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Quietly, under this Northern Ireland pasture, the tectonic plates are grumbling

A revolution in farm ownership here threatens to make the ancient quarrels over land redundant, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Published 11/08/2016

Seeds of discord: Territorial claims to the emerald lands of Ulster have been the root cause of conflict here for centuries
Seeds of discord: Territorial claims to the emerald lands of Ulster have been the root cause of conflict here for centuries

I am standing on a Fermanagh hillside with a farmer, surveying the patchwork of fields around us. I see green fields, like a quilt over the little hills which stretches into the valleys. And I see cattle in some fields, in others a splash of yellow where the rapeseed grows.

What he sees is different. He views the landscape of the Ulster countryside much as I view the city of Belfast from Black Mountain. I can point out the Protestant and Catholic streets. I can show him the peacelines and more.

I can locate the places where riots were staged, where mills and factories and even whole streets were burned. I can even see the corners on which people were shot. I can see, in my mind's eye, things that aren't there any more, whether they were stripped away by violence or redevelopment.

He can read the countryside like that, too. It is a parchment recording our history. There are Protestant farms and Catholic farms. There are forces determined to maintain the boundaries between them.

"You'll often hear it said that such a piece of land will never be sold to a Catholic," he says. "Or the other way round. That's how it is." And it is no surprise that it should be like that, for the history of division in Ulster is a history of land and territory. The Plantation of Ulster was a claiming of land for settlers who were, roughly speaking, the ancestors of the people who are now the backbone of unionism.

I remember Father Faul explaining Tyrone republicanism to me.

"For some people around here," he said, "it is still about the land. They can tell you the farm their forebears were put off. And they want it back."

A redrawing of the historical parchment that is the very terrain of our countryside would be an upheaval as great as a reshuffling of neighbourhoods in Derry and Belfast after which the ancient quarrel would lose its integrity. It would no longer then be possible to stand on a hill and identify yourself as a Protestant, or Catholic, with that hill, or that street, that piece of bog, that corner.

And that is why, furtively and urgently, communities have tried to preserve the sales of land down the generations within their own traditions.

So, how is all this to be affected by the fact that half of the farms in Northern Ireland have no one to inherit them? How will the legacy of division be preserved if the family lines in half the countryside have come to an end?

Families have defined themselves by the land they owned as much as, and even more than, by the country they inhabited.

And in border areas, many believed that, by holding on to poor and unproductive land, they were holding a line, a frontier, against an erosion that would have changed the character of the whole state.

But what is left of that frontier if there is no one left to preserve that tradition and maintain its defence, when the land is unwanted and, therefore, cheap and anyone can have it for the asking?

That is the future that is intimated at by the report this week from the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU), which contacted hundreds of farmers and found that nearly half of them have no idea who will take over their land from them.

The primary concern of the UFU is to preserve the viability of agriculture in Northern Ireland by urging farmers to plan for succession, but it is plain that there are broader cultural and political implications, too.

This isn't just about who will milk the cows after granda dies, what with Tommy now living in Canada and the daughter married and happy in London. It is about whether that land will ever make a decent price if farming dies out here.

And it is also about whether an ancient grievance is about to simply disappear, dissolved not by victory on any side, but simply by having become economically unsustainable. There have been other theories about how demographic shift in Northern Ireland might change the political profile of the region.

By one such, the Catholics simply outbreed the Protestants and vote us into a united Ireland.

The weakness in that one is that Catholic families are getting smaller, too, and they don't all want a united Ireland anyway.

By another theory, the Protestants being older die off in bigger numbers and the Catholics inherit the land. That is not too far off the vision painted for us by the failure of half of the farmers to find anyone to leave their land to.

But what was not foreseen was that territory and who owns it, which was at the very heart of the problem here for centuries, would simply become irrelevant for want of anyone being at hand to take possession of it. If half the farms in Northern Ireland are going to have to be sold in the coming decades, because no one will inherit them, then that land will not go for much.

It is impossible to foresee who might take it and what they might use it for.

It is horribly possible that some of it will fall into disuse, that no one will take it.

Just as remnants of the 19th Century litter Donegal and Mayo in those old collapsed stone cabins, will the farmhouses and barns that defined the landscape of Ulster in the 20th century, stand rotten and bedraggled and overgrown through most of this century?

Will they even, in the same way, become part of the tourist appeal? That is what has happened to some of the old cotton plantations in Mississippi. And they, too, are part of a history of division and violence, but now they stand as relics not as artefacts of a living culture.

We are now on the threshold of a social revolution. The decline of agriculture alone, even without the implications for the demographic profile and the sectarian map of this place, will create a land that will be different from the one we know.

It will change the scenery, the view from the train and the plane, the very fragrance of the spring air.

And none of this revolution will have been brought about by the stolid frontiersmen who thought they were preserving an Ulster future, or by the rebels, from those that had a pike in the thatch to the men with Armalites and Semtex.

Change, as usual, comes when we are thinking about other things.

And the farmer beside me on the Fermanagh hillside may scratch his head and wish it was different, if not for preserving an Ulster he thinks he knows, if only to keep a few fields in the family, but his chances are slim.

Belfast Telegraph

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