The people have spoken and Corkxit means Corkxit! Now, deep in the bowels of Cork County Council, the real capital’s sharpest minds must determine how best to implement their secession from the Republic…
YOU PUT ON YOUR LANYARD as you enter the council chamber and it feels like you are roping your own noose. You’re carrying one of those cardboard coffee trays with the texture of cowhide, but you wonder if perhaps a stronger beverage isn’t warranted today. The vacant look on your boss’s face only confirms that notion. Barry Conway, the Cathaoirleach, is a pleasant man. He never calls you ‘Love’ or ‘Pet’ or ‘Sweetheart’. Always ‘Miss Lacy’. But this morning he is like a different person. He is defeated in all senses. You see him staring at a heavy plastic campaign poster reading END DUBLIN RULE IN CORK that lies on its side by the wall. Keeping him company like the best of adversaries is Aodhan Óg O’Sullivan, the opposition councillor who led the campaign for independence.
‘You’re some langer,’ is all Conway says to him.
O’Sullivan, a former investment banker from Blackrock, only laughs.
‘People are already claiming that they didn’t realise the implications,’ you say as you place the coffees on one of the curved timber tables. ‘They’re saying that they thought it was all just a bit of craic.’
Conway stares. His eyes are wide. ‘We’ve seceded from the Republic!’
‘Sure aren’t we the People’s Republic,’ O’Sullivan reminds him. ‘The real capital! We’ve taken back control of our county. Rump Ireland will have to –’
‘Are you out of your mind?’ Conway very nearly shouts this, a rarity for him. ‘The market is in turmoil!’
‘No, you gom, the English Market.’
Conway leans forward, his head in his hands. ‘Nobody wanted this.’
‘Ah,’ O’Sullivan says, ‘what’d’ya mean nobody wanted this? Weren’t their tongues hanging out for it below in Ballylickey? It’s the will of the people, Barry. The will of the people.’
‘It’ll be havoc!’
‘It’ll be opportunity!’ O’Sullivan is all bright eyes. ‘We can build a deregulated onshore tax haven! In Berehaven! We’ll be the Southern Powerhouse!’
Your phone bleats and you quickly skim the email that has arrived. ‘Clonakilty have started a petition about going independent,’ you announce. ‘From us, like.’
‘Clon needs to check its privilege.’
‘Four people have already signed it.’
Conway rolls his eyes. ‘Wouldn’t that put the heart in you?’
O’Sullivan, reaching for the tray of coffees, turns his head towards you and asks, ‘Did you get me my mickyiato, love?’
You ignore him as you summon a passing intern from outside. You hand her a memory stick and tell her to print off the briefing packets you hastily prepared this morning.
‘Copies for everyone,’ you tell her. ‘Double sided. The good paper not the great paper.’
‘Coola boola,’ she says and hurries off.
‘I’m going to have to make a statement,’ Conway is saying when you turn back to the mortuary discourse in the chamber. ‘About xenophobia.’
O’Sullivan makes a big show of looking to his left and right. ‘What xenophobia?’
‘What xenophobia?’ Conway picks up a copy of the Examiner from the table and tosses it towards him. ‘People having dogshit thrown at them! Being told to F-off back to their own counties! That xenophobia!’
‘But isn’t that just any Friday night on MacCurtain Street?’
‘Would you please take this seriously? You’ve wiped your backside with our social fabric. People will need visas to go to Kerry for their holidays, like.’
‘Ah, but who’d want to be going to that auld monarchy with all them midges anyhow?’
‘And what,’ Conway goes on, ‘about all the people from other counties already living and working in Cork? Did you ever give a moment’s thought to citizens’ rights?’
O’Sullivan considers this for a moment. ‘We’ll get them special ID cards,’ he says. ‘Or tag them like handbags in Brown Thomas. They can apply for… Settled Status.’
‘Aragh, that makes it sound like they’ve settled for us.’ A vein quivers on the Cathaoirleach’s temple. ‘This isn’t your wife we’re talking about, Aodhan.’
‘Sure didn’t the Civil Service cope with the Emergency?’ O’Sullivan says. ‘Didn’t they cope with Saipan? I’m sure they can cope with this. I mean, we’re not asking much of them, now are we? A couple of IDs for the blow-ins and printing up red covers for our own passports.’
‘We already have red covers on our passports!’
‘We have maroon covers on our passports!’ O’Sullivan stabs a finger at Conway. ‘As though we were some breed of –’ he scrunches up his face, ‘– Galwegians.’
You see O’Sullivan’s eyes reflect the fury and the glee you witnessed earlier on the streets and you do not like it. ‘I have a Galway grandmother,’ you say, mostly to yourself. ‘I reckon they’ll take me back if needs be.’
‘Come’ere to me,’ O’Sullivan tells you, ‘you’re not going anywhere. You’re negotiating capital now, love. You’re a bargaining chip.’
Conway almost growls. ‘That’s political nonsense… No. I won’t allow that.’
‘Nobody likes a saboteur, Barry.’ O’Sullivan runs his fingers though his hair. ‘I know there’ll be people like you who won’t be happy with this but, lookit, we’ll make it saleable; I’m a pragmatist after all.’ He swivels back and forth in his chair. ‘This’ll get something of significance done to put governance in place for Cork for the next fifty years.’
‘Lay off of it, boy!’ Conway throws his hands up. ‘We’ve cut off our own…’ just in time he realises that there is a woman present, ‘…Cork.’ He clears his throat and settles himself. ‘We’ve cut off our own Cork,’ he repeats. ‘You’ve orchestrated a Corkstration! And now you’re acting like you deserve a medal or something.’
‘Maybe I do,’ O’Sullivan says. Maybe a –’ and he leans forward, delighted with himself, ‘– Victoria Cross!’
‘I hate you,’ is all Conway says. The Cathaoirleach folds his arms and exhales. Then, after a moment, he adds, ‘If I were sad you’d make me lonesome. I mean, Jesus, what would Michael Collins think of all this?’
‘He’d say it was a “stepping stone”.’
‘He said that about Northern Ireland!’
‘Sure from Cork isn’t all of Ireland Northern Ireland!’
‘Gentlemen,’ you raise you voice just enough to get their attention as the intern returns to the chamber. ‘Please. Be serious. If this is going to happen, if we can’t stop this –’
‘You lost,’ O’Sullivan mutters, ‘get over it.’
‘– then we need to consider the practicalities. We need to think about regulatory divergence. We need to talk about the county line and how to secure it.’
‘You know there’ll be resistance from the border parishes.’ Conway looks peeved. ‘And rightly so too. Checkpoints and visible infrastructure will only attract gurriers. Young lads pissing in blockhouses and whatnot.’
‘About that…’ You nod at the intern and she begins to pass around the briefing packets. ‘It may surprise you, but we’re already getting tenders for persistent surveillance systems. Lots of proposals for border policing via –’ you take a deep breath, ‘– unmanned aerial vehicles.’
Conway raises an eyebrow. ‘You mean drones?’
‘I mean airships.’
O’Sullivan makes a noise. ‘If I wanted to live in some dystopian steampunk nightmare then I’d move to Waterford.’
‘Ooh,’ says the intern, now looking at her phone.
‘Well at least someone is excited about Waterford,’ Conway says.
‘No.’ The intern turns her phone towards the group. ‘Sarah Palin has just congratulated us on Twitter.’
‘Well that’s hardly as topical as it could be.’ The Cathaoirleach rubs his eyes.
‘She says Alaska ought to follow Cork’s example and leave the Commonwealth.’
You watch as Conway attempts to parse that statement for a long moment – expending, in your judgment, far too much energy on the effort – before he gives up with an audible sigh.
‘Anything from Trump?’ asks O’Sullivan, who during the autumn had dined at a Red Lobster on the outer edges of the Mar-a-Lago security cordon.
The intern shakes her head.
‘Fake news, that is,’ O’Sullivan declares.
As you listen to this to-and-fro you think back on the campaign. You had all dismissed O’Sullivan when he was failing to answer questions about free trade with the midlands and the threat of chlorinated black pudding. You had all cringed when he was on the radio invoking the county’s ‘War of Independence spirit’ and claiming that Cork had ‘everything a modern economy needs except oil and iron ore’. You had all laughed when he and his cronies were driving around church carparks in a red HiAce emblazoned with the slogan WE SEND MONEY TO CROKE PARK EVERY WEEK. LET’S FUND PÁIRC UÍ CHAOIMH INSTEAD.
‘And what about the All-Ireland?’ someone had asked him.
‘It’ll be the All-Cork,’ shrugged O’Sullivan, generally considered more of a soccer man. ‘We’ll always win!’
No, you had never taken him seriously, but, then again, you never thought you had to. The ballot was only advisory. The result was never in doubt. And yet here you are. With no plan and no clout. Your coffee is cooling rapidly and, beyond the door of the chamber, people are already moving boxes and handcarts towards the councillors’ offices.
‘Who the hell are they?’ Conway asks. ‘What are they doing?’
‘They’re here for when you resign,’ the intern says.
Conway stares at her. ‘G’way outta that. I’m not going to resign.’
‘You’re going to have to.’ You don’t want to look him in the eye but you know resignation is the only political option.
‘I’m going to resign,’ O’Sullivan chimes in like the Shandon Bells. ‘I’ve achieved my ambitions. I wanted my county back and I’ve got it. Now I want my life back.’
‘Your life?’ Conway is incredulous. ‘Your? Life?’
‘What?’ O’Sullivan looks around. ‘I’ve done my bit. I’ve earned my pension.’
‘Clean break,’ the intern says. ‘Fresh start. We’ll need a new Leader. Directly elected.’
‘Leader is a bit… Limerick though,’ says O’Sullivan. ‘D’ya know what I mean?’
‘Okay, well maybe, like, a Cork Taoiseach? A… Corkseach?’
‘We can’t just keep putting “Cork” in front of things,’ you tell them. ‘That doesn’t disguise how screwed –’
‘Corkscrewed,’ the intern says quietly.
‘– that we are.’
O’Sullivan smirks at you. ‘The will of the people is an instruction that must be delivered.’ He takes off his lanyard and drops it on the table. ‘Corkxit means Corkxit.’
‘This morning I learnt the word Corkshit,’ Conway says, apropos of everything. His voice remains weary but has regained a shade of its old defiance. ‘As in, That’s just Corkshit! Or Look at you, mired in your own Corkshit! Even –’ he stares at O’Sullivan, ‘– You’re some Corkshitter, you are!’ He sits back in his chair again. ‘It’s a versatile word.’
‘Of course,’ says O’Sullivan, ‘the correct pronunciation would be “Corkshite”.’
You throw him a look. ‘Just… just don’t.’
‘Listen,’ O’Sullivan says to Conway, ‘you fought this campaign the only way you know how: directly, passionately, holding nothing back. But the people of Cork…’ He smiles at the Cathaoirleach. ‘The people of Cork have made a very clear decision to take a different path.’
‘Your legacy,’ Conway says with a sigh, ‘is toxic and unforgivable.’
‘I bet they told Roy Keane the same thing and sure look at him now.’
Conway shakes his head in disbelief. He gets up and walks to the hard border of the glass wall and studies the city and county beyond it. When he turns back he has given up. It is in his eyes. It is in the way he holds himself. He takes off his lanyard and throws it onto the table alongside O’Sullivan’s. Then he loosens his tie and he says to you, ‘Miss Lacy, I guess this leaves you in charge for now.’ He takes a long moment to consider this. ‘Stay strong,’ he says. ‘Stay stable.’ He looks around the room the way a team captain might behold a stadium at the end of his final game. Conway had some great days here but this is not one of them. You know he deserves better and so this is sad to watch.
‘Come on now, Barry,’ O’Sullivan says with surprising softness, ‘let’s go get you a drop of something a bit mightier than coffee.’ He puts his arm around the shrunken Conway and as they leave and you catch him saying, ‘I’ve had this great idea for a podcast…’
It is only when they are gone, when they are out of sight beyond the corner of history, that you allow yourself to settle into the lightly worn leather of the Cathaoirleach’s chair, the big chair, at the front of the room. It creeks and squeaks a little as you get comfortable and this is when it hits you. This is when you realise that Corkxit is all on you now.
‘So…’ the intern surveys the empty council chamber, ‘kinda crazy, huh?’
You meet her eyes with resolve and certainty. Nothing for it, you suppose, but to try to make the best of this. ‘It’s not crazy,’ you tell her, ‘it’s not crazy at all,’ and in the process you almost convince yourself. ‘It’s the will of the people.’