Backstop Land by Glenn Patterson review – the ‘unreal’ Brexit era | Books

A spectre is haunting the imaginations of liberal left commentators on both sides of the Irish Sea – the spectre of BBHS. The acronym stands for “Border Brexit Hyperbole Syndrome”. Those who suffer from it are prone to wild, outlandish, apocryphal predictions. “Victims” of BBHS see rivers of blood flowing from the 300-mile-plus frontier on the island of Ireland once the UK exits the EU; a newly reinstalled “hard border” provokes civil war and fills the ranks of republican dissident terror groups.

The acclaimed Irish novelist Glenn Patterson hasn’t succumbed to BBHS, however – perhaps because he is closer to the ground than many of the commentariat from Dublin or London. Although a remainer – like most of those in Northern Ireland who voted to stay in the EU three years ago – Patterson is honest enough to admit that the New IRA and all the other alphabet soup factions of anti-ceasefire Irish republicanism didn’t need Brexit as an excuse to kill people. They were doing that anyway long before England and Wales voted to take all of the UK out of the EU, he notes.

In fact, despite the prophecies of a “Brexit bounce” for the New IRA and other paramilitary forces, they have (mercifully) killed very few people over the last three years. The tragic exception of course is Lyra McKee, the young journalist shot dead when a teenage New IRA gunman fired at police lines in Derry last year.

Patterson is a wry observer of society with a built-in bullshit detector, and in this survey of Northern Ireland three years on from the EU referendum vote, calls out hypocrisy on all sides. He prefers a show-and-not-tell approach, even while the reader is crying out for a sentence here and there that burns with righteous indignation. The voice behind this journey through “Backstop Land” is always humane and undogmatic.

Glenn Patterson.

Glenn Patterson. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

“I am trying to write this book in real time – or as real as these unreal and rumour-filled times get,” he asserts, and by doing so, references a possible problem at the heart of this book. His publishers should perhaps have given him more time to wait and see how Brexit would play out after the inevitable general election and Boris Johnson had obtained the necessary majority for the EU-exit process.

Perhaps in time they will grant him a new edition and allow him to travel to places where the backstop ends – not on the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic but rather the port of Larne. This will be the location and the pressure point of a so-called border down the Irish Sea, where goods and services are subjected to checks. It’s a scenario that unionists will regard as a dangerous slippage towards decoupling the region from the rest of the union.

Patterson is at his best when he gets into the detail of Northern Irish life, from the tiny rainbow flags and “Uppa Queers” T-shirts on sale at Belfast Pride 2019 to the burst bass drum left on a loyalist street after an Orange Order parade last summer. So, send him up to Larne and let him loose in this ultra-loyalist town that will soon become the real backstop frontier for Brexit Britain.

Backstop Land by Glenn Patterson is published by Head of Zeus (RRP £13.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.

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