Lisburn’s Britishness is etched in stone and bronze, its town center dotted with plaques, monuments and statues to those who built the empire and served the United Kingdom.
General John Nicholson towers over Market Square, cutlass in one hand, pistol in the other, the plinth declaring he fell mortally wounded “in the hour of victory” during the 1857 Indian mutiny.
An even bigger sculpture immortalises a male and female soldier from the Ulster Defense Regiment, which was formed in this County Antrim town and battled the IRA during the Troubles. Built on a heroic scale, they embody sacrifice and loyalty.
On Saturday many residents who followed theBrexitdebate at Westminster heard a distinct chip, chip, chip – the sound of their identity, of Northern Ireland’s position in the UK , being chiselled away.
“Unionism is in a precarious position, it’s been found wanting. I think we’re on the road to a united Ireland, ”said James Maxwell, 39, a business owner. “Boris Johnson was mealy mouthed. He’s duplicitous. ”
Kris Fenning, 45, a painter, feared MPs were taking a hammer to peace and stability inNorthern Ireland. “If there’s a push for a united Ireland the loyalists will be back on the streets, the nationalists will be back on the streets and we’ll be back to the bad old days, another 10 or 20 Years of hell. ”
The House of Commons actually put the brakes on the Brexit dealthat would impose a customs border down the Irish Sea, a dramatic reversal for the prime minister inflicted with relish by his erstwhile allies: the Democratic Unionist party.
Having been duped and betrayed by Downing Street over the Brexit deal theDUPclawed back some authority, and revenge, by backingOliver Letwin’s cross-party amendment.It averted a decisive vote on the deal and forced the prime minister to comply with the terms of the Benn act, which obliges him to write to the EU to request a Brexit delay.
Johnson said he was not daunted and would press ahead with tabling Brexit legislation this week, heralding a likely legal challenge and fresh parliamentary drama.
In Lisburn, a market town south of Belfast where union flags fly year-round, there was little sign of relief let alone celebration. Some reckoned Johnson’s deal will prevail, if not next week then after a general election. Others surrendered to weariness and confusion, no longer sure what constituted good or bad news.
“We want to remain British, that’s all,” said Iris, 76, a retired factory worker who withheld her surname. “We’re tired of listening to Brexit. I still want to leave the EU but not if it means weakening our union with Britain. ”
Lisburn is derived from an Irish name,Lios na gCearrbhach, that means fort of the gamblers. To some residents that felt like a description of the repeated dice rolling in Westminster.
A retired care worker who gave her name only as Mrs Bell said most MPs had overlooked Northern Ireland and would continue to do so. “They’ve wiped their feet with us. It’s just a mess, a complete mess. ”
Lisburn is a DUP stronghold represented in Westminster by Jeffrey Donaldson – a potential successor to the party leader Arlene Foster.
Its 10 MPs defied Downing Street arm-twisting to back the Letwin amendment, aligning the pro-Brexit, unionist party with Remainers and a Labor party led by Jeremy Corbyn, who favors a united Ireland.
Should Brexit end up cancelled, history books will parse the DUP’s actions on Saturday for a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the decisions and personalities – step forward Sammy Wilson – that shaped the UK’s fate. The stakes are existential.
Voices across the political spectrum have formed a chorus spelling out danger to the union. John Major and Tony Blair issued a joint statement appealing for a fresh referendum. The Labor MP Kate Hoey said the deal could “do in less than a month what Sinn Fein / IRA failed to achieve in a century of physical force”.
Jonathan Powell, the chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007, wrote in theIrish Times: “It might be tempting to just say the DUP had it coming, given their misplaced trust in the two-timing Johnson, but that would be a mistake for the long-term peace of the island. ”
Sinn Fein senses a historic opportunity should polarisation over Brexit and demographic changes tilt a potential referendum on Irish unity. Irish officials in Dublin sense it too – with dread. “We’re not ready,” said one. “We don’t even know if we can afford it or if we want it.”
After three years of Brexit monomania many in Lisburn on Saturday preferred to watch rugby and football – anything, in fact – rather than proceedings in the House of Commons.
They were fed up with Brexit and also with the DUP. Some accused it of hubris and naivety, paving the way to a perilous Brexit deal. Others simply blamed the party for prolonging the Brexit uncertainty.
Ryan Grant, 24, shrugged and sighed when asked about his preferred outcome. “I just want everyone to be happy.”
Greg Mackle, 64, a warehouse operative, never wants to hear the word Brexit again. “I just want it resolved. Get it finished and get on with business, get things back to normal. ”
Frank Smith, 61, who works in manufacturing, said businesses craved clarity. “You see orders dragging down.”
Tommy, a 68 – year-old retired factory worker, confessed he was stumped. He wanted to leave the EU – “they’re letting in asshole countries” – but did not want to loosen Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. “For the size of this wee country it’s created some serious problems.”
Wayne Morrison, 39, a civil servant, said fears about the union were overblown and that Northern Ireland should not stand in the way of Brexit. “A customs border down the Irish Sea is not ideal but people in Northern Ireland need to understand we’re a burden on the UK taxpayer. We can’t expect the whole UK to shape the deal to suit us. ”
Loyalists with paramilitary links do appear to expect that. They are reportedly planning to meet in Belfast next week to discuss contingency plans.
In an interview at Belfast city hall, John Kyle, a councillor with the UVF-aligned Progressive Unionist party, called for calm and reason.
“There is increasing nervousness within unionism regarding the consequences of a deal which is why the details are so important. In Northern Ireland perception is everything and that’s why language is so important. We should never take peace for granted. Talk of betrayal and saber rattling is unhelpful if not dangerous. ”