Diarmaid Ferriter: England has always used the Border for its own gain

Tory Brexiteers still fail to grasp the complexity and centrality of the issue

In relation to the Northern Ireland and Border dilemma, British prime minister Theresa May insists she could not countenance anything ‘which effectively divides our country in two’. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Reuters

In relation to the Northern Ireland and Border dilemma, British prime minister Theresa May insists she could not countenance anything ‘which effectively divides our country in two’. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Reuters

 

At the British Labour Party conference during the week, Stephen Pound, the party’s shadow minister of state for Northern Ireland, managed in an 80-second interview with Channel 4 to do more justice to the complexities of the Irish border problem than the Tory Brexiteers have managed in the last two years. He spoke of the Border’s bewildering length, the difficulties of securing it and the danger to the peace process from the cavalier way in which it is being dismissed as a complication. “We have to get it right,” he insisted, “and if we cannot get that right, we cannot get anything right.” He is not convinced the British negotiating team “are aware just how absolutely visceral, how utterly serious and how incredibly important this is”.

Three cheers for Pound, and the animation with which he enunciated every word. His interview came on the back of prime minister Theresa May’s defiant address after the Salzburg showdown and rejection of her Chequers proposals. In relation to the Northern Ireland and border dilemma May insisted she could not countenance anything “which effectively divides our country in two”.

It is yet another bogus clarion call and replete with historical irony given that Irish nationalist objections to Ireland being divided in two a century ago, when the plan for Irish partition was being devised, were overruled by the British government on the grounds that a special deal was required for Ulster. The British cabinet was informed in 1919 by the authors of the partition plan that Ulster unionists would not be “on the same footing as citizens of Great Britain” but “subject to a different regime”.

Party at war

And so it continued in various ways and remains to this day, despite the rhetoric of Brexiteers and the bleating of the DUP which, in propping up a Conservative party at war and representing a Northern Ireland that does not want to leave the European Union, while avoiding power-sharing in Northern Ireland, can hardly consider itself in a powerful position. As historian Tom Bartlett has sagely observed, “Solutions devised in London are devised with English objectives in view . . . where we do not go is to London for solutions to the Ulster question.”

Historically, such “solutions” were really nothing of the sort. As lord chancellor FE Smith saw it a century ago, the partition of Ireland was not about coming to terms with the full extent of the Irish problem but the “strengthening of our tactical position before the world”. It is a version of the same tactic that May is attempting now, and it too is doomed to failure.

This is why ignorant, unthinking slogans about a 'frictionless' border are causing such friction

It is also reckless given the extent to which the peace process took so much of the heat out of the border question. May has long been on record as insisting her party “will never be neutral in expressing support” for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, an unwise declaration given the peace process idea of the British government as an “honest broker” and her recent interventions compound that unhelpfulness.

Pound was also correct this week to highlight the laziness and disingenuousness of talk about aping other borders – between Norway and Sweden, for example – or a technology-based solution. As was apparent from the first Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland in 1938 “it was blessed with one of the densest rural road networks, in terms of population, if not area, in western Europe. No less than 180 roads crossed the border and in some 35 to 40 instances they defined it, with the frontier lying in the middle and a crossing point every mile.”

Map ‘nightmare’

Earlier this year, the first officially agreed account of the extent of the Border, composed by the Republic’s Department of Transport and the Northern Ireland department for infrastructure, revealed that Ireland has 208 Border crossings and government technicians endured what was described as a “nightmare” trying to definitively map out all the roads, paths and dirt tracks that traverse the 500km of frontier. There was also still confusion about where the Border juts in and out of routes “or where roads are privately owned on one side and publicly maintained on the other”. The Border runs along the middle of 11 roads while it also meets in the middle of at least three bridges and dissects two ferry crossings. Significantly, “there are more crossings in Ireland than along the entire border between the European Union and the countries to its east, which has 137.”

But the border question, as highlighted in Darach MacDonald’s recent book Hard Border: Walking Through a Century of Irish Partition, is not just a logistical problem with economic and political consequences; culture, disrupted lives, history and sociology also have to be considered; because of its intrusions it was always a “hard” border before the political and military situation improved greatly with the peace process. That is why ignorant, unthinking slogans about a “frictionless” border are causing such friction.

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