With the Irish border central to Brexit, this is a timely survey of a question always vexed but often wished away in Westminster.
The Labour MP Nye Bevan, fed up with the “old-fashioned arguments” and “vested interests” of Northern Irish unionist MPs, told the House of Commons in 1954 that “we ought no longer to be oppressed by their presence and have our legislative process interfered with by their votes”. More than 60 years on, the survival of Theresa May’s government and the future of Brexit lie in the hands of such hardline unionists. The Irish border backstop required by the EU is now at the heart of parliamentary wrangling. That border, created to take “the Irish question” out of British politics, remains one of its deepest and least understood problems, so there could hardly be a more opportune time for Diarmaid Ferriter, one of Ireland’s leading historians, to offer this clear and concise history.
The border had British parents and Irish midwives. A century ago, Ireland was convulsed by a decade of war and revolution, with increasingly militant nationalism and unionism leading to sectarian civil war. Unable to justify increasingly brutal military repression against democratic rejection of British rule and a guerrilla war of independence, Westminster separated the six north-eastern counties with large Protestant unionist populations, and negotiated a treaty with a new Irish Free State.
Partition – to be tried again by the retreating empire in Palestine and the Punjab – was a victory for no one, but both sides decided that “what we have we hold”. Ferriter shows fault on all sides: Northern Ireland became a bastion of Protestant sectarianism; independent Ireland washed its hands of its northern counterpart and adopted an insular “partitionist mindset”; and Britain turned a blind eye to the misrule of a region it saw as, in Ferriter’s words, a “an expensive nuisance”. (Harold Wilson was harsher: northern Ireland was “sponging on Westminster and British democracy”.)
In Ulster, however, the border could not be ignored. The line was arbitrary, indeed, as Ferriter says, “ridiculous”, cutting through the lives of communities over its 500km of, to use Margaret Thatcher’s phrase, “kinks and wiggles”. With only a few “approved” crossings, Ferriter argues, there were “profound economic consequences” for places and people, and widespread smuggling of everything from livestock to diesel, alcohol to condoms. Privately, senior British officials thought the border “artificial and absurd”, but Ferriter notes that they generally “spoke out of both sides of their mouths”. Winston Churchill (“flushed with drink”) telegrammed Éamon de Valera in 1941 that it was “Now or Never. A Nation Once Again” in an attempt to bring Ireland into the second world war, but partition had become entrenched.
A failure to engage with unionist thinking was, Ferriter argues, “the Achilles heel of Irish nationalism”, but in the 1960s reformist Taoiseach Seán Lemass believed that with economic development and European cooperation “partition will become so obvious an anachronism that all sensible people will want to bring it to an end”. Unionists were not convinced: “Who is going to pay for our welfare state?”, asked Northern Prime Minister Terence O’Neill. Yet there was a “thaw in the Irish Cold War”, and an Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement overcame unionist concerns about “a border in the Irish Sea”.
In the late 60s the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association demanded an end to discrimination and “British rights for British subjects”. But the harsh repression of its marches, and the organisation of unionist counter-marches, helped spark violence that would last for decades. Sectarian rioting sent thousands of Catholic refugees across the border, the Provisional IRA launched a vicious terrorist campaign, and the British army responded with a “dirty war”, at times in collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. The border became a military zone, its roads cratered or blocked by checkpoints and listening posts.
The murders of the Dublin-based Miami Showband after a cross-border gig in 1975 “illustrated the truly awful scale of border brutality”, and the wounds of the Troubles bled through generations. In Britain there remained disturbing ignorance, even at the top: Thatcher suggested to senior officials that “a big movement of population”, like that precipitated by Oliver Cromwell, would solve the border problem, or that it could be straightened to make it “easier to defend”.
Courage and diplomacy would eventually find a route out of tragedy, and despite the horrific Real IRA bombing of Omagh that followed the 1998 Good Friday agreement (a car bomb driven across the border), a shared peace was built. Ferriter persuasively emphasises the importance of EU membership to the peace process, and the economic and cultural benefits of the open border it created. It seemed, as Protestant Irish essayist Hubert Butler had hoped in 1955, that the border “might become meaningless and drop off painlessly like a strip of plaster from a wound that had healed, or else survive in some modified form as a definition which distinguishes but does not divide”.
Enter the constitutional arsonists of Brexit, dragging Northern Ireland out of the EU against its democratic will after a campaign in which the region was, as so often in British politics, completely ignored. If the UK leaves the single market and customs union, controls on the border will be legally unavoidable. The EU’s new western frontier will have more crossings in one corner of Ireland than it does across the whole of eastern Europe, and police have warned that new border infrastructure would become an immediate target for violent dissidents.
A backstop would keep the border open “unless and until” a future solution is agreed, but the DUP insists ominously on a “blood red” line against any special arrangement for Northern Ireland. Brexiters oppose the alternative UK-wide backstop designed by the government, blithely dismissing the border as a non-issue or promising alternatives based on “magical thinking”. Ferriter’s judicious book shows that such recklessness, such “contemptuous arrogance”, is nothing new, and that it has always been the ordinary people of Northern Ireland who have paid its price. They deserve better.