‘A concise and topical guide to the Irish Border for bewildered Brits’
British politicians deliberately turned their back on Ireland a century ago. Now it is back centre-stage
A truck is stopped at the Border by Free State customs officers. Photograph: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images
On the verge of its centenary, the Irish Border is once again at the centre of British politics. Twenty years on from the landmark Good Friday Agreement, the already complex and controversial nature of the border– any discussion of which generations of Westminster politicians have sought to suppress – has now been further complicated by Britain’s protracted withdrawal from the EU.
In my just published book, Drawing the Line: The Irish Border in British Politics, I seek to concisely explain an issue which has bedevilled British politics for nearly a century although for most of its existence the Border hardly impacted on British consciousness. The book charts the Border’s genesis, the historic background to the current controversy, the reasons for decades of British indifference to and ignorance of the subject as well as what the future of the Border might be. One of my colleagues has described it as a concise and topical guide to the Irish Border for bewildered Brits!
Most British (and Irish) people are nowadays unaware of just how much the Irish Question dominated British politics over a 40-year period from the time of the First Home Rule Bill in 1886 to the final agreement on the course of the Irish Border in 1925. Significantly, the Anglo-Irish crisis of the postwar years coincided with the most intense period of political instability in 20th-century British history as the country moved from two-party to three-party politics and back to two-party politics in the space of less than five years.
The book argues that it was this relentlessly negative experience of dealing with the Irish Question from 1912 to 1925 that led to the unspoken cross-party understanding that, once removed from the centre of British politics, Ireland should never be allowed to return. This collective amnesia on Ireland, allied to the horrendous prospect, from a British political perspective, of Irish politics once again being allowed back centre-stage ensured that the ambition of all British political parties to keep Ireland out of British politics was largely successfully fulfilled over the course of the rest of the twentieth century. Not even events as significant as the declaration of Irish neutrality in the second World War, various IRA bombing campaigns in Britain nor 30 years of communal violence in Northern Ireland – a part of the UK– in any way enticed successive British governments to get more involved in Irish affairs than they strictly had to. It was this same mindset that prevented Harold Wilson’s Labour government from intervening in the rapidly deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland until it was forced to in 1969.
Through these years British political parties have merely reflected the indifference and bewilderment that the British electorate have exhibited towards Irish politics. Apart from periodic bouts of outrage at IRA bombs exploding in British cities or British soldiers being killed in Northern Ireland or the financial cost of maintaining Northern Ireland in the UK, the British public has demonstrated a sustained bafflement and profound lack of interest in the complexities of Irish ethnic nationalism and, in particular, its complete irrelevance to mainstream British politics. In these circumstances, it is no wonder that most British politicians have sought to reflect the electorate’s mood and distance themselves from re-immersion in these ethnic and religious disputes which, from a British perspective, often seemed to owe more to ancient history than to a sophisticated and modern political discourse.
Undoubtedly, although it is rarely mentioned these days, the unwelcome reality of how Irish politics dominated British politics for two generations in the early 20th century is buried deeply in the collective memory of the British political class.
That is why in the early 21st century Britain’s attempts to extricate itself from the EU has resulted in Ireland – and, more specifically, the Irish Border – re-asserting itself at the centre of British politics once again. My book seeks to explain why , through an examination of their political forbears’ experience a century ago, British politicians – Remainers as well as Leavers – preferred not to allow any consideration of Irish politics back into British politics if it could be at all avoided. That is why there was no consideration of the Irish Border during the British referendum campaign in 2016. Britain is now for the first time in nearly a century, forced to re-engage with the politics of the Irish Border. It remains to be seen how this will play out, but this time it will no longer be possible for Britain to distance itself from any involvement as it has for nearly a century. Back then, Thomas Jones, deputy cabinet secretary to four British prime ministers, warned that if the Irish Boundary Commission issue was not satisfactorily concluded “Ireland would be back in our politics”. It took nearly a century but Ireland is now well and truly back in British politics.
Drawing the Line:The Irish Border in British Politics is published by Haus Publishing. Dr Ivan Gibbons is former programme director of Irish studies at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and a member of the board of directors of Hammersmith Irish Cultural Centre, London. He is a lecturer and writer on 20century British and Irish history and is author of The British Labour Party and the Establishment of the Irish Free State 1918-1924