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The Irish border is already ambiguous

(Getty)

Fears are sometimes expressed that if Brexit goes pear-shaped, and the United Kingdom leaves the EU without a deal, terrorism could return to Northern Ireland. Some Irish news reports suggest that if a “hard border” appeared once again on the island of Ireland, the border posts themselves could be the targets of attacks by bomb and bullet.

It is certainly evident that people in the border areas of Ireland do not want a “hard border” – because life has been made so much better, for people and for trade, by the seamlessness of the present arrangement separating the six counties of the North from the 26 in the Republic.

So let’s hope things really do work out for the best. And I believe that in the long run, they will.

Because, although every society contains a few misguided fanatics, the peace dividend in Ireland north and south is now so firmly embedded that the vast majority of people would simply no longer tolerate violence. Back in the 1970s, this was not the case: there was a substantial sector of society which did then support what was called “the armed struggle”.

I remember vividly how Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, the leaders of the Peace People, were mocked and taunted. Betty Williams told me herself that the verbal abuse she got was dreadful – from being accused of being a British “collaborator” to horrible accusations about her personal life.

The Peace People carried on – often, I noticed, supported by nuns – and they laid the groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement. And now the GFA is considered sacrosanct.

However, though it was a great moment for peace, it was built on a certain amount of what was called “constructive ambiguity”. And so it is fitting that any new compromise involving Brexit and “the backstop” may also need some element of “constructive ambiguity”; or in other words, fudge.

That’s because the Irish border is itself ambiguous. In one sense, it is seamless – you can sail across it without clocking that you are crossing a frontier. But it still exists: from the UK you change currencies, swap miles for kilometres, red letterboxes for green, and road signage is in Irish, not English. The ambiguity of the geography, and history, needs to be accommodated in any new protocol: if that’s accepted, success will follow.

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I headed north across the border last weekend to be in Omagh, Co Tyrone, for its annual literary festival. Omagh is roughly 75 per cent Catholic and 25 per cent Protestant. Its ecumenical nature is perhaps illuminated by the main churches being clustered together, apparently harmoniously, on a hill at the top of the town. I took part at a well-attended Mass at the main Catholic church, the Sacred Heart, last Saturday evening.

It seems a busy parish, offering pilgrimages, Eucharistic Adoration, October devotions, a Marie Curie charity dance, a Pioneer (temperance) meeting, an adoption and fostering network, fundraising for a local band (St Eugene’s), a Season of Creation workshop, a Ceili band contact, a gardening society, and support for charities such as Vincent de Paul. The priest gave an articulate sermon about the Samaritan – symbol of the stranger – in the parable of the 10 lepers.

He also thanked the faithful for their generous contribution to the parish on the previous weekend: the sum of £4,895 no less on the plate. Omagh people certainly support their church.

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I sometimes hear commentators in Britain condemning Northern Ireland education as “sectarian”. But according to the mother of schoolchildren in Omagh, there is choice and diversity within the system.

She explained that there are two Catholic schools (one a convent), and one grammar school (mostly Protestant). There is also an integrated school available to those of all faiths and none. Sometimes Catholics choose to go to the mainly Protestant school, and vice-versa. But parents and families have the choice, and what’s really impressive is that the general level of education is excellent. People in Northern Ireland of all hues are proud that schools often achieve better grades than many schools “across the water”.

So enough with the criticism of education in Northern Ireland as “sectarian”.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4