The Other Border


A shorter version of this article appeared in The Irish Times of 20th December 2017.

As was inevitable we now have a formula on the border sufficient to allow the Brexit negotiations go ahead. Equally inevitably, we will end up with a physical border, which, however soft, will involve some degree of control of goods and persons. Not because anyone wants it, but because, sooner or later, it will be found to be necessary.

That is why EU citizens crossing from France and Spain into and out of Andorra can find themselves stopped at a customs post. That is why there are still border checks between Norway and Sweden and between Switzerland and its EU/ neighbours.

That is why, on April 1st 1923 the first physical border in Ireland was installed with tin huts for customs officials and approved routes. It was imposed, not by the British, but by the government of Irish Free State. Dublin had the right to set its own customs regime, but, with London had agreed a deal whereby the Free State was compensated by receiving a proportion of the total income from customs and excise to the British exchequer based on population.

The border was unpopular north and south. The IRA promptly blew up one of the new huts. Unionists denounced it as partitionist. W.T.Cosgrave said that a customs barrier was the inevitable result of political independence - an independent country had to have control over revenue, and it needed data on the flow of goods.

The joint EU/UK report issued in Brussels promised no return to a 'hard' border'. Existing borders between Norway and Sweden might be termed 'soft' by some. Mr Davis has already downgraded the guarantee to a declaration of intent. At a future date we may hear Mrs.May, or her successor, or Mr Varadakar, or Brussels assuring us that the new border controls are discreet, and the softest possible.

But in Ireland the reappearance of any visible, physical border would be extremely regrettable, possibly affecting trade, the daily lives of border communities, and a host of other activities. It could be a shattering psychological blow to many - unionist, nationalist and others - who have cheerfully embraced the experience of an undivided island.

The report has much to say about the Belfast Agreement, declaring it 'must be protected in all its parts, and that this extends to 'the totality of the relationships', set out in it. There is no attempt to reconcile the promise to 'develop the relationship (of the peoples of the UK and Ireland) as 'partners within the European Union', with the UKs' determination to dissolve that partnership.

Mrs May and M.Barnier seem to be unware that the Belfast Agreement, is not actually working, and that the Assembly and Executive have not functioned for a year. Damaging as the return of any physical border might be, there remains a more important border that has been hardening as the physical one has been disappearing. This is the divide between identities, between Nationalist and Unionist, or more accurately between Irishness and Britishness, as politcians on both sides have chosen to define, or distort those identities.

Granted for almost 20 years on we have not seen violence anything like that before the Agreement. But we have also seen the near annihilation of the centre ground in politics. The parties of Hume and Trimble have been eclipsed on one side by Sinn Fein, the defenders of the IRA terror campaign, and on the other by the Paisleyites. The risk of 'security related violence' (ie local terrorism) in Northern Ireland remains 'severe'.

In 1997 Ulster Unionists came top with almost 33% of the vote, nearly two and a half times the share won by Paisley's DUP. Now they are outpolled by the DUP by almost three to one, and have no seats at Westminster. Now Sinn Fein outpoll the SDLP by 2 to 1. Twenty years ago Sinn Fein had one Dail seat, now they have more than 20.

The deadlock at Stormont is about identity or ideology, not about jobs, or Brexit. The language of the Agreement and its institutional framework have all cemented the supposed division of the people of Northern Ireland into Irish and British into reality at political level.

Thus Sinn Fein demand a language act that will give parity of esteem to Irish which is spoken as a daily means of communication by a minute number of enthusiasts. Sinn Fein want assent to their mendacious claim that IRA terrorism was a regrettable but necessary part of a struggle for equality and justice. Sinn Fein refuse to take seats in the national parliament of the UK. They join in the government of this region of the UK, but cannot allow its name to sully their lips.

Perversely, a large number from what is called the nationalist community who believe none of that nonsense, vote for Sinn Fein out of what is perhaps a sense of Irishness, and a hearty distaste for the DUP.

The DUP cannot conceal their contempt for most things Irish, including the Gaelic language, the Dublin Government, and the southern state. They cannot face the reality that Northern Ireland is not like any other part of the UK and that they share this province with others, almost as numerous as themselves, who are quite sure they are Irish, not British.. They show no awareness that their only hope of a future stable region is to find accommodation with these 'others'.

Perversely, many unionists who vote for the DUP share few of these illusions or prejudices, but opt for the party as the only way to keep Sinn Fein in its place.

How did we end up here? The Belfast Agreement enshrined the British/Irish identity divide as central, and that agreement was essentially appeasement of the IRA, an armistice bought by London and Dublin cheered on by Washington.

Dublin and London have made their separate contributions to the profound mess we are now in. Dublin, by hailing 1916 and Pearse's fantasy of a Gaelic speaking all-Ireland fairy-tale the real Ireland, the essence of Irishness. The reality is that today's Ireland is nothing of the sort. In 1966 and 2106 official Ireland trumpeted the message that the violent ideologues of the Easter Rising were the true founders of the nation. The intention was in part good - to stop the IRA from claiming ownership of 1916 and true Irishness - but also tragically mistaken.

The EU played no major participatory role in the ending of violence, but the umbrella of partnership within the EU was an invaluable context within which the Ireland-UK relationship could blossom and Irish and British identities could be seen as complimentary, not essentially antagonistic. Then the British people voted for Brexit, forgetting that Northern Ireland was part of the UK, or simply not caring what the impact there might be.

Preoccupied with the border, we should not forget that the real tragedy of Brexit for all of us is the United Kingdom's defection from the European integration project.