“If you’re not Irish, fake it” (New York bumper sticker)
A few months back, I was sitting having lunch with a lovely couple in their Orkney farmhouse. The business of the day having concluded, we turned to other concerns.
“When are you coming back up to Orkney?”, the lady asked me. “January next year”, I said. “I’m combining it with a speaking engagement at a Burns Supper. Maybe I’ll see you there”.
“I don’t think so”, she said. “I don’t see the point of it all. What’s Robert Burns got to do with Orkney? We should be celebrating someone from our own place”.
Now, I’m a Burns fanatic. You all know this by now. He seems deeply ingrained in my psyche, in my heart, in my head, central to my very DNA. But I recognise that he’s not for everyone. I was intrigued by her comments rather than remotely offended by them. In fact, I loved the idea that a man who profoundly influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to Abraham Lincoln to Andrew Carnegie could be so summarily dismissed in an Orkney kitchen, and I’d like to think that Burns would have enjoyed the moment too. In fact, I suspect he’d have loved it. It was he, after all, who advised us “to see ourselves as ithers see us”. Burns was a fluent French speaker and would have appreciated the idiom. He was “Bien dans sa peau” – comfortable in his own skin. He had no false modesty. He dressed well and had a pony tail. No doubt people said they “kent his faither”, but Burns didn’t give a damn. He knew his own worth. He didn’t do false modesty. He wasn’t some heaven sent plowman. He knew his Shakespeare and his Milton and his Alexander Pope. He was his own man and he knew his stuff. He is my hero. Christ, I just adore the guy.
But even if Burns doesn’t float your boat, there’s no disputing his deep and lasting legacy. It takes some believing, but the world has over forty statues in his honour, built everywhere from the bowling green at Portpatrick to the Victoria Embankment in London, To the Golden Gate Bridge and the State library of South Australia.
His image even looks over the early morning joggers in New York’s Central Park and appears in public libraries all over America. It even appears on both Scottish banknotes and Russian postage stamps. This guy is the real deal. At the time of writing, however, there are no plans to erect a Robert Burns statue in Pierowall.
But, in truth, Burns matters as much in Orkney as he does anywhere else. You’re every bit as likely to find a Burns Supper in Moscow as in Motherwell. I’ve spoken at suppers in places as diverse as Portstewart in Northern Ireland’s north coast and in the genteel stockbroker belts of Cheshire. And his farming background connects him immediately to hundreds of Orcadians. In the context of the challenges of the current farming year, who could possibly read “To a Mouse” and fail to nod in agreement?
“But moosie – thou art no’ thy lane in proving foresight may be vain.
The best laid schemes o’ mice – and men gang aft agley,
And leave us nocht but grief and pain for promised joy.
Still – thou art blessed compared wi’ me..
The present only toucheth thee
But ach, I backward cast my ee on prospects dreer.
And forward. Though I canny see. I guess. And fear”.
But my Orkney hostess’s comments reminded me of something that is often forgotten – that our identities are complicated – and all the better for it. Orkney, in its outlook, worldview, culture and heritage, looks to the north more than it does the south. I respect that and love that. I’ve heard more than one Orcadian say “I won’t be around when you visit next week Alec – I’m going to Scotland for a few days” – as if Scotland was another country. Which, in many ways, it is. It’s like Churchill’s famous description of Russia: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. He could have been talking about us. There are countless Scotlands and every single one of us believes that our version of Scotland is the real one. And do you know what? Every single one of us is right, and every single one of us is wrong. So whenever I’m asked to propose the toast to Scotland, I always start with the same question: “which one?”
We are all, to borrow from the title of Tim Marshall’s superb book, Prisoners of Geography. I think this is often underestimated.
We are not a homogeneous people but a proudly mongrel race. Just as Orcadians look north, people from the Borders look south. It informs much about us. The Borderers’ proximity to England may well have informed their vote during the 2014 independence Referendum. Perhaps we’d all be less inclined towards self-governance if we could see Northumbria from our kitchen windows (although I’d imagine I wouldn’t have). When I talk, and write, about a distant and uncaring government, I mean London. But perhaps if you live in Orkney, you mean Edinburgh.
It’s maybe history, too. I’ve often reflected that Scotland’s overwhelming remain vote in 2016 was informed by the fact that our relationship with Europe predates the Act of Union by at least five centuries, and that near total lack of concern over immigration is informed by our predilection for travel. When a people populate virtually every country in the world, they tend to be pretty relaxed when folk turn up in their own midden. Jock Tamson has a helluva lot of bairns. There are people milking our cows and picking our fruit called “Czarmas” (Chalmers) and Ramzey (Ramsay). This isn’t immigration. This is a homecoming.
While Orcadians looks north and borderers look south, Stranraer folk like me have always, instinctively, looked west. The accent we speak is called Galloway Irish. We say “how are youse?” when greeting a group of people. The ferry to Ireland used to go from Portpatrick – a place whose very name reveals its Irish heritage and which has a pub called the Downshire. Troops would stay in the village (so it boasts both a Barrack St and a Colonel St, as well as a Military Road) before heading to Ireland and onwards to America and the Wars of Independence. Thomas Muir, the radical thinker and founder of the Friends of the People, was fleeing to Ireland from a charge of sedition when they finally caught him in the Port. Nearby Stranraer was once referred to as Little Dublin, so prevalent was the Irish accent.
I was born in an analogue age in which the television had three channels, and if you lived in Stranraer they all came from Ulster. Until the age of eleven, then, I got virtually all my news from a Northern Irish perspective. The result was a lifelong interest in the affairs of my neighbours. And, boy, it’s got interesting now. And a little frightening.
I’ve been staying in Belfast this week and Northern Ireland remains – and I’m aware that I’m criminally understating the case here – complicated. A late friend used to tell the story of being in a Belfast taxi and his colleague asking the cabbie what the official religion of Ireland was. “Sir, do you have a spare century?”, deadpanned the driver. I once met a guy in Portstewart, a devout Catholic who had a severely autistic son who was never happier when watching the Orange Marches. So that’s what they did every July, because he loved his son and wanted him to be happy and because when you love someone then that is what you must do. That, to me, will always be Northern Ireland. I don’t know what Churchill was moaning about. Russia wasn’t complicated at all. Compared to Northern Ireland, Russia is a walk in the park.
In one important sense, however, it isn’t actually complicated in the slightest. During the Scottish Independence Referendum, I learned an enormous amount about the EU and its workings from someone who actually knew about these things – the MEP Alyn Smith (and I wish, incidentally, that David Davis and his ilk took the radical step of actually finding out about stuff. Aye, good luck with that). Alyn told me, for example, that the threats from Better Together about Scotland getting booted out of the EU if we voted for independence we’re both bogus and mendacious, because there existed no legal mechanism that could ever allow this to happen. It was fake news, two years before the Brexit bus. So when it came to Brexit I sought his advice again, and it was essentially this.
Firstly, Article 50 may be revoked at any time. You simply ask for the letter back. And, secondly, it was clear that Article 50 should not have been triggered until a number of red lines had been addressed: the rights of EU citizens in the UK post Brexit, free movement of goods and services and, crucially, the new Irish Question – will there be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic? It was known to absolutely everyone involved in the process long before the Brexit vote even happened that trade talks would not begin until serious progress in all three areas had been achieved.
And yet, the wilful ignorance and empire longing, delusional arrogance from the British political classes and many of its citizens – particularly those Brexiteers for whom border patrols and draconian immigration laws is their dearest wish – is breathtaking, as is their total lack of knowledge of history or even the most basic of facts.
Not that it will do any good, but here are those key pieces of knowledge without which we cannot even begin to answer the border question.
We are entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts. Here’s something that isn’t even up for discussion. The UK leaving the Customs Union absolutely, categorically, means a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. End of discussion. Why? Because EU law requires that customs need to be checked at the EU border – or else it will become a magnet for smugglers. It’s not so much that the EU will insist on a border, but more a case that it can’t possibly be avoided. If neighbouring countries have different customs regimes then there is a border. It’s why, for example there are customs checks on the Norway / Sweden border. And, under WTO rules, anything you offer one country must be offered to all (except if you have a free trade agreement). So no customs with the Republic of Ireland means you must let goods in freely from everywhere. The border issue is, to be blunt, an issue that cannot be resolved by any amount of negotiation. There is no such thing as a non-border when the whole point of Brexit was that there should be one.
All of this is a matter of fact and is firmly in the public domain. And yet English politicians and media have recently not only exposed their contempt but also their ignorance about Ireland. The Telegraph accuses Ireland of being poisonous for British politics. UKIP, like they and Ruth Davidson did with Scotland during the 2014 Referendum, call Ireland a drain on resources. Labour Brexiteer Kate Hoey gives free rein to her inner Donald Trump and suggests building a border and getting the Irish to pay for it. It betrays an absolutely appalling lack of knowledge.
Or does it? Given how obvious the answer to the border question is to anyone with even a passing interest in the world around them, it would seem unlikely that those most involved in the Brexit process wouldn’t have some understanding of the situation. So I fear there may be a much more sinister explanation. Like Donald Trump retweeting anti-Islamic hate posts from convicted far-right criminals, there comes a point when terrible politics and unconscionable behaviour cannot just be explained away as misunderstandings, errors or bad judgement calls. We have reached a point where we need to call it out, to tell the truth. That Donald Trump gets elected not in spite of his racism and intolerance, but because of it. And that our elected representatives’ decision making on Brexit isn’t a misjudgment, but a deliberate and thought-out political strategy that is consistent with the aims and objectives of disaster capitalism.
Because they knew. They knew that a billion and a half pound brown envelope to the DUP shattered Barnett and, more alarmingly, endangered the fragile peace brought about by the Good Friday Agreement. But they did it anyway. Because power, to them, will always be more important than peace. And they knew that leaving the Customs Union meant a hard border that had not been seen in two decades. And yet they will do that, as well. Because the Brexit endgame is the return of direct rule from London over both Northern Ireland and Scotland.
We need to follow the money. This is a project led by a super-rich minority who gain from leaving a union that would shortly be clamping down on their rapacious tax avoidance, a clique so wealthy that they have opted out of the social contract completely and who stand to gain from a privatised health service that results from the NHS being sold as part of a Trump trade-off. A group who don’t need decent schools because their children go to Eton, or for whom EU agreements over urban pollution are a mere bagatelle because they have a house in the country. People who don’t give a damn about you or I. Follow the money, good people. There’s a sizeable overlap between hard Brexiteers and the Dysons of this world who fund and support them.
Here’s a thought this Friday. Have a wee look at that overlap between the hard Brexiteers and the strutting billionaires who support them. They will tear us away from the customs union and single market, change the regulations and abandon the Border issue to win the hard-Brexit that they covet. They will never be forgiven for endangering a peace negotiated over generations. But at least we’ll have taken back control and the NHS will be £350m a week better off and at least Turkish families won’t be kipping on my sofa.
Scotland will, very soon, be once again an independent nation. It falls upon all of us within that nation to support our friends in Ireland as they look to a peaceful and prosperous future. They’ll get my support. They’ve been wonderfully hospitable this week. Let’s not be found wanting when they need shelter from the storm. As my hero Robert Burns once wrote, “Facts are chiels that winna ding”. Translation? “The truth is your friend, and it will never let you down”.
It’s a great antidote to austerity, selfishness and neoliberalism. I might take this theme at my next Burns Supper. Which is in Kirkwall. And that, folks, statue or not, is as good a place as anywhere for the fightback to begin. I’ll see you there. And I’ll meet you further on up the road.
Alec Ross is a regular contributor to The Orkney News