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Hot Cross Borders: Bill Drummond On Baking A New Peace
The Quietus , April 26th, 2019 10:23

Over the Easter weekend, Bill Drummond visited the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland to hold a referendum, and bake hot cross buns. Here, in his own words, is what happened

All pictures courtesy of Tracey Moberly

Has a symbolic gesture ever achieved you anything?
I mean something proper?
Actually made a difference?

If I were to offer to do the washing up and then just washed the one plate and then claimed the washing of the one plate was symbolic of washing them all – I mean what the fuck?

You either do the washing up or you don’t. So don’t expect to be feted for just washing the one plate. However symbolic you claim it to be.

The trouble is my personal history seems to be littered with symbolic gestures claiming to be…

And that does not seem to be slowing down with age.

Anyway, right now I’m in the middle of the Irish Sea. And if the morning mist were to lift, I would be able to see the receding coast of Ireland in the West and the approaching coast of Scotland to the East. I am neither swimming nor drowning, or for that matter waving. I am on the early morning ferry from Larne to Stranraer. And I am trying to make sense. To myself, if not you.

I have been crossing this same piece of water since the day after my brother was born July 1957.

Yesterday was Good Friday.

Yesterday I was on the border between County Derry and County Donegal.
The border between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It might not be the classic line in the sand border, but like most borders it is the three way bastard child of conflict, collusion and compromise.
And then some flag waving.

It also happens to be the first border that I have any memory of crossing. This was when I was six years old back in the summer of 1959. We – as in the Drummond family – had got the ferry over from Stranraer to Larne, then driven across the north of Ireland to Derry (or alternatively driven across Ulster to Londonderry). We were on our way to a place called Greencastle to have our family summer holiday. Greencastle was in Donegal, thus the Republic of Ireland. My younger brother was now two and was the classic annoying younger brother that all the women thought was so cute – cute my arse. Who the fuck wants to be cute anyway?

We were just driving up the road from Derry…
“Are we nearly there yet?”
“Not more than half an hour now Bill” came the reply from my Dad.
But then we were waved down by a man in a uniform.
And there was a large gate in the road.
And the man in the uniform asked my Dad questions.
And my dad showed him some papers.
And the man in the uniform wanted to look in the boot of our pale green Austin A30.
And my not so cute brother was crying.
And my big sister was reading an Arthur Ransom book.
“What is this?” I asked my dad.
“It is a border Bill.”
“What is a border Dad?”
“A border is…”

And over the next sixty years I have been crossing borders and wondering what they are. And why.
And what for.
And in whose name.
And every time I cross a border, I think back to this first border. This border between the town of Muff on the County Donegal side and the town of Culmore on the County Derry side.
This border is all borders. Or in my head it symbolises all borders.

Between me being six years old in 1959 and me being 66 years old in less than a week in late April 2019, this particular border has seen a lot of history. Too much to be going into here but…

On New Year’s Day in 1973 the Republic of Ireland and The United Kingdom both joined the then European Economic Community.
We did it hand in hand.
It was a good thing.

On Good Friday 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed by the governments of the Republic of Ireland and The United Kingdom.
We did it hand in hand.
It was a good thing.

And for the past 21 years since that particular Good Friday, people have been able to cross this particular border without being stopped by a man in a uniform.
A man with a gun who would want to ask questions.
And look at pieces of paper.
And want to see in side the boot of your car.

When David Cameron first proposed the idea of having a “Should I Stay or should I Leave?” referendum I felt the tension of history pulling at my collar.

And when the Leave won the day, I thought more and more about that border. The border in the memory of the six-year old me.
That border that represented all borders.
That border that also represents the more than 3,000 people who were killed because of this border. And the man with a gun who would want to ask questions.
And look at pieces of paper.
And want to see inside the boot of your car.

Before you say…
“So what has any of this got to do with you Drummond? You are not from this corner of a not so Emerald Isle. None of your brothers or sisters are one of those 3,000.”
I would say…
“I have been coming here most of my life. When I managed Echo & The Bunnymen, I made sure they played here, when most bands refused to. I have been paying local tax here for almost 23 years. I have been responsible for encouraging several hundred artists to spend time working here since the turn of the millennium. And I grew up in a culture where a mixed school meant that it had Catholics as well as Protestants. And a mixed marriage meant a Catholic had married a Protestant.”

And when Jacob Rees-Mogg started to mouth off about how modern technology could deal with all of these modern border crossing issues, I began to wonder what research his European Research Unit had actually been doing.

And when Boris Johnson gave his speech at the DUP’s annual conference, I am sure Arlene Foster could see right through him, as she had seen right through Theresa May.

And I have always claimed I am not an activist.
And claimed none of what I do is political.

I knew nothing I could do would make any real difference.

At most I could look at the stack of dishes that needed washing and wash one plate and claim it was symbolic act and…


So I proposed I would return to The Border. The Border that still symbolise all borders in my head. And that I would hold a referendum.

I mean, if David Cameron can decide to hold a referendum to sort out internal issues in his own party, why should I not hold one for something far more important, however symbolic.

For me this referendum had to be about a flaw in The Good Friday Agreement. That flaw being that, it assumed that neither The Republic of Ireland or The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would ever be stupid enough to leave the European Union.

As in if either of these two countries were to leave, we would end up once again with a hard border between these two counties.

As in between The European Union and a country that was not in the European Union.

So I was proposing that there should be a clause added to the Good Friday Agreement.

And this clause would read:

If either the Government of Ireland or the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland were ever to instigate their own country leaving the European Union, both governments would guarantee that as long as the island of Ireland existed, the border crossing between County Derry and County Donegal on the Culmore Road, would remain freely open for all those that wished to cross it, in either direction.

And seeing as I do not have the wherewithal or time to hold a referendum that would include all of those in voting age in The UK and Republic of Ireland, thus I would limit it to forty folk – the first forty folk that wanted to take part.

And if you know your Bible stories and a smattering of Ancient Hebrew or even Aramaic, you would know that the number Forty, symbolically means “a load”, as in the way we use the word “umpteen” to vaguely mean “a load”.

As in “Forty Days and Forty Nights” does not mean literally forty days and forty nights, but it does mean a load of days and nights.

And I would hold this referendum for the first forty folk who could be bothered to turn up on that border that symbolises all borders for me.

And I would do it on Good Friday. As in the Friday just gone. As in the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement being signed but…

And if over twenty folk voted in this referendum to have the proposed clause added to the Good Friday Agreement, it would then be called The Very Good Friday Agreement. And it would be carried. Or at least symbolically carried.

To this end, I printed up forty copies of the proposed Very Good Friday Agreement. And to show some gratitude to those that could be bothered to turn up and vote, I baked forty hot cross buns, based on a version of Delia Smith’s recipe that I have been using for years. And had made forty mugs with the words THE VERY GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT emblazoned on them. And repainted two of my 25 Paintings, so they now read HOT CROSS BUNS and STOP! BORDER BUNS. And got a ballot box and a stack of voting slips.

And the day before yesterday, I hired a white Ford Transit Van, loaded up with all of the above, and drove from London to Stranraer, via my hometown of Newton Stewart. Got the ferry across to Larne. Drove to the Belfast International Airport, to meet my colleague Tracey Moberly, who was flying in from Spain. I had invited Tracey to document whatever happened in whatever way she chose to – my sometime alter ego and arch nemesis was going to document it in his chosen form – as in a play for actors to act.

The play in question will be written over the next couple of days. When the actors will act it, I have as yet no idea.

As dawn was breaking, Tracey and I drove from Belfast to Derry, fully aware of the breaking news about the overnight riots on the Creggan Estate in Derry and the killing of Lyra McKee. The flippancy of everything that I have outlined above was brought into focus with this news. There was nothing symbolic about the finger that pulled the trigger; the bullet that flew through the air, or the life draining from a young woman. I had to confront my own triviality but…

What had happened over night is exactly what I was fearing might start to happen. It was fear of this happening – the return to The Troubles that had motivated me to make this symbolic gesture.

So Tracey and I drove on into Derry. A city waking up to the horror of the most unwanted deja vu possible.

And we drove up to that border between County Donegal and County Derry.
That border that was still symbolising every border ever.
There were no iron gates.
Or men in uniforms.
With guns.
Or not yet.

But right now, if it were not for the kilometres-per-hour speed limit sign facing one way and miles-per-hour facing the other way, you would hardly know.

So between these two signs, I set up my stall of two paintings on easels; forty freshly baked hot cross buns (if the truth be known, they were not as fresh as I would have liked, as I had baked them the night before I drove up); forty copies of the proposed Very Good Friday Agreement.
And forty mugs.
And placed a ballot box on the bridge above the burn that marks the border.
And I was open for business at 10am.
And the people came.
All Forty of them.
And they formed an orderly queue.
And they cast their votes.
And they ate the not so hot cross buns.
And they took their copies of The Very Good Friday Agreement.
And their mugs.
And Tracey used her hand held device to document what was going on in whatever way she chose.
And I tried to accept that in this day and age I had to agree to have selfies taken, even though every fibre of my being was...
And I attempted to talk to people as I buttered their not so hot cross buns and handed them their copy of the proposed Very Good Friday Agreement and their memorial mug.

They talked about having an allotment on one side of the border and a home on the other, thus when he was ready to pull his potatoes he would have to smuggle them across the border.

Is this the time and place to quote Seamus Heaney’s most quoted line?

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

And I was told by one concerned local, that the best local fish & chip shop was just one side of the border. And the best Chinese takeaway was just the other side of the border. And when (or if) this border becomes hard, there will be no more popping out to get your fish supper or chicken chow mein of choice if you are living on the wrong side of this border.

These might be the trivial things – but it so often those trivial things that symbolise all the stuff in life that makes it worth living.

And then there was the family with their two kids. And they wanted to know what is the age of majority when it came to voting in this referendum. And we agreed they had more right to vote than we did, as it was more their future than ours.

And then I was given a bottle of home brewed Border Bramble Tip Kefir. Made from bramble leaves that had been picked right on this border.

And then there were those that had travelled from far corners of the thirty-two counties to cast their vote.

And passing cars, and vans and trucks honked their horns in approval.

And the sun shone.

And then at noon the ballot box was opened, and I invited one of the Forty to count the votes. There were only 37 voting slips inside the box. Thus three folk might have not voted. But of those 37 who did vote, they all agreed to have the new proposed clause added to the Good Friday Agreement.
And I packed up.
And drove back through Derry.
And up and over the Sperrin Mountains.
And back down to Belfast International Airport.
And dropped Tracey off to fly back to Spain.
And then I drove deep into another life – down into the Glens of Antrim, The Curfew Tower and the stolen lead from its kitchen roof. And Elvis. But that is another story with all its other symbolic moments and asides.
And then I drove to Larne.
And found a B&B.
And had a meal on my own, with a large glass of red wine.
And wondered about things and life. And Lyra McKee’s family and loved ones. And my responsibilities to my family and loved ones.
And I didn’t sleep soundly.
And I thought how none of this needs a 66 year-old man with too much history. It needs a 16 year-old Derry Girl – the fruit of a mixed marriage – doing a Greta Thunberg.

And as this morning was almost breaking, I slipped quietly out of the B&B. And drove down to the harbour. And onto the ferry. And here I am in the middle of the Irish Sea writing this. And thinking about the play that my sometime alter ego and arch nemesis, Tenzing Scott Brown might write, about it all.

You can find more Bill Drummond at the Penkiln Burn website