Sarah Kay shares her thoughts on a recently published book by The Irish Border.
The role that @BorderIrish played in educating the Twitterati, especially of the English and broader Commonwealth persuasion, about Northern Ireland and its invisible frontline proved invaluable. Its online participation in debates has elevated an anonymous social media figure to the political representation of values and safety that no one else had until then taken to heart. By photoshopping a picture of an elephant on an official Cabinet photo release during a Brexit negotiation, @BorderIrish let everyone understand that the Northern Irish population, if not represented at Chequers, or poorly, in Westminster, would at least have a bit of craic at the expense of the British government.
The book that came from the success of the Twitter account includes most of the quips and sarcasm to which we had become accustomed, the Border, after all, being as Irish as possible, could never simply write down history in the first degree. It would take a specific sense of humour to appreciate the complete absurdity of Brexit, while the gravity and seriousness of its sheer neglect of Northern Ireland deserves nothing but scorn. @BorderIrish’s made-up characters – the rebellious, funny, informed best friend Jean, who lives in a border town, and Jim, the Leaver who never leaves, are part of a book that spans the three years since the referendum that upended a continent, and the end of this decade, nowhere closer to a resolution, but much deeper and entrenched into divisions.
But @BorderIrish is not just here to laugh at Jim’s expense and high-five Jean – well, touch her hand with its blades of grass – whenever a British civil servant comes back to London empty-handed. It is also there as a keeper and reminder of a history that belongs to my generation and those that came before mine, the legacy of the current and future Irish and Northern Irish generations. Keeping this in mind, and with memory sometimes a painful one, never truly erased by the speed of the Enterprise racing from Dublin to Belfast, the book keeps its promise never to let any reader forget exactly where it comes from and what it has seen. One passage in the book is particularly poignant: “you will do everything to forget about me, and I will make sure I am the one border you will never forget about.” If this sounds ominous, it’s because it is: incidents of violence in Northern Ireland have risen since 2016; emergence of new paramilitary groups have already claimed lives; and Brexit has already been declared a threat to the Good Friday Agreement, an international peace treaty.
The Border painstakingly explains it is both the Irish border in the UK and the British border in Ireland, although by the nature of the isle and its formerly temporary status, it is more of an Irish border. From the use of typical local slang to the references of the cities near or across its “squiggly bits”, @BorderIrish is a voice representing those who were never asked to opine on the consequences of Brexit on their lives; the cities that have sprung across the grassy fields and empty spots where customs posts once were; the people that walk, run, work, live, across a fault line they have learnt not to think about every day. It is no longer the threat it once was; it is a matter of change in currency, health systems, and governance – or lack thereof. But for border communities, there is no question to divide themselves in two, the strike of an axe across their recent lives and newfound aspirations, a Berlin Wall separating families over an accent, a religious affiliation, or an overwhelmingly present sense of patriotism.
I have crossed that border many times. I had long hated it, and had wished for nothing else than to see it disappear. @BorderIrish reconciled me with it through an amorphism; it is a border that loves some pastries, isn’t keen on dogs being walked near it, friendly with cows, and getting seriously inebriated when a lorry is losing a beer keg across it. It tries to make friends with Michel Barnier, and reaches out to other borders in order to figure out if it is truly that unique. Once sleepy and quiet, @BorderIrish finds itself at the heart of the biggest diplomatic and foreign policy issue of this European era, without the support or the understanding of involved parties. Norway, Sweden, Gibraltar, Mexico, and other contested lines in the sand, mountains, or sea are asked to weigh in with their own particular history and their own knowledge of conflict near or because of them; despite the pressing nature of sovereignty and border control in this golden age of cheap populism, @BorderIrish finds itself in a unique position of being both invisible and impossible to miss, non-existent and over present in negotiations, a political symbol that refuses to be politicized, and a commitment to peace without a representative in Stormont to speak on its behalf. This is perhaps the most Northern Irish thing that I have ever come to witness in a very long time: how to disappear without stopping to exist. That is one existential question of a region that never fully grappled its history if I’ve seen one.
Of course, it is hard not to speculate on @BorderIrish’s author identity. The book plays with the great names of literature, trying to translate the post modernism of Twitter’s character limits into what Shakespeare, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett or W.B. Yeats would have said. The exercises exist in the book, so salient and precise that one can only accept that our border is nothing short of exceptionally erudite. This is perhaps thanks to decades of not having to do anything else but let the grass grow and watch cities erupt, as opposed to hearing the clacking sound of rifles or inhaling the smoke of burning buildings. It pays tribute to what the country has done best, its most prideful exports, its characters and its humour, its resilience and resistance, but at no point does it ever underestimate the constant fear that Brexit has placed in the minds and hearts of those who know @BorderIrish exists. In short sentences and carefully chosen words, it speaks of the violence it once saw, the lives that are no longer present to speak in Brussels, of the balaclava-hidden faces that have traipsed along the long fence. If one does wonder what Twitter would look like if De Valera and Michael Collins had access to it in 1919, it surely can’t beat the ignorant statements put forward by several DeXEU ministers or Home Office civil servants with regards to what is now a Northern Irish Question.
And so the book ends. The reader laughed, cried, felt something pinch at its heartstrings and depending on its age, traveled back in time in the darkest recesses of its mind, when @BorderIrish was menacing, not protective. And protective it definitely is. The Twitter account as well as the book make it clear that they exist because no one else otherwise would; because the silence over the Irish scar has been deafening, and will not be swallowed if placed into the Irish sea. Northern Ireland will soon enter its third year without a local government; it is just as shaken by the looming British General Election as one can expect; but we should never forget a past that is still our present for the sake of political convenience. We can laugh about it; we can be cynical about it; we can decide we will keep our head high in the midst of all the feudalism remarks that appear in the right wing press, but one thing is for sure, is that we should and shall not be forgotten. And in that, @BorderIrish is doing a grandiose public service.
@BorderIrish, 2019, I Am the Border, So I Am. Publisher: HarperCollins ISBN-13: 978-0008356996
⏭ Sarah Kay is a human rights lawyer, Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/K_interarma