As complex as the border issue is, there is something more fundamental at play in the latest wranglings, argues Irish journalist JASON WALSH
Supposedly solved in December last year, Brexit has once again crashed against the rocks of the Irish question. The Irish question… to which the Irish answer has always been: there is no Irish question, there is only the British question in Ireland.
The United Kingdom is being torn apart, Brexiteers are warning, with the country’s enemies in Brussels using the willing Irish as a wedge to drive the nation apart. Writing in the Daily Telegraph recently Charles Moore said: ‘If the representative of a foreign power (or powers) says that your country should be split for the greater convenience of that power (or powers), your reaction, if you are a normal person, is to get angry.’
Moore must have some insight, then, into what it is like to be Irish, as our country was partitioned by Britain in 1920-21 against the wishes of the people, as democratically expressed in the 1918 general election. As it happens, Moore is merely echoing the comments of Theresa May, who said of EU plans to keep Northern Ireland as part of the EU customs territory: ‘No UK prime minister could ever agree.’
Leaping into the deep end, Tory MP and former Brexit minister David Jones accused the EU of attempting to ‘annex’ Northern Ireland – but annex from whom? It’s not as though British sovereignty in Ireland is uncontested to begin with.
Still, with the caveat that partition is not history in Ireland, instead being very much a live political issue, let us leave it aside for a moment and instead concentrate on the facts at hand. When it comes to Brexit and the intra-Irish border, a morass of competing interests are at work: the EU is attempting minimise the impact of Brexit on the rest of the bloc, including Ireland; the British government is trying to draw clean lines in the sand between itself as the EU; and the Irish government is attempting to ensure there is no disruption to the flow of goods from Europe, most of which travel through the UK, as well as ensure its citizens in Northern Ireland are not left out in the cold. In Northern Ireland, pro-British forces are seizing the opportunity to reduce the significance of Ireland and Irishness in the political worldview, while pro-Irish forces are desperately trying to cling on to their connection to the Irish nation. Meanwhile, the Labour Party, which has its own proposals for customs alignment with the EU despite being led by a life-long eurosceptic, is seeking to inflict maximum damage on May’s weak government.
Amid all this cacophony of claims and agendas, it is worth establishing some perspective. The fact is that a so-called hard border will not result in a return to war. Ireland’s conflicts were fought about sovereignty, not micro-details such as customs checkpoints or the harmonisation of standards for building materials. That does not mean, however, that the border does not matter.
If the British government does have any serious ideas on what to do about the border, no-one else has a clue what they are.
All we have is the spectre of some kind of techno-frontier composed of surveillance cameras armed with vehicle number plate and face recognition technology; an idea enthusiastically promoted by foreign secretary Boris Johnson. But such suggestions remain embarrassingly light on detail, while Johnson’s comparison between the border and London’s congestion charge zone merely achieved his trademark outcome of offending and outraging those actually affected by his policies. The inescapable truth is that, every day, up to 30,000 people cross Ireland’s 275 unguarded border crossings – a greater number of crossings than on the EU’s entire eastern frontier – and no-one knows whether, or how, this will be able to continue. Theresa May’s latest suggestion, of a border similar to the heavily fortified US-Canadian border, is most certainly not what Irish people want to hear.
The other reason the issue matters is that while it remains unresolved, so does so much else in the region. Brexit ultras Dan Hannan and Kate Hoey, herself from Northern Ireland, have said that the whole unseemly mess means the Belfast Agreement – the 1998 deal which sealed the end of the shooting war – needs to be re-examined. Hannan and Hoey are right, but only in the sense that a stopped clock is right twice a day.
The Agreement was always a compromise rather than a permanent settlement, and part of that compromise was that Ireland would water down its constitutional claim to Northern Ireland in return for a future referendum on Irish unity. Different attitudes toward the EU prevail in Britain and Ireland, but as long as both were in the club no-one in Northern Ireland was discommoded. This is what Brexit has changed. For many British, the EU represents diminution of sovereignty: the imposition of pettifogging regulations and rule by a foreign power.
Ireland, which achieved independence only in the 20th century after a bitter and bloody war with Britain, knows all about rule by a foreign power.
Thus, for the Irish, EU membership means greater sovereignty, as, whatever its flaws – and these flaws were experienced full-force under the diktat of the European Commission and European Central Bank in the years following the 2008 economic crisis – the EU allows Ireland to establish itself as a sovereign entity in its own right, no longer a vassal state in thrall to its overbearing neighbour.
It it is not the case that the Irish are in love with the EU. They’re not; they simply see it as relatively uncontroversial and a net benefit, overall. When British politicians and commentators try to view politics in the Republic of Ireland, or among Northern Irish republicans, through a UK-centric prism it badly distorts the picture because Ireland is, despite its many similarities to the UK, a foreign country – and a significant chunk of the population of Northern Ireland want to join that country. Being Irish is, in this regard, not unlike being Canadian: everyone thinks you’re an American, including the Americans, but even when they’re trying to hug you what they think is a warm embrace is, to you, more like the cold embrace of death. This is why even when Brexiteers make friendly overtures to the Irish they are met with irritation and scepticism.
For Ireland, the EU means foreign-direct investment directly linked to the single market, and a seat at the top table of diplomatic affairs. For Britain, it means being told what to do by unelected bureaucrats. Neither view is entirely correct, and neither is entirely without merit, but conditions in the two countries are so different that they could never converge.
In Northern Ireland, this division is, more or less, replicated along lines of political allegiance, with most though not all pro-British unionist voters supporting Brexit, and pro-Irish republican voters rejecting it. Just as it is not love of the EU that drives the Irish nor, these days anyway, is it hatred of Britain. But to be forcibly wrenched from their fellow countrymen, indeed from their birthright and nationality itself, would be too much for many Irish to bear.
If Britain offers practical responses to the tedious technical question of customs and trade then the whole affair may yet settle down, but while there is no danger of widespread violence erupting once again in Ireland, hearts have once again hardened. The answer to the question of just which distant, imperious and imperial power – Brussels or London – it is that is ruining everything for everyone is now a matter of national allegiance.
The EU was, at most, a background player in Northern Ireland’s 1998 settlement, such as it was, but EU membership for both Britain and Ireland was the territory on which the settlement was made: customs posts had already disappeared in 1993 following the Maastricht treaty, and the eradication of the militarised frontier after the peace accord saw the border cease to exist in any meaningful sense.
Brexit threatens to bring that border back, even if mostly in a symbolic sense – but if Brexit teaches us anything, it should be that the realm of the symbolic is not merely a phantasmagoria.