30 January 2020 was my 27th birthday. That weekend also turned into 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 different degrees. I won’t pretend that being a stranded celt in London meant I was on the sharper end of the experience, but you can only live through it the way you did and so while I ought not to have found it so hard – I did.
My partner had never really seen me cry like that before – ugly gurning into her shoulder, when I realised my weekend home at the end of March 2020 wouldn’t be possible. I shattered again on having to cancel trips home in April, and in May and then jettison plans to fly home in June – plans that were the light of what felt like a mightily dark tunnel during April and May. In the grand scheme of things, I certainly did not have a hard lockdown. But god, did my face splinter on seeing my chances of getting home-home disappear in front of me, repeatedly.
When I treaded that well-trodden path, of going to England for a job in the end of 2017, a significant part of my soul would always be anchored in Ulster and I felt it as an acute ache to be marooned from that part of my soul for so long.
On 8th July 2020 however, holding my partner’s hand, with flamboyant masks strapped across our glinting faces, we stepped back into Northern Ireland for the first time in 6 months.
The day after returning to London, my country’s Deputy First Minister made a statement. She said an all-Ireland approach was necessary, and she described those coming from England into Northern Ireland as “the greatest risk” that Ireland faced.
Not the fact that our government didn’t exist for three years, crippling our state’s ability to respond to this pandemic; not the fact that some in our Executive still have an ability to find pettiness in the face of severity. The greatest risk was me, my mask and my copious amounts of hand sanitiser visiting my family, after half a year of separation, at a time when London had – by today’s standards – an extremely low rate of covid incidence (my area Ealing only having 6.4 per 100,000 at the end of July).
I returned to NI two more times before a long weekend at the start of October, after which I knew I’d have to hunker down to reduce risk, and earn Christmas with my closest of kin.
Like thousands of others, on Saturday 19 December, my plans to fly on Christmas Eve-Eve after a long hard year were torn from me. The light was extinguished and I was left, suitcase in hand, trying to breathe slowly to allow my eyes the time to adjust to the tunnel’s pitch darkness.
I have been mostly calm since – focusing on how to give my partner – herself stranded from Cymru – and myself the best London-stranded-Christmas we can muster. I’ve not allowed myself to catalogue the beautiful collection of moments Christmas in Ballymena would have pooled.
But that was all severely tested on seeing politics in NI again trying to exile expats in GB as part of petty tribalism; trying to block those in England lucky enough not to be in Tier 4 from returning home.
The Deputy First Minister said “Belfast and Dublin must act together to keep everyone on this island safe”.
Safe from the GB-based expats, a grouping that this carefully thought through language ‘others’ with surgical precision.
I have tried to understand why the Deputy First Minister’s two statements on exiling expats have stung so much, and have realised it has two aspects.
Firstly, it could not be more personal. Depriving someone of the ability to be home, to see family and experience their home place cuts right to the heart of something you innately feel to be a birth right.
Secondly, I felt I was being ‘othered’.
I am in Tier 4, and so I should not be allowed to leave my area. I understand that. But those in low covid incidence areas should not be deprived from seeing their family, just because they are working in a low incidence area in GB rather than a low incidence area in ROI. There is no scientific basis for that, with the new variant of the virus now present in GB and ROI; the only basis is an ideological one – like why Trump wants to build a wall with Mexico, and not with Canada.
The freedom of movement for NI expats in GB and in ROI needs to be handled with far greater care than it has been thus far: instead of using sensitivity, the DUP and Sinn Fein have used the topic as another proxy war for constitutional debate.
Expats’ experience, especially those cut off by the Irish Sea, has been one of visceral separation; no political should be exacerbating that experience to titillate their bases.
If this debate was around the level of risk GB expats bring – less than 1 in 100 , and “significantly less” for the new variant – why did we again see some unionists calling for ROI travel to be blocked, and SDLP and Sinn Fein calling for GB travellers to be banned?
This pandemic has required extremely hard decisions from politicians throughout: every time, we have had to respond with resilience, positivity and inventiveness to make the most of it.
But while I sit away from my parents and outside of Ballymena for the first time in my whole life on Christmas Day, I ask that politicians deal with this debate with the level of seriousness I felt when my parents rang me up to let me know I can’t be with them this Christmas.
For those away from their families this year, I wanted to quickly share some writing from David Brooks of the New York Times: real tough people aren’t hard, but are “strong like water. A blow might sink into them, and when it does they are profoundly affected by it. But they can absorb the blow because it’s short term while their natural shape is long term…grit, resilience and toughness are not traits that people possess intrinsically. They are not tools you can possess independently for the sake of themselves. They are means inspired by an end“.
Hard to think of a better end to inspire than finally returning home, whenever I next can.
Michael is from Kells, Ballymena, and began writing comment pieces alongside his job following graduating in law from Cambridge. In particular, he has written for the Independent (UK); one of these featured on the The Times Red Box and several of which were republished by the Belfast Telegraph. He has also written for Legal Cheek. He is a commercial litigator at a London city law firm.