Beyond the Irish Border: A plague on both my houses in the time of COVID-19

Author: Dr. Fiona Murphy, Lecturer in Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast. Fiona’s expertise includes Indigenous politics, refugees and mobility studies, and sustainability studies. Her ethnographic work in these areas spans across Australia, Ireland, the UK, France and Turkey and discusses trauma, memory, reconciliation and resilience. 

‘There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal.’ ― Anna Burns, Milkman

‘Ní neart go cur le chéile (there is no strength without unity)’ ― Irish Proverb 

I am what the EU calls a frontier worker, a crosser of borders, living a double life of to-ing and fro-ing, of work and home. Like some 30, 000 other cross-border workers on the island of Ireland, I experience the particularities of this kind of dislocation in striking ways.

 For some of us, this is a dislocation compounded by the peculiar pathologies of identity politics, of long, lingering, strongman divisions and entrenched sectarianism. COVID-19 has brought new intrusions to this crossing.

Pre-COVID-19 frontiers

Crossing as I do from my home in the Republic of Ireland (ROI) to work in Northern Ireland (NI) brings with it the anticipation of renewed bloodied complexities with the UK’s departure from the EU. Since the 2016 BREXIT vote, the Irish border has once more become a place mired in the controversy of division and separation; a place misunderstood, indeed, often unappreciated. 

In the wake of the most recent UK general election that delivered a mandate for the UK to complete its EU departure, the Irish border now stands in its unthwarted novelty as an EU frontier, with clouds of ambiguity looming overhead. 

It is an odd and contested frontier, but all frontiers are, in their own way. It is a beautiful place of crossing, a cradle of mountain and river, of winding and undulating roads. It is a frontier witness to conflict and a home to divided identities, divided loyalties and those who rage that it should not be a frontier at all. 

Perhaps, as an anthropologist, I think too deeply about this crossing (see Murphy 2019), about arriving into this place that Anna Burns (in her superb novel Milkman) has so eloquently described as a ‘hair-trigger society’. My regular crossings between these two places, which for many is but one place, should be as simple as the Good Friday Agreement decreed. 

Mostly, this is the case, a tiny beep on my phone to indicate movement between two different jurisdictions, a mildly noticeable change in infrastructure, and an uninterrupted train or car journey. 

This very sense of seamlessness, of ease, was intended to work in this way ⎯ a spirit level to balance a ‘feeling’ of cultural unity for those on the island desiring of it. Profoundly differing relationships to the historical Northern Ireland conflict (known as the Troubles) aside, this has mostly worked ⎯ with this border becoming, as the Northern Irish poet Seamus Heaney put it, a place where ‘hope and history rhyme’.

BREXIT messages and experience

Indeed, the previous ease in border-crossing is why the ruptures precipitated by BREXIT have been so wounding. In the midst of BREXIT debates about the border, the Northern Irish dancer Dylan Quinn erected a stage across the Irish border and presented the compelling and portentous contemporary dance performance, ‘Fulcrum: A border performance.’ It was a display of a particular version of unity, of that implacable, unyielding sense of Irishness that exists right across an island divided ⎯ one about to be threatened by BREXIT. 

From a plenitude of cultural production and commentary generated through the BREXIT Irish border debate came a quite singular message. This message that in spite of conflict and division, the Good Friday agreement had created a space for multiple identities and ways of being to exist simultaneously. It did so in spite of estrangement and sectarianism remaining thoroughly materialised in the walled towns and cities of Northern Ireland. Such convergences and divergences of identity and place are but one of the countless hard facts of life in Northern Ireland. 

With BREXIT, I did not experience my border-crossing as the rupture I had imagined it would be with the UK’s departure from the EU. That particular encroachment may well come in 2021 (or beyond) once the UK’s transition period is over, hidden yet in a twilight of unknowns. The train that I take to work still glides easily to Belfast, though the buses I sometimes take are occasionally stopped on the border ⎯ spontaneous, illegal checks of my passport. 

These border checks bring with them a strong bristling of an anxiety of yet to come unknowns. In a world of increasing uncertainty, it remains very clear that Brexiteers, as champions of disaster capitalism, while they remain in power, will continue to imperil the lives of all UK citizens, but especially its most marginalised. Northern Ireland, forever on the fringes of the UK, will thus hardly escape. 

The angst of COVID-19 

In recent months and weeks, it is COVID-19 that has correctly demanded the world’s attention. A cursed interloper into many lives in many countries, we have had to unexpectedly change our way of life, including here in the Republic of Ireland, my home. 

On Thursday, March 12th a sudden midday announcement by the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar asked for schools and universities to close, for social (physical) distancing to become everyday practice, for people to stay at home and work from home where this was possible. 

A few days later, many cafes, restaurants and pubs would follow suit. March 17th, St Patrick’s day, would bring empty city centre streets in the nation’s capital Dublin, and in small towns and cities nationwide too. Photos and videos of a ‘virtual St Patrick’s day parades’ circulated with a certain hopefulness on social media, photos of smiling children dressed in green and echoes of a different kind of national pride this year. 

 I have, like many others, taken much of this in my stride, staying at home and away from the world having always brought a certain kind of pleasure for me. But this time, this pleasure (anchored in a certain kind of privilege) has been stripped away, forcefully usurped by the unbearable harm, loneliness, and inequalities exposed through COVID-19.   

While I closely monitored the news and social media, reading my anthropology colleagues analyses of the idea of ‘social’ distancing, solidarity and care (the list could go on), what I was feeling was the hardening of the border that I had to cross to go to work. 

Differing approaches to COVID-19 divided by the rolling hills and windy roads (of which there are many) of one of Europe’s most porous borders, have precipitated a personal sense of panic. To move, to cross at that moment would be to transit between contrasting regimes of existential risk, from caution to putative disregard. It has been hard to bear.

The politics of social distancing

While the ROI government implemented social distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus, UK politicians stood firm, bizarrely advising that herd immunity would suffice, mistaking vaccine herd immunity with measures to control the advance of a pandemic. One epidemiologist wrote that he thought the UK government was being satirical. For those who had watched successive Tory governments sleepwalk into and through the Brexit debacle, politicians were simply continuing in their folly of mistaking confidence for capability in the face of another crisis.

On our small, beautiful but divided island, two versions of public health care now face the challenge of COVID-19. As I was being told in the Republic of Ireland to practice social distancing,  institutions and schools remained open in Northern Ireland. In spite of a meeting between the ROI and the NI governments, and calls from many in Northern Ireland public office to bring their policy into line with ROI, so that we could protect our small island, Stormont, following London’s example, refused to do so. Accusations of politicising public health care in Northern Ireland have further compounded this issue. COVID-19, some commentators believe, has somehow become entangled with sectarianism.

In spite of the many ways that cross-border cooperation has grown since the Good Friday Agreement, it seems that COVID-19 has exposed some deep abiding fractures between these two jurisdictions. 

There are profound lessons here for future cross-border co-operation and policy, some only just unfolding as we experience this global crisis, in such different ways. Some of this difficulty prefigures the challenges of ROI co-existing with NI as a penumbral third country, in and out of the EU, at the fraught edges of European politics. Beyond EU and UK politics, it also points to the need for a deepening of empathy and action through new solidarities across our small island.  

An unhealable rift to which we must respond and show radical care

Ironically, even though I am an anthropologist of displacement, perhaps what I underestimated (because of my own privilege) was the potential for such social and discursive confusion and complexity for frontier workers in times of crisis like this. The particular border that I cross has been (for me) constituted anew through COVID-19, this is something that I will henceforth carry with me as an unalterable experience ‘an unhealable rift’ in Edward Said’s terms, between self and place. A personal tension that I cannot see as ever being fully resolved. 

Writing in medias res, as a mother, an anthropologist and a cross-border worker with very new demands, I have felt compelled as many others have to document, but also to respond. In this response, however, the underlying question is whether we are able to, as Michel Trouillet would have wanted, to rely on the underlying ‘moral optimism’ of the discipline of anthropology in a time which necessitates such a form of radical care. 

Can I personally turn to my own discipline to make sense, both personally and professionally, of the challenges of COVID-19? The very nature of my own work has been to consider the entanglements of displacement and loss, an inherent aspect of which is ‘stuckedness’ and ‘immobility,’ mostly shrouded in an all-encompassing form of loss. 

I work with people whose quotidien is constituted by and through the crisis of displacement and now many of their lives will be further complicated in unimaginable ways by COVID-19. 

The widespread mantra that viruses do not recognise borders, is as Adia Benton wisely reminds us, ‘a naïve expression of the outbreak narrative; viruses move in bodies, and the freedom of certain bodies, certain people, to move across borders needs to be acknowledged.’ Ethnographies of privileged border crossers are, however, ultimately rare, but Heyman and Ribas Mateos remind us that in order to better understand borders ‘as differentiating filters linking and managing stratified components of the world system’, we need to reflect on privileged crossing as much as the movement of ‘dehumanised racialised others’.

In pursuit of a less guarded anthropology

Privilege in its many shapes and forms has unquestionably played a large role in the movement of this virus and it is the acuity of this interplay that anthropologists of mobilities/displacement need to pay more analytical attention to. To do so is to expose the leaky and complex nature of the intersections between different kinds of mobilities and inequalities.

What I have shared here about my own experience as a cross-border worker in a contested space in the context of COVID-19 suggests a new relationship to my crossing. A relationship that no longer involves a mundane commute across this particular border. 

The existential tensions that exist on this island have in some ways become doubly compromised by a puerile politics and a promiscuous pathogen. Perhaps, as an optimist, I hope that in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic (and ongoing BREXIT discussions) we forge new ways of being and of relatedness in spite of the inchoate messiness of differing forms of governance, policy and practice. COVID-19 has starkly exposed the need for much stronger all island cooperation across a number of sectors. 

Perhaps, too, in the middle of this shifting terrain, while we acknowledge our responsibilities to, and our solidarities with, one another as strong moral beings, some of us should at least see this as a moment in which we can, as Pandian and McClean would have it, strive for an anthropology; for an ethnographic writing that defers critical distance ‘in pursuit of a less guarded, even reckless contamination by circumstance’. If ever there was a better moment to do any of this, it would be right now. 

[blog Image by Martin Brechtl on Unsplash]

[Image of man wearing face mask by Mark Claus on Unsplash]

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