Growing up in County Fermanagh through the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles turns one into something of a reluctant expert on borders. Here on the very frayed edge of the Union, the struggle for identity had lethal consequences for a minority Protestant population brutalised by a cruel and calculated campaign by IRA terrorists to get rid of Unionists and ‘green’ the frontier.
Both Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds were raised in Fermanagh, as I was. The brutal formative experiences of their lives were in a time and place entirely removed from the understanding of any of the other main protagonists in the Brexit struggle. Barnier, Varadkar and May’s sherpas are invariably, to use David Goodhart’s phrase, “people from anywhere” — socially liberal internationalists who unlike Dodds and Foster weren’t ever exposed to the intimate violence of extreme nationalism.
Journalists and commentators from outside Northern Ireland also struggle to make sense of the importance of location and identity to the DUPs chief negotiators. It is subsumed into the technical origami of a frictionless border. It is folded into the fashionable sophistry of “no return to the hard borders of the past”. That hard border in Fermanagh was created, by the way, to try to prevent the very people who tried to murder Foster’s defenceless father in a lonely border farmstead from carrying out their dirty work.
Of the 116 deaths related to the Troubles in Fermanagh, 100 people were murdered by the IRA. Many of its victims, like Foster’s father, were part-time members of the security forces. Ninety per cent of those murders remain unsolved and it’s a fair bet in the isolated communities close to the border victims’ families and perpetrators routinely encounter each other to this day. In Northern Ireland, the past isn’t another country, it’s a field away or over a garden fence.
Nigel Dodds, the leader of the DUP’s ten MPs at Westminster, was forged in the same place. He’s an old boy of my school, Portora Royal in Enniskillen, one of five Royal schools in Ireland founded by James I in 1608. This ancient place educated Oscar Wilde and Sam Beckett and also six RUC officers murdered between 1972 and 1989. A plaque in their honour is on the wall of the assembly hall. Another “Old Portoran”, Paul Maxwell, 15, who I knew, was murdered along with Earl Mountbatten in his boat in Mullaghmore in 1979.
Dodds’ father Joe, a long-time Enniskillen councillor and Korean war veteran, joined the locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment in 1970. Many of his comrades were cut down by terrorists on and off duty in the county. Dodds Jr escaped injury in Belfast in 1996 visiting his seriously ill son in hospital when IRA terrorists attacked police officers guarding him. Loss, sacrifice and remembrance are potent and vivid articles of faith here, Try building that into a no-deal contingency plan.
These aren’t easy people to impress or intimidate. The psychology of a border childhood where the very land your house stood on was literally contested ground made that line on the map as real as God. The IRA’s campaign on the border was, essentially, a land grab – one that involved murdering the Fosters’ neighbours to push Protestants away from the border. When your back has been against the wall for this long, the backstop looks like nothing less than capitulation of a Britishness that was paid for in blood. May’s advisors will ignore that visceral backstory at their peril.
So the idea that either Foster or Dodds will blink first in negotiations with their senior partner in Government, however much it appeals to the rationalists across the pond, is fatally misplaced. The fall of Theresa May has been priced into the strategy. The rise of a Corbyn government looks much less likely than an interim Conservative leader prepared to ditch Chequers, defend UK sovereignty and threaten a no-deal exit and mean it. Even the prospect of the election of a Labour Government holds less fear than supposed.
Labour have countenanced a pact with the DUP before in exchange for power in the event of a close electoral contest. As Dodds himself wryly observed in an interview with Jenny McCartney in 2015, “I certainly think that the last year or two has been remarkable in the number of new friends we have encountered, people who are very keen to have a cup of tea or chat to you or whatever. I don’t put it all down to our natural charm.”
Moreover, the hapless mishandling of texts in phase one of the Brexit negotiations, derailed by the DUP on the very same issue of red lines down the Irish Sea will have confirmed a view held by many of their supporters that not only is Albion perfidious, it’s also (compared to negotiating power with Sinn Fein) strictly amateur.
Anybody thinking that the relentless negativity towards the DUP will soften them is similarly in for a rude awakening. Arlene Foster is frequently caricatured – often cruelly so – by a lazy commentariat on either side of the Irish Sea that enthusiastically propagates the idea she is the living embodiment of all the antediluvian traditions and views that make many of her party elders unattractive and, to be frank, inexplicable. In fairness, many of her critics haven’t endured a large part of their lives where people wanted to murder you and yours for the “crime” of choosing your own your identity. It does things to your head.
It’s frequently said that if Foster had different skin colour or ethnicity much of the relentless trolling she receives – from the allegedly progressive left – would cause outrage. But the DUP aren’t often on the side of progressive politics and this in itself is all the permission needed to create an ideological free-fire zone often assisted, it must be said, by the party joining in to shoot itself in both feet on social issues.
Hell week (redux) has started with revelations that Arlene Foster’s recent meeting with Barnier was “difficult” and “hostile”. Barnier probably didn’t know what hit him. Suave, cosmopolitan insouciance probably didn’t survive much past the handshake. Ulster said, “non”. But it sets the scene. The DUP are clearly looking to a post-May landscape and a no-deal eventuality. It will emerge if sufficient numbers of her own party, including the cabinet, rebel against her Brexit plan or resign ahead of the crucial EU summit on Wednesday.
Other Commons permutations are of course available in the grim calculus sitting on the desk of the chief whip. Perhaps that’s why his phone is off the hook. But none have the advantage of Dodds and Foster, forged in the shadow of Churchill’s “dreary steeples” of Fermanagh — at least you know exactly where you stand with them.