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Newton Emerson: Unionists don't understand the resentment over Border checkpoints

In the Troubles, Unionists found checkpoints as reassuring as nationalists found them intimidating

We have had three demonstrations in recent weeks of nationalist neuralgia over a post-Brexit border.

A short clip of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative Brexiteer, proposing to "continue historic arrangements . . . just as we had during the Troubles to have people inspected" earned a horrified rebuke from the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, among thousands of others.

Nobody seemed assuaged to discover this clip was from a panel debate in April 2016, two months before the EU referendum, when every Brexiteer was shooting the breeze and the Border issue had barely arisen. Rees-Mogg has long since moved on to insisting he wants a completely open Border under any circumstances.

Last week saw the launch of Derry Girls Against Borders, a campaign that aims to bring together women from all walks of life and which garnered considerable media attention. Its stated goal is to oppose a hard border in Ireland and down the Irish Sea – a scrupulously cross-community objective that points to the UK staying in the customs union and single market, or some technical fudge to that effect.



However, in publicity for the launch, organisers spoke of their “anxiety” at the return of Border checkpoints, and recalled family members being frightened and humiliated by soldiers during the Troubles. This is despite free movement of people being the one issue London, Dublin and Brussels do not foresee as a major problem.

Three weeks ago, Belfast-based lobby group the Committee for the Administration of Justice claimed a new Border Security Bill passing through Westminster will introduce a one-mile “militarised” buffer zone where “roving patrols can stop and search any person”.

Sinn Féin and SDLP politicians were aghast, asking if people in Border areas would face daily harassment and questioning on their own doorsteps.

In fact, the one-mile buffer zone has existed for 18 years. Its operation is so unobtrusive that nobody had noticed it.

What all these panics have in common is the spectre of security checkpoints. It is a prospect that causes nationalists and unionists to talk past each other and suspect each other’s motives, because each side experienced that feature of the Troubles so differently. Crudely put, unionists found checkpoints as reassuring as nationalists found them intimidating and offensive.

Ironically, reassurance was often their principal purpose.

Nationalist resentment

Soldiers picking up on nationalist resentment, or just noticing Catholic names on driving licences, could behave boorishly, aggressively or worse – and every time they did this, a whole set of family and friends inherited a story of mistreatment that has built up into an entire community’s folk memory, as evidenced in much of the reaction to the Rees-Mogg clip.

Unionists simply do not grasp the extent of this, and nationalists do not realise the extent to which it is not grasped – as shown by the Derry Girls, launching their cross-community campaign with stories guaranteed to get unionist backs up.

One of the clearest ways this has poisoned the Brexit debate is the widespread nationalist conviction that the DUP wants a hard border, checkpoints included, to turn the clock back to some sort of fortress Northern Ireland.

Contentious Border

The DUP was forced to deny this, once again, after the Rees-Mogg clip. There is an element within the DUP, aligned with Brexiteers at Westminster, that bought into the ideology of a buccaneering free-trade UK making its own way in the world, and no doubt distinguishing itself from Ireland in the process. But even they never wanted a contentious Border, for goods let alone people. Like Rees-Mogg in 2016, they assumed there would be no fuss over minimal infrastructure and have since been greatly chastened to learn otherwise. The rest of the DUP, from the leadership down, have always wanted to preserve free movement of goods and people. They backed the EU referendum assuming it would be lost.

Nationalist suspicions are heightened by the DUP-Tory deal, which is what made Rees-Mogg’s comments on checkpoints so explosive.

Terrorist targets

Unionist suspicions have been heightened by the Irish Government’s approach to customs infrastructure: first planning for it, then stopping plans on the grounds it would create terrorist targets, although it is implausible that dissident republicans – the only likely attackers of such facilities – would target them inside the Republic.

This has fed back into the unionist view that nationalists cite Border infrastructure and the need to protect it as an excuse to advance political goals, be that a soft Brexit or a united Ireland.

Ultimate blame lies with the British government for being unable to explain what kind of Brexit it wants, preventing London or anyone else from giving detailed reassurance that Troubles-style checkpoints are not coming back. But there is blame to go around – debate over tariffs and regulations has been conflated with security to a ludicrous, irresponsible degree.

Whatever shape Brexit takes, it can be made clear now that terrorist threats will be dealt with as they are dealt with already – by intelligence-led policing across Ireland.