The Prologue from Backstop Land, Glenn Patterson’s account of the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, recently published by Head of Zeus.
Friday 9 June 2017. I am in London with my friend and screenwriting partner, Colin Carberry, talking to the producers of a couple of films we are working on. Both, as it happens, musical biopics – an area where (in truth the only area where) we have a bit of form, having co-written Good Vibrations, based on, as we were careful to say, the ‘true stories’ of legendary Belfast record-shop owner, inveterate yarn-spinner and perpetual contrarian, Terri Hooley.
Musicals are having a moment. La La Land is still in its first flush and Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns is filming at Shepperton Studios, sixteen miles down the road from where Colin and I are having our meetings.
Yesterday, Thursday 8 June, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland went to the polls, in a general election called just two months before and against all expectation by Prime Minister Theresa May (already that feels like writing ‘Anthony Eden’), in a bid to strengthen her hand within parliament and her own party ahead of Brexit negotiations with Brussels. The election had taken the Conservatives from 330 seats – an overall majority of four – to just 317, nine short of the number needed to govern without the support of other parties.
The Northern Ireland electorate, meantime, with no Labour or Liberal Democratic candidates to choose from, and only a small field of Conservatives, had returned seven Sinn Féin MPs (who had run, as was their wont, on an abstentionist ticket, that is, a promise not to take any seats they won) and from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the only Northern Irish party to have backed Leave in the United Kingdom European Union Membership Referendum the year before, ten MPs.
It had become starkly apparent by the time Colin and I stepped off the early Friday morning plane from Belfast that the fate of Theresa May’s government – the whole tenor of the UK’s departure from the European Union – depended on a single Northern Irish party. Not just any Northern Irish party, that Northern Irish party, with its eccentric views on all manner of things, from same-sex relationships to the origins of the universe. (Though, in true DUP negotiation style, the pact that the Tories sought would not be reached until seventeen days later and even then would take the form of a ‘confidence and supply’ rather than formal coalition: the government would have to keep coming back to seek their support.)
The people we were meeting were by turns baffled and affronted. ‘Who the fuck are these people?’
And they weren’t the only ones. The question dogged Colin and me every step of our day.
They were asking it in shops – who the fuck are they?
They were asking it in bars – who the fuck are they?
They were asking it on the streets – who the fuck are they? – and out the windows of cars – who the fuck are they?
If we had been writing it as a musical, the billposter sliding down his ladder would have been asking it, over his shoulder – who the fuck are they? The faces on the bill he had just finished posting would have been asking it and everyone would have laughed, short and sharp, taking the number up another notch – full-blown Mary Poppins Returns style, drone’s-eye view, upper windows thrown wide open, half a million of them maybe, one for every person who in the next forty-eight hours would sign a petition calling on the Tories not to do a deal – Who the fuck are they? Who the fuck are they? – building and building to a surround-sound crescendo.
Just – who – the – fuck – are – they?
And then a pause in which Colin and I looked at one another, shrugged, and turned to the camera and sang our first and only line… ‘Welcome to our world!’