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Newton Emerson: Cross-Border finger-pointing is pointless

Opinion: We have come full circle on the Covid-19 politics of partition

Fianna Fáil Senator Robbie Gallagher has called on the authorities in Northern Ireland to fine people making non-essential journeys across the Border, mirroring rules enforced from this week in the Republic.

The Senator, a former Garda officer and Monaghan county councillor, says it is “deeply disappointing, frustrating and irritating that . . . we still seem to be falling short of an all-island approach”.

“Let us call out those who resist it,” he added. “It is time that resistance was called out and the finger was pointed in the right direction, namely at those who are blocking that all-island approach.”

It seems we have now come full circle on the Covid-19 politics of partition, from where the highest purpose of an “all-island approach” was about keeping the Border open, to where it is about keeping the Border shut.


In this case, the senator’s finger cannot be pointing at unionists.

All three main unionist parties have spent this week demanding checks and fines in Northern Ireland for cross-Border travel, in line with the Republic’s measures.

This was rebuffed on Tuesday in the House of Commons by UK health secretary Matt Hancock.

Responding to a DUP question, he said London and Dublin are instead working together “to safeguard our borders” – a two-islands approach.

Some gloating might be suspected in unionist motivations. The DUP and UUP have noted a hard border is possible after all. Sinn Féin and the SDLP have responded that there is no comparison between Covid checks and a Brexit-style customs frontier, and that cross-Border restrictions are effectively no different from the county level lockdowns and 2-5km travel limits the Republic has had, on and off, throughout the epidemic.

Both sides in this exchange have also come full circle.

When county lockdowns, including Border counties, were introduced last year Northern nationalists and the Irish authorities insisted this did not mean there were or could be travel restrictions across the Border, while unionists said there would be no need to see such restrictions as a constitutional issue.

County boundaries coterminous with the international frontier became a special kind of anti-frontier, open even when the rest of a county’s boundary was shut.

Medieval accusations

The absurdity of this escalated from last autumn, when Northern Ireland introduced its own localised council and postcode area restrictions, including several along the Border – five of the North’s 11 councils adjoin the Republic.

Unnecessary travel was banned at local level on both sides of the Border, incidental to the Border, in every direction except across the Border.

Whenever outbreaks appeared on either side, there were almost medieval accusations of who was spreading germs. Northern nationalist and southerners blamed a dirty North under unionist and British mismanagement; unionists blamed feckless southerners and northern nationalists for refusing to acknowledge the existence of the Border, due to Brexit-induced obstinacy.

The potential of localised restrictions to resolve these politicised arguments was obvious and should have been seized on by everyone.

Two-islands approach

Ironically, the case was best recognised by the Republic's zero-Covid island group of dissenting scientists. In a report to the Oireachtas last August, they proposed bypassing all issues of North-South coordination by getting both administrations to lock down small areas into Covid-free "green zones", until all the zones joined up. Lockdown could then be lifted by securing the external frontier, which could be done on a one or two-islands basis.

The Government’s view, informed by mainstream scientists, is that eliminating the virus through such a strategy is unworkable. However, as a concept to eliminate posturing over the Border, it has general application.

The two-islands approach offers the ultimate pragmatic consensus. Sinn Féin and the DUP agree on it and have been pressing the British and Irish governments to work up to it.

In the Assembly last month, Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said she and her DUP counterpart Arlene Foster had been lobbying Dublin and London on a two-islands approach to travel, but were encountering resistance from the Republic on sharing passenger data. She had the grace not to mention pointed fingers.

Relations at Stormont have since gone downhill, due to the Brexit sea border.

It is unfortunate that more Covid border tensions have been added to the mix.

The current and previous Irish governments have been far too ready to blame the Border or alleged Stormont problems for their own reluctance to control travel into the Republic.

This stance has been dubious enough while there have been no international flights into Belfast for months. It has become unsustainable with the whole UK introducing strict quarantine measures for travellers from everywhere except Ireland.

The Border is about to become irrelevant, certainly in terms of a risk to the Republic. Taking a unionist or nationalist position on opening or closing it involves a degree of ideological gymnastics as ludicrous as it is tasteless. It is an ideal opportunity for calm heads to reset the conversation.