The border dividing Northern Ireland from the South has been a problem for years. If it now becomes a land frontier between the UK and the EU, old sores will open up.by Ruth Dudley Edwards / November 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
After the Brexit vote on 23rd June, some Irish nationalists had a rush of blood to the head. The border that was seared through the island of Ireland nearly a century ago was finally going to dissolve. After the Northern Irish electorate had voted 56 per cent to “Remain” in the European Union, they fancied, it had become inevitable that the province would gravitate towards the pro-EU Irish Republic and away from the Brexit-voting English.
But then came the reality. Polls still showed that 63 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate would vote to remain in the UK. Then there is the small matter of EU members such as Spain, which have their own secessionist movements and are terrified of setting a precedent. Last but not least, there is the money: Northern Ireland depends on financial support from London, and it is unlikely the EU would be so generous. The days are gone when Irish republicans could earnestly put forward an economic policy which their constitutional nationalist critics had always ridiculed as: “Fuck off, and leave your wallet on the mantelpiece.”
So the border will remain—but it will change. The principal reason is that the 310-mile boundary with the Irish Republic is also the UK’s only land border and after Brexit, it will become its only land frontier with the EU. The history of this boundary being asked to do extra work has rarely been happy, and there are real anxieties again: John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, visited Ireland in October and insisted that Brexit should not be allowed to damage the push for peace in Northern Ireland.
The border has always been a source of tension and crime, as well as a symbol of territorial division. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, there has been a happy mix of relative peace, easy travel and tariff-free trade. Brexit could turn it back into the troublesome frontier that it has more typically been over the last 100 years. Anxious politicians want the border to stay soft, but the much-mooted “hard Brexit,” especially a British exit from the European single market, could make this impossible.
When he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Good Friday Agreement, David Trimble spoke of “that form of political evil that wants to perfect a person, a border, at any cost.” The Irish border is far from perfect; now it could well become less so as it changes. To make sense of what is likely to happen, it is important to grasp the varied practical meanings that a border can have—and how, in the Irish case, things have evolved in the past.
A cultural border has been present for almost four centuries. But this is also a political border, created in 1921, and made more entrenched after 1925. It has at times been an economic border, too, with customs posts. This existed from 1923, but gradually began to evaporate after both countries joined the EU in 1973. This border’s essential character, however, can be understood only through its history, which in too many accounts starts with complaints about the British government’s unjust partitioning of Ireland in 1921.
The reality is that the residents of Ireland were tribally partitioned well before then. The ultimate responsibility for creating the conditions could be laid at the door of James VI of Scotland, who in 1603—when he became James I—inherited the English and Irish crowns from Elizabeth I. Elizabeth had largely conquered Ireland, but James fell out with the chieftains of Ulster, the most rebellious and underdeveloped of the four provinces. Intent on pacifying it, in 1607 he confiscated their lands, restored the worst to the native Catholic, mainly Gaelic-speaking Irish, and granted the best to Protestant English (mostly Church of England) and Scots (mostly Presbyterian) planters. A deep divide set in. That great Whig historian, Thomas Macaulay, writing in the 19th century and deploying the uninhibited generalisations of his day, compared the temperaments of the Scots and the Irish:
“In perseverance, in self-command, in forethought, in all the virtues which conduce to success in life, the Scots have never been surpassed. The Irish, on the other hand, were distinguished by qualities which tend to make men interesting rather than prosperous. They were an ardent and impetuous race, easily moved to tears or to laughter, to fury or to love. Alone among the nations of northern Europe they had the susceptibility, the vivacity, the natural turn for acting and rhetoric, which are indigenous on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.”
These sweeping judgments echoed in the story of post-plantation Ulster. The settlers tended to cultivate land efficiently, build towns and prosper. The dispossessed Ulster “Irish” barely scratched a living but revelled in songs and poems expressing rage and sorrow. Then came the sectarian violence. An Ulster Catholic rebellion in 1641 resulted in the deaths of around 12,000 Protestant settlers. While many fled to England or Scotland, many refused to be intimidated and showed themselves to be just as merciless as the insurgents in combat. It marked the beginning of the distinctive Protestant Ulsterman’s psyche: the sense of being permanently under siege, alongside a famous tenacity.
By 1720, Scots Presbyterians were the majority in Ulster, though many would leave for America, resentful about being—like Roman Catholics—kept out of political power by the Anglican establishment. This did nothing to quell sectarian tension or to close the cultural and religious gulf between the tribes, most notoriously represented by Protestant “Orangemen” loyal to the crown, and agrarian secret Catholic groups like the Defenders. The relentlessly industrious Protestant work ethic held little attraction for Catholics. Many found it soulless, dreary and money-grubbing, and few found it inviting or inclusive. The industrial revolution made Belfast one of the UK’s most prosperous cities, but Catholics tended to be at the bottom of the heap.
It was the Irish famine, caused by five years of potato blight from 1845, that became the major scar on the Catholic psyche. One million people died of starvation or disease and another million emigrated, reducing the population by close to a third. Ineffectual government relief was gradually reduced due to a political belief in laissez-faire economics. The results were devastating. There was little trust between unionist Protestants and nationalist Catholics—they were different peoples. The impetus for Home Rule would soon be in motion, and it was inevitable that the two tribes would react to it in very different ways.
Edward Carson led the Irish Unionist Parliamentary Party. His “Ulster Covenant” of 1912, a terse document, promised to use “all means necessary to defeat the present conspiracy to set up a Home Rule Parliament.” Then, during the Easter 1916 rebellion, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a tiny secret revolutionary society, provided their own iconic text with the “Proclamation of the Irish Republic.” Anyone trying to understand the cultural differences between the tribes would learn much from the two documents. The Covenant, signed by almost half a million people, began: “Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster as well as of the whole of Ireland, subversive of our civil and religious freedom, destructive of our citizenship and perilous to the unity of the Empire…” The Proclamation, signed by seven men from the Irish Republican Brotherhood, was as different in style as it was in content. It begins: “In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.” Jaw-droppingly audacious, it pronounced the “Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman.” It thanked “gallant allies in Europe,” meaning the Germans, whom more than 200,000 Irishmen from both tribes were then fighting in the trenches.
The success of Sinn Féin in most of Ireland and of unionists in the counties of Ulster in the 1918 election—as well as the onset of an Anglo-Irish guerrilla war in 1919—made formal partition inevitable. The 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which came into effect in May 1921, aimed to create within the United Kingdom two self-governing Irish territories that, through co-operation, might achieve eventual reunification. Unionists had settled for Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone—six Ulster counties, rather than the nine that dated from the plantation period. This secured a religious mix that made the territory politically viable. In December 1922 the Anglo-Irish Treaty created the Irish Free State, but allowed Northern Ireland to opt out.
The new border had a blood-stained birth: savage sectarian violence caused refugees to pour over the new divide in both directions. In an attempt to address glaring anomalies that put whole communities on the wrong side of the line, a Boundary Commission was set up. Its recommendation that 286 square miles be transferred to the Free State and 77 to Northern Ireland was leaked and upset everyone: the report was suppressed and in December 1925 the British, the Free State and the Northern Irish governments confirmed the existing border.
In effect, the Republic became a Catholic state and Northern Ireland a Protestant one. Those who saw themselves marooned in the wrong country were aggrieved, but the Protestants in the Free State either left or accepted the inevitable. This was not the case in many Northern Irish Catholic enclaves, where historic resentments against the planters were exacerbated by a sense of abandonment. South Armagh was the starkest example. In Fermanagh and Tyrone, where nationalists were in the majority, there were many irreconcilables determined to destroy Northern Ireland. Sean O’Callaghan, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) gunman during the 1970s who later turned informer, illustrated the festering resentment: “To stand with an old farmer on a hillside in Pomeroy in County Tyrone while he pointed out Protestant farms, ‘stolen from us by those black bastards’ is to understand the emotive power of blood and earth.” (The term “black Protestant” was a tribal insult aimed mostly at Methodists and Presbyterians.)
For all their bitter differences, the UK and the Free State both felt it desirable that citizens should travel freely between north and south. In 1923, for immigration purposes, the Irish Free State was deemed part of the UK: the Common Travel Area was formalised in 1925. As a result, passports have never been required to cross the border.
But security considerations have often made identity checks necessary. With Ireland neutral in the Second World War and the IRA pro-German, free movement was suspended in 1939. The Irish Republic came into existence in 1949 and free movement was restored only in 1952. It has remained dependent on Ireland staying in line with British immigration policy and out of the Schengen Agreement, which allows the movement of EU citizens across the borders of other member states. Since 1997, despite relative peace, the ideal of free travel has again been compromised because Ireland has operated one-way selective identity and immigration controls on arrivals from the UK.
While trade and convenience encouraged a soft border, the IRA has been a constant reason to harden it. Its incursions from the south included “Operation Harvest,” from 1956-62, which led to the closing of 200 roads, causing great disruption in normal life on both sides. The campaign’s failure and the subsequent crackdown eased the situation, for a while. But then came the rabble-rousing of the Unionist hardliner Ian Paisley, the capturing in 1969 by the IRA of the civil rights movement, and the decades of terror that followed. This was the start of the Troubles.
Violence inevitably meant queues, security checks and resentment at the border. The sectarian blood-letting was so bad that, when the UK and the Republic both acceded to the EEC (as the EU was then known), on 1st January 1973, border security was not immediately eased. Neither did the economic border disappear overnight. Indeed, it was only with the implementation of the single market, not completed until new year 1993, that the last customs posts came down.
The border has always been fertile ground for corruption, and a place where authorities struggled to get a grip. Even before it was drawn, the area was contentious. In 1920 the Northern Irish government set up a Special Constabulary to replace local vigilante groups that grew up amid the sectarian turmoil. The mostly Protestant force, with strong local knowledge, confronted IRA activity until 1970. It was then replaced by the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), which was initially 18 per cent Catholic. But over time this became another byword for sectarianism, not least because the IRA specially targeted Catholic police and soldiers, so their numbers fell away.
Through the Troubles, the most notorious border area was South Armagh, and no one represented its problems like Thomas “Slab” Murphy. Now 67, he has been a target for law enforcement agencies on both sides of the border for decades. It has been alleged that he was Chief of Staff of the IRA and that he ran a huge smuggling empire. Whatever the detail, it is fair to say—in the Irish phrase—that even the dogs on the street knew much of what he was up to. His base was a farmhouse that straddled the border between Northern Ireland’s County Armagh and the Irish Republic’s County Louth. When the Garda came calling at his front door or the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) at the back, Murphy would simply stroll into the other jurisdiction.
The South Armagh Provisional IRA Brigade was notorious for its ruthlessness: it has been reported that a custom-built torture chamber was discovered in the it it country, near the border. As journalist Toby Harnden wrote in his book Bandit Country: “The very mention of South Armagh sent a shiver down the spine of any one of the tens of thousands of soldiers who have served there since the Troubles began.” Between 1970 and 1997, four army helicopters were shot down and police recorded almost 1,300 bombings and 1,200 shootings within a radius of 10 miles from South Armagh’s geographic centre. The devices planted in the Docklands, Manchester and Bishopsgate were all the work of local bombmakers. At the cost of just 10 of their number, the Brigade (half of whom lived in the Republic) murdered 165 police and soldiers during that period, and 75 civilians also died, many at their hands. In 1976, despite the IRA being on ceasefire, in response to sectarian murders committed by loyalist paramilitaries, South Armagh Provisionals stopped a workers’ bus, released the solitary Catholic and shot the 11 Protestants on board. Only one survived.
Paramilitaries could commit crimes in the South Armagh badlands and skip across the border into the Republic. And because cumbersome procedures in Irish law protected those accused of anything that could be deemed a “political” offence in the North, it was almost impossible to extradite. On rare occasions, the Republic also experienced problems in extraditing loyalist suspects. After 2004, the European Arrest Warrant sped up the process no end. Today, however, this is only one of the issues that will need to be sorted out in the Brexit negotiations.
Most of the Irish electorate were ambivalent about the IRA, disapproving of violence, furious whenever it spread to the Republic, condemnatory of atrocities like the 1987 bombing of Enniskillen on Remembrance Day, and yet harboured a sneaking regard for the bravery of “the lads.” Between 1969 and 1981, 82 arrest warrants were sent by the RUC to the Garda in terrorist-related cases. Only one was successful. Though some judges made an exception for particularly vile attacks, the perception was that the Republic was a safe haven. Throughout the Troubles, the security forces from both jurisdictions rarely acted in concert: strategically-placed IRA moles tipped Murphy off about planned raids. He reigned virtually unchallenged until peace broke out. Only then, when the IRA more or less went out of business, did the two governments jointly address the evil he represented, and to crack down on the lawless South Armagh borderlands.
In 2006, when police, soldiers and customs officers from both sides of the border raided Murphy’s farm they uncovered bin bags crammed with banknotes, a fleet of oil tankers and a network of storage tanks for diesel laundering—a massive racket. In the end Murphy was brought to the all-judge Special Criminal Court to face, in the time-honoured tradition of Al Capone, a relatively modest charge of tax evasion. In February he was sentenced to 18 months in jail. But the mystique of the untouchable, invincible border baron went down with him.
Shortly after Arlene Foster, the leader of the unionist DUP, became Northern Ireland’s First Minister, she gave an interview about her childhood on the Fermanagh border. She was eight, she said, when Seamus McElwaine, a notorious IRA killer who lived across the border in Monaghan, shot her father, a farmer and UDR part-timer. Although he survived, they had to leave the farm. She told how Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, now the Deputy First Minister, in an oration at McElwaine’s grave in 1986, after he had been killed by the Special Air Service, had described him as a “freedom fighter murdered by a British terrorist.” But the “past is the past” said Foster. She would work with McGuinness.
“I backed Brexit. But there is hurt and fear among my countrymen now. Britain must minimise the damage”
In the referendum, the DUP campaigned for Brexit, while Sinn Féin, anti-EU since its inception, did a volte-face and went the other way. It now claims that Northern Ireland’s “Remain” vote should allow it to stay in the EU. But Foster and McGuinness are pragmatists, who managed to agree on a joint letter to Theresa May expressing the province’s priorities. Most important was the openness of the border, and they both welcomed the prime minister’s “stated determination” that it would not become “an impediment to the movement of people, goods and services… become a catalyst for illegal activity or compromise… the arrangements relating to criminal justice and tackling organised crime,” or encourage those who wanted to undermine the peace process.
That could be a tall order. Ireland still contains bitter, vengeful, tribal warriors who see Sinn Féin as sell-outs, not pragmatists. Mostly, they are outfoxed by the security forces north and south, but people are still killed, injured and intimidated in the name of Irish freedom. Irish nationalists feel angry that potential damage to the Irish economy or the peace process featured very little in the referendum campaign. The good news is that, despite occasional hysterical outbursts, these days there is an assumption that both governments are concerned for the well-being of all.
Amid the complexities and dilemmas of Brexit, and with the wider sense of flux brought by the Trump victory, London must remember that whenever the potential is there for politics to infect those territories, it tends to happen. As often as not, the Irish boundary has been a running sore. The fearful predict a new economic border between the UK and Ireland. With the UK out of the EU and bent on border controls, Ireland could come under new pressure to join Schengen. That could in turn necessitate passport checks with the UK, to avoid Ireland becoming a “back door” into the UK. Through such means hard Brexit could produce a hard border. The Republic, however, has been a model EU member, even through the harsh treatment meted out by Brussels after the 2008 financial crisis. There could thus be support for its claim to be a special case because of good behaviour, the peace process and Irish partition.
So the worst may not happen. Nonetheless, there are understandable fears of a fresh outbreak of the old resentment that traditionally dogged the Anglo-Irish relationship: mistrust could set in as cross-border European rules erode. The EU, and the legally distinct but culturally connected Council of Europe human rights framework, made Britain and Ireland part of a single family of nations. That eased reconciliation, and the peace process. A European identity suited the Irish culturally, but it now turns out, did not suit the more sceptical English. Unless Ireland decides to follow the UK out of the EU, which for the moment seems most unlikely, there will be myriad practical headaches to resolve. (Though there are encouraging signs of new innovative technological thinking.) And there will be one less protection against the old suspicions that have so often bedevilled London and Dublin’s relations, and the old enmity between the island’s two tribes.
An Irish citizen and a British resident, I voted for Brexit after much soul-searching because I thought the EU was a busted flush and Brexit was in the interests of the majority of people in these islands and, indeed, Europe. Now, watching the hurt and fear among my countrymen, I feel strongly that the British government owes it to its small neighbour to make every effort to minimise the collateral damage.
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