderry, making conversation with the staff of all of them in the most neutral tone I can muster. The only thing everybody agrees on is that they're all really worried about what will happen when the UK leaves the EU. There is much head-shaking and "we'll just have to wait and see."

One of my visits was to the temporary home of the Museum of Free Derry, an archive of the civil rights movement in the impoverished nationalist Bogside and the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 13 local people were shot dead by British troops. Its permanent home is in the process of construction, and you can see in this photo that the European Regional Development fund is contributing some of the funds. Don't get the idea that the EU is doing this because it's pro nationalist and anti British, though. I also visited the Siege Heroes Museum, a loyalist operation attached to the Apprentice Boys Hall that celebrates the heroic defence of the city by its starving Protestant inhabitants against the troops of the Catholic King James II in 1689. The Siege of Derry looms very large indeed in the tradition and imagination of the unionist community. The young man on the desk told me that its smart new building was also funded by the European Union. "We took the money and now we've run," he said ruefully.

On the same day I arrived in Derry-Londonderry, Radio 4 broadcast a programme from it, exploring the fears of a new 'hard' border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit. Though, as one contributor said, it shouldn't be called Brexit because it's not just Britain leaving, it's the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland. (Uxit?) There was a suggestion among some contributors that the events following the referendum on EU membership has exposed as a fiction the claim that the UK is a free association of equal partners and shown England imposing its will on the other nations of the UK. (Though to be fair, I think Wales voted majority Leave as well.) That's exactly how Scotland feels, and that's why Berwickers are worried as well.

I wanted to find a cheerful aspect of Derry to end this post on, and the best I could come up with was this golden teapot. It hangs outside a shop in the Strand Road, it's covered in real gold leaf and it's bigger than the golden kettle in Boston! A nice cup of tea, that really does unite us all.

Sunday 2 October 2016

You May Experience Connection Problems

Hello again! I drew my blog to a conclusion, as I thought, back in June, when I moved away from Berwick, but I now feel compelled to write again. In an attempt to get a different perspective on the future of the English-Scottish border, I've travelled to Ireland. The extreme cheapness of the flight to Dublin from Newcastle or Edinburgh with Ryanair makes it easy to justify doing this on a sudden impulse.

One of the nice things about being in the Republic of Ireland is escaping from the endless wallowing in the First World War that's going on in Britain, but then the ROI keeps banging on about the centenary of the Easter Rising instead. This is a photo of the General Post Office in the main street of Dublin, now called O'Connell Street, that was the headquarters of the Rising of 1916. Note the flag of the European Union flying alongside the Irish tricolor. The amazing metallic spire, soaring to a giddy height that won't fit in my photo, replaced a statue of Nelson that was blown up by nationalists in the 1960s. I'm sure the spire was an improvement. If anybody would like to demolish some more statues of Victorian worthies back in Britain, they can feel free as far as I'm concerned.

I paid my 10 euros and went round the museum inside the GPO. The main attraction is a noisy film of comedy Englishmen of the 'I say old chap' variety having rings run round them by Irish rebels, but there are also some very good videos of interviews with serious Irish historians, from which I learned a lot. It is clear that the British reaction to the Rising was hopelessly bungled and only succeeded in uniting a nation that was previously divided over the aims and tactics of nationalism. I could see similarities with what is going on in Scotland at the present time. To settle for devolution or to hold out for full independence? Can such a small nation survive on its own? Is independence more important than prosperity? Surely the country's prosperity will actually be greater when Britain is no longer siphoning off the proceeds of its key industries?

The big difference between now and 1916 is of course the existence of the European Union. I snapped the photo on the right in the supermarket over the road from my hotel in North Dublin. It's a large section, because there are a lot of Eastern European immigrants in the Republic of Ireland. (Okay, I know Poles hate being called Eastern Europeans, they insist Poland is in Central Europe, but evidently the Supervalu chain hasn't had that memo.) Most of the crew on my Ryanair flight were Polish. From being always known as a country of emigration, Eire is now also a country of immigration.

I then got the train up to Belfast, and the bus back from Belfast to Dublin. I grew up in the 1970s when television news showed soldiers patrolling border checkpoints between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is now a completely open border. Nothing happens when you cross it. Absolutely nothing. Cruising down the motorway on the express bus, the only way you can tell you're back in the Republic is that the direction signs start to be in Gaelic as well as English. There isn't even a flag or a 'welcome' sign like you get between England and Scotland. On the train, the only reference in the entire journey to the fact that you are technically travelling between two different states is that the log-in screen for the free wifi says 'you may experience connection problems between Dundalk and Portadown'. And sure enough you do, because the broadband codes are being switched to make sure BBC iPlayer knows when you're in the UK and can watch on-demand telly and when you're outside the UK and can't. My phone showed Roaming in the Republic but switched back to being in the UK north of the border, and the same in reverse on the way south. In Belfast, all calls were included in my monthly bundle, in Dublin, not. I found this weirdly fascinating. In 2016 we don't need anything as crude as soldiers stomping about the border, we can monitor your every move digitally.

This is a sculpture in Thanksgiving Square on the waterfront in Belfast. According to the distinctly waffly description board, it is inspired by a variety of female figures in Celtic mythology and expresses themes of peace, reconciliation, hope and aspiration, while the fact she is standing on a globe refers to our modern global village. If you say so. The last time I was in Belfast was in 2002 and since then the city has been completely transformed. It now has a very attractive and lively city centre, full of exuberant young people, and with the highest density of coffee shops I've ever seen, possibly indeed in Europe. Being there moved me very much. A small voice at the back of my mind said that perhaps in twenty years time Aleppo could look like this.

But today Theresa May, Prime Minister of the UK, announced that she will formally trigger the process of leaving the European Union in six months time. When I heard this I wanted to cry. All this openness and ease of travel, this creeping de facto re-unification under the auspices of the EU, could be destroyed by Brexit. In a few years time there may once again be armed checkpoints all across the Island of Ireland. And across the Island of Britain, if Scotland proves as loyal to the EU as Eire. Every time I go back to Berwick, a town that would be blighted more than any other by a 'hard' border with Scotland, I have to make conversation with Conservative supporting, Leave voting, locals who are thrilled at the result of our EU referendum. I just want to say to them, Are you out of your bloody mind?