Life

Our backs are turned on Europe and we are walking away

On the way to Dublin, I find myself searching for the point on the hill outside Newry where the checkpoints were – you'd hardly know you'd crossed a land barrier now. And in the last years, perhaps the dragon's teeth have crumbled in our hearts... Now that could all change

Derry's Peace Bridge – what a beautiful monument to the future and to what Europe has meant for us

SOMETIMES I think I’ll wake up and it will all have been a dream. You know those awful school essays you are forced to write that take you down a dark alley to a dead end and you think: “Oh just get it over for goodness sake” so you write: “Then I woke up and it was all a dream.”

As a teacher, I used to tell them I’d personally do for the pupil who took that easy way out.

But stumbling out of bed for work last Friday at 4.30am, I’d decided that all was good with the world. Hadn’t Nigel Farage conceded defeat and hadn’t I gone to bed happy?

Into the car, clunk click. Turn on the radio... and there we all were, in the middle of my worst nightmare school essay.

And I thought: “It’s OK, I just haven’t woken up... turn over, get out of bed... but I had.”

It was a day for hugging friends. Here we were, out of Europe, and we were hugging each other and saying: “I don’t believe it”.

“You do realise that our children’s children will be writing about this day in a history essay in decades to come,” said a fellow journalist.

I know what she meant.

We have lived through so much history on this island – endured borders of concrete and soldiers in camouflage with guns trained on us from the ditches.

Turn a corner on a side road, dragon’s teeth rear up – no go.

On Sundays in our house when I was small, my mother sat us down and taught us Irish geography – write down the 32 countries, name the rivers of Ireland.

I’d take my finger and trace the line where the border wiggled its way, separating us from our grandfather’s people in Donegal.

And down the years, we travelled back and forth and you got used to the queues of cars, the concrete bunkers, the watch towers on the hill.

You showed your licence, you opened your boot, you answered the questions and you breathed a sigh when you drove on down, resting your eyes on the blue hills.

But all that had changed.

In recent years, you would never know where Derry ends and Donegal starts. Now, on the way to Dublin, I find myself searching for the point on the hill outside Newry where the checkpoints were – you’d hardly know you’d crossed a land barrier now.

And in the last years, perhaps the dragon’s teeth have crumbled in our hearts.

Maybe you need a few euro and maybe their cheese n onion crisps have more of a bite, but it is our world without frontiers.

Now that could all change.

And amid all the whirlwind of news and views and stock markets, the gut feeling is of a bad divorce.

It was a gut feeling and this was a gut vote.

I’m a European and so are most of my friends. Perhaps it started with the Eurovision song contest – how sexy were those French songs? – or perhaps it was all those good teachers who made French and German and Italian so beautiful to the ear.

Perhaps it started with the French countess’s daughter and her small chi-chi family in Versailles or was it in the chateau in the south of France where I was au pair – that was a million miles away from the following year in the gherkin-pickling factory in Hamburg.

There was that hippy – you get the feel of the accelerator much better with your bare toes – who gave us a free lift all along the road through the old east Germany and into Berlin in the days before the wall came down.

Years later I went back Unter den Linden when the wall had gone and the city felt light and free and shimmering with fresh promise.

The sense of belonging comes with that swift turn through the European channel at the airport or the whizz down the fast motorway road that was built with the help of EU money.

And the peace bridge in Derry. What a beautiful monument to the future and to what Europe has meant for us.

When he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace, John Hume – who forged such strong links with Europe – talked about his inspiration.

On his first visit to Strasbourg in 1979 as an MEP, he walked the bridge between Strasbourg in France and Kehl in Germany.

“ I stopped in the middle of the bridge and I meditated. There is Germany. There is France. If I had stood on this bridge 30 years ago after the end of the Second World War when 25 million people lay dead across our continent for the second time in this century and if I had said: ‘Don’t worry. In 30 years’ time we will all be together in a new Europe, our conflicts and wars will be ended and we will be working together in our common interests’, I would have been sent to a psychiatrist.

“But it has happened and it is now clear that European Union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution and it is the duty of everyone, particularly those who live in areas of conflict to study how it was done and to apply its principles to their own conflict resolution.”

And here we now stand in 2016 on another bridge... only this time our backs are turned and we are walking away.

Sometimes I think I will wake up and it will all have been a bad dream.

Life

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