January 30th, 2020 was my 27th birthday. This weekend was also my last time in Northern Ireland for a full 6 months.
The pandemic that we have all experienced has been suffered in many different ways and to varying degrees. I’m not going to pretend that as a stranded Kelt in London I was on the sharper end of the experience, but you can only live it the way you did and such while I shouldn’t have found it so difficult – me did it.
My partner had never seen me cry like this – an ugly growl in her shoulder when I realized my weekend home wouldn’t be possible at the end of March 2020. I was shaken again when I had to cancel my trip home in April and May and then abandoned plans to fly home in June – plans that were the light of a mighty dark tunnel in April and May. By the grand scheme of things, I certainly didn’t have a hard lock. But God, my face splintered as I saw my chances of getting home keep disappearing before me.
When I went down this well-trodden path of going to England in late 2017 to get a job, a significant part of my soul was always anchored in Ulster, and I felt it was an acute pain to be dead from that part of my soul for so long .
However, on July 8th, 2020, when we were holding my partner’s hand and strapping extravagant masks over our glittering faces, we reentered Northern Ireland for the first time in 6 months.
The day after I returned to London, my country’s Deputy First Minister made a statement. She said a whole Ireland approach was needed and she described those who came to Northern Ireland from England as “the greatest risk” Ireland faced.
Not the fact that our government did not exist for three years, affecting our state’s ability to respond to this pandemic; not the fact that some in our executive branch still have the ability to find pettiness in the face of gravity. The greatest risk was myself, my mask and copious amounts of hand sanitizer visiting my family after half a year of separation, at a time when London had an extremely low rate of Covid incidence by today’s standards (my region) Ealing only has 6.4 per 100,000 End of July).
I returned to NI two more times before a long weekend in early October. After that, I knew I had to squat to reduce the risk and earn Christmas with my closest relatives.
Like thousands of others, on Saturday, December 19th, my plans to fly on Christmas Eve after a long, hard year were ripped away. The light went out and I was left with the suitcase in hand, trying to breathe slowly so my eyes could adjust to the deep darkness of the tunnel.
I’ve been quiet for the most part since then – focused on how to give my partner – who’s stranded by Cymru – and myself the best Christmas in London we can muster. I did not allow myself to catalog the beautiful collection of moments that Christmas would have bundled in Ballymena.
But that was all put to the test when politics in NI tried again to exile UK expats as part of petty tribalism. try to block those in England lucky enough not to be in tier 4 to return home.
The Deputy First Minister said: “Belfast and Dublin must work together to protect everyone on this island.”
Safe from the UK-based expats, a group that carefully considered the language of “other” with surgical precision.
I tried to understand why the two statements by the Deputy First Minister about expats in exile stung so much and realized that they had two aspects.
First, it couldn’t be more personal. When you deprive someone of the ability to be at home, see family, and experience their place of residence, it hits the very heart of something that you naturally consider to be a birthright.
Second, I felt “different”.
I am in Tier 4 and should therefore not be allowed to leave my area. I understand. But those in low incidence areas shouldn’t be deterred from seeing their family just because they are working in a low incidence area in the UK rather than an area with a low incidence in ROI. There is no scientific basis for this as the new variant of the virus is now available in GB and ROI. The only basis is ideological – for example, why Trump wants to build a wall with Mexico and not Canada.
The freedom of movement for NI expats in the UK and in the ROI must be treated with far greater care than before: Instead of using sensitivity, DUP and Sinn Fein have used the topic as another proxy war for the constitutional debate.
The experience of expats, particularly from the Irish Sea, has been visceral separation. No politician should aggravate this experience to tickle its foundations.
If that debate was about the risk that GB expats bring – less than 1 in 100 and “significantly less” for the new variant – why have we seen some trade unionists again calling for ROI travel to be blocked, and SDLP and Sinn Fein calling for UK travelers to be banned?
This pandemic has consistently required extremely tough decisions from politicians: each time we have had to respond with resilience, positivity and ingenuity to get the most of it.
But while sitting outside of my parents and outside Ballymena on Christmas Day for the first time in my life, I ask politicians to treat this debate with the seriousness I felt when my parents called me for information this Christmas not be with them.
For those of you who aren’t in their family this year, I wanted to quickly share some articles by David Brooks of the New York Times: Really tough people aren’t tough, but “strong as water. A blow could get into them, and if it does, it will deeply affect them. But they can absorb the blow because it is short term while their natural form is long term. Granularity, resilience and toughness are not properties that humans possess in themselves. They are not tools that you can own for yourself independently. They are means inspired by an end ”.
It’s hard to think of a better ending for inspiration than finally going back home whenever I can.
Photo by Skitterphoto is licensed under CC0
Michael is from Kells, Ballymena, and after graduating from Cambridge Law School, Michael began commenting alongside his work. In particular, he has written for the Independent (UK); One of these was included in The Times Red Box, and some of them were republished by the Belfast Telegraph. He has also written for Legal Cheek. He is currently a lawyer in London.