‘You have to be in the orange before you go into the black’ 12th of August
I walked to the bar. Put down my glass and asked for another pint. I’d quickly showered and dressed to make it downstairs before the kitchen closed. The bar was quiet. Only a few tables were occupied. I’d ordered a jacket potato and while I waited, plotted the following day’s route across the Sperrins, on a map purchased in Belfast. After finishing my first day alone on the road, and a pint, I remember I felt tired and content.
I paid for the beer. Bright spotlights lit up the recently renovated hotel bar and rows of bottles. One of the fellows to my left asked where I was from. He looked mischievous. His two friends chuckled. He was young. I guessed in his late twenties, with fair hair and blue eyes. I said I’d cycled from Belfast. They were local men, farmers, having a quiet pint on a Sunday night. I asked if I could interview them, and when they willingly shrugged, I quickly returned to the table and picked up my pad and pen.
‘I don’t think it’s that bad.’ One said, when I asked about Brexit. He was not yet thirty and balding, with ruddy cheeks and a pleasant face. He was wearing a white t-shirt and had a quiet manner of unchallenged confidence.
‘Things couldn’t be worse.’ The fair man at the end of the bar agreed. ‘We’re not making much.’
‘What sort of farmers are you?’
‘Beef, sheep, pig, and dairy.’
‘I milk the family herd.’ The youngest, sitting next to me had said.
‘Do you have strong feelings about Europe?’
‘I think we’ll get more freedom.’ The fair one answered.
At the start, the conversation was stilted, but when I asked how EU regulations affected them, they opened up.
‘The people making the laws know nothing about farming.’ They all agreed.
‘They should have a bottom line for prices.’ The fair one said. ‘We’re losing money. Getting into debt. We get below the cost of production. I have another job and work full time on the farm.
‘What’s your other job?’ I asked
‘I’m a lorry driver.’ He looked at me. I noted it down. ‘There should be more grants.’ He said.
‘Yeah but you know there’s that much red tape and too many obstacles. It would be better if we were paid more and had no grants.’ Said his friend in the white t-shirt, who managed the family farm.
‘What about the border?’ I asked.
He didn’t seem concerned.
‘Well we can’t have free flow. There is going to have to be some controls.’ He said, but then added, ‘It can’t be too controlled. Things still have to move.’
I’d asked them then, how they’d voted.
‘We all voted leave.’
‘We thought Europe had too much say.’
‘We don’t think they should overturn it. They are doing a lot of scaremongering now you know. It was close here.’
Afterwards they asked what I did and I told them I was a trained academic.
‘We’re all fairly well trained fellows ourselves.’ The fair one had said. The others sniggered again. He offered to buy me a drink.
‘What’s it like living here?’ I asked.
‘We like it.’
‘A lot of people would say it’s boring, but I like it like that. We’re big watchers of Countryfile.’ The man in the white shirt said smiling. ‘We love a country show. Last year we all went to Wales.’
I asked next about politics.
‘The parties need to get their act together.’
‘They’re not doing anything at the moment.’ The fair man said.
‘But they can’t just agree to what Sinn Féin say.’ His friend added. ‘They give them a wee bit, and then they want a wee bit more. They don’t want the government to work. Sinn Féin are the biggest obstacle.’
‘What about the DUP?’
‘It’s hard to know. Every party is corrupt. There are some good ones in the DUP. They do a lot for you.’
‘The UUP is a belter party.’ Said the youngest and they all grinned.
‘The DUP is strict, staunch in their views. But a lot of people like that because they don’t give in, and because of course they want to stay in the UK. And, they don’t want to see their country run by terrorists.’
‘Sinn Féin wants to get rid of the unionist culture.’ His friend agreed.
‘It could happen, a united Ireland.’
‘But we like it how it is. We were brought up this way.’
‘The Unionists would feel victimised.’
The man with fair hair looked at me then from across the bar, and asked if I would be prepared to let Northern Ireland go.
Honestly, I didn’t know how to respond. I hadn’t really given it much thought. I certainly wasn’t opposed to the idea of a United Ireland and like many I’d been appalled by the policies of the DUP. I realised I hadn’t really considered how more moderate unionists felt. I hesitated wondering how best to answer the question. As I faltered he had recognised my indifference and I saw tears appear in his eyes.
Later that night, when I’d returned to my room, I wrote I needed to scrutinize my own views more closely realising I wasn’t as impartial as I’d imagined. The young men were the first forthright Brexiters and proud unionists I’d spoken with that trip. I also realised then, that before I settled on any conclusions, I needed to open up and scrutinise the intricacies of the unionist position in more detail.
It was mid August when I’d arrived on the island of Ireland and it was still marching season. I’d looked up the calendar on-line to see if I might be able to attend, but by chance my travels did not overlap. I asked the men if they went to the parades.
‘You missed a massive one yesterday in Londonderry – it’s one of the best.’ The fair man had said enthusiastically.
‘We marched on the 12th. The last Saturday of August is Black Saturday.’
‘What’s Black Saturday?’
‘You have to be in the orange before you go in the black.’ The man in the t-shirt said amused.
‘He scrubs up well for the last Saturday.’ His friend had added.
Before we parted, I’d asked how people got on in Cookstown. They told me 60% of people were Catholic, 40% Protestant and there were quite a few Polish and Lithuanians living there too.
‘We’re a wee bit more civilised down here.’ The man in white had said. ‘People just get on with it and don’t worry about it. It’s people in the city with nothing to do, that’s where the trouble is.’