Halloween in Derry is no small affair and is considered by some to be the best in the world. What started as a local tradition—free punch for getting dressed up—was commodified into a carnivalesque crowd-pleaser. Inside the city center, cat faces and zombies flash by. A ragtag cover band of costumed misfits belts out “Boys of Summer.” A South Asian tour group, some thirty strong, are scattered outside the church bell tower taking selfies. Children dart and drift about with excitement, tripping and bumping into people and things.
In a near-empty hotel restaurant in Dublin’s city center, two men sit in midday quiet, alternately looking at their mobile phones and breaking news unfolding on a large flat screen. The disheveled yellow mop bobs up and down, spewing vitriol about communism and Castro. A garish caricature; the developmentally stunted younger brother of the current freakshow “across the pond.” This hideous theater has no shortage of red-faced ghouls, pointing and howling, grappling for power.
Just two days shy of the impending October 31st Brexit deadline, an extension to January 31, 2020 now promises to draw contentious debate into the new year. The primary issue in passing the EU withdrawal agreement into law has been the “Ireland backstop”—a measure that would preclude the re-establishing of a hard border between UK-controlled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The implications could be disastrous to the tenuous peace established just a little over 20 years ago.
Unlike the annual haunting of Derry, the lead-up to the pending Brexit decision was wrought with fear. It was common knowledge that the overnight imposition of a hard border could drive a hard wedge, cracking and deepening the fault lines of the sectarian stalemate that is Northern Ireland. Signs on the side of Derry streets bear anti-Brexit messages: “Hard Border. Soft Border. No Border,” warning passersby of impending unemployment and food shortages that are likely to result. These are new additions to Derry’s extensive portfolio of political tags, graffiti and street murals, monuments, plaques, and museums commemorating The Troubles.
Declan McLaughlin, a musician and activist who has lived and worked in the Bogside neighborhood for most of his life, sees Brexit as “a catalyst for artists to engage more deeply in political issues.” Like the armed conflict of his youth, the looming specter of Brexit now threatens a decades-long, hard-won peace. “This is the first time in the history of Ireland that there hasn’t been conflict. We don’t want conflict, it’s a small window of time…to resolve it.”
Driving on single lane country roads, winding through neighboring Donegal county, it is nearly impossible to know exactly when or where you cross back and forth between the colony and the republic. Atop a hill with a broad view of six neighboring counties sits an ancient Celtic ring fort, Grainan of Aileach, one of thousands of Bronze-age dwellings scattered across the island. This Halloween, the BBC Foyle (UK) is broadcasting a concert from Donegal County (Ireland), with technicians from Derry (UK) and Ireland.
A hard border would disrupt families, communities and businesses that have long co-existed across an imaginary line enforced by a colonial power. It would compromise the fluidity of relations and ease of mobility cultivated and normalized since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Socio-cultural connectivity would suffer, likely further imperilled by sectarian violence. In different parts of the North and South, the tags of the IRA and the UVF have begun to resurface, and there is talk in hushed tones of paramilitary activity on the rise—the details of which are not shared openly.
But against this rising tide of sectarian unrest is a movement of creative minds and ideas promoting peaceful co-existence, away from conflict and its physical manifestations, towards a unified Ireland. The window of opportunity for resolution to this smouldering conflict is one that is being embodied and projected by artists employing humanist tactics in public engagement. This is a moment for the full trajectory of human conflict and resolution to be realized, giving the world an example of how possible it is to transform peace, from the tenuous to the lasting.
Photos: Shawn Van Sluys