As was inevitable, a formula was agreed on the Border to allow the next phase of Brexit negotiations to 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. Some might call these soft borders
Last week’s joint report promised, sort of, no return to a “hard border”. At a future date we may hear Theresa May, or her successor, assuring us that new border controls are found essential, but will be the softest possible.
The reappearance of any visible physical border here in Ireland would be extremely regrettable, 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 undivided island.
But damaging as the return of any such 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, between Irishness and Britishness, as politicians on both sides have chosen to distort those identities.
‘Totality of relationships’
The EU/UK report says the Belfast Agreement “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 its promise to “develop the relationship” (of the peoples of the UK and Ireland) as “partners within the European Union” with Brexit.
May and Michel Barnier seem to be unaware that the Belfast Agreement is not actually working, and that the Assembly and Executive have not functioned for a year. For 20 years, we may not have 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 Féin, the defenders of the IRA terror campaign and, on the other, by the Paisleyites.
The deadlock at Stormont is about identity or ideology, not about jobs or Cash for Ash. The language of the agreement and its institutional framework have cemented the supposed division of the people of Northern Ireland into Irish and British into the reality at political level.
Thus Sinn Féin demands 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 Féin wants assent to its mendacious claim that IRA terrorism was a regrettable but necessary part of a struggle for equality and justice. Sinn Féin refuses to take seats in the national parliament of the UK. It joins 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 Féin out of what is perhaps a sense of Irishness, and a hearty distaste for the DUP.
The DUP cannot conceal its contempt for most things Irish, including the language, the Dublin Government, and the southern State. It cannot face the reality that Northern Ireland is not like any other part of the UK and that it shares this province with others, almost as numerous as themselves, who are quite sure they are Irish, not British. It shows no awareness that its 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 Féin 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 making 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 2016, 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 awareness of a shared European identity was an invaluable context within which the Ireland-UK relationship could blossom and Irish and British identities could be seen as complementary, 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 land 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, and its rush to discard the European umbrella.
Dennis Kennedy is a former deputy editor of The Irish Times