Brexit is all about borders and barriers. Peace in Ireland is not

The land border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland exists in maps but is barely felt in everyday life. Brian Lawless / Associated Press
The land border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland exists in maps but is barely felt in everyday life. Brian Lawless / Associated Press

To escape the murders and bombings in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, every few weeks I would drive between the two largest cities on the island of Ireland, Belfast and Dublin. Nowadays this is a short drive on good roads, improved, in part, by money from the European Union. But when I lived in Belfast this was a hazardous journey across a highly fortified and dangerous international border. About an hour or so south of Belfast drivers entered “bandit country”.

It was an area where the Provisional IRA mounted bombing raids on customs posts and shot at British soldiers who defended the frontier. Army bases were fortified against the IRA’s favourite weapons, machine guns, sniper rifles, bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. Police patrols were in bulletproof cars. These were uncomfortable in summer since the windows did not open and air-conditioning in Ireland is not a priority. Most Northern Ireland residents witnessed bombs exploding, heard gunfire, knew victims, attended funerals.

Right now I am spending Christmas with relatives southwest of Dublin in the beautiful countryside on the river Shannon. Today if I choose to drive north to see friends in Belfast, the biggest hazard on the road is other drivers, bad weather, maybe a stray cow. What has changed is that Republican terrorist groups fighting to make Northern Ireland part of the Irish Republic, and pro-Unionist terrorist groups fighting to keep Northern Ireland British, have stopped the violence.


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It’s a messy compromise, difficult but mostly peaceful, that has lasted 20 years. No one I know in Ireland, north or south, Protestant or Catholic, wants to return to the bad old days of “the Troubles”. Some of those I knew from those times — on both sides — have blood on their hands. Most have grown accustomed to better times where it is possible to go shopping without fear of assassination, to drive home without being hijacked at gunpoint, to send the children to school without fear of a riot. Of course there remain a few malcontents with bitterness in their hearts, who believe in some way their side can “win”, but most on the island of Ireland regard a return to the Troubles as stupidity on stilts.

The reason I mention all this is because negotiations will be renewed in the New Year to detach the United Kingdom from the European Union and the Irish border issue has not been settled. The land border separating Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic exists in maps but not in everyday reality. On many border roads it is not even clear which country you are in. People come and go. Cows, horses, sheep and farmers walk casually across a frontier between two EU countries.

But 17 million British voters chose Brexit, and one key reason was to enable the UK to police its borders, keep out European immigrants and stop free movement of people. Brexit logic dictates a hard border in Ireland. But political logic and common sense say this would be disastrous for tourism and business. It also risks reviving the violent campaign of a few terrorist dinosaurs who have never reconciled themselves to the idea of peace.

British, Irish, EU and Northern Ireland politicians have papered over the obvious cracks. Most agree to no hard border, and they are right. After 700 years of fighting, it is time for peace. No hard border is the only solution. But where does that leave Brexit? A British official tasked with policing British borders told me that unless some hard border with Ireland was policed aggressively, nothing would stop a Polish plumber, a Romanian roofer or even a criminal from somewhere else in Europe — all citizens of the EU — travelling to France, catching a ferry to Ireland and then taking the train to Belfast. Once in Belfast — a great city of the United Kingdom — it’s a short boat ride to England or Scotland.

Brexit, in other words, is all about borders and barriers. Peace in Ireland is not. I have relatives and friends on both sides of the Irish border. Some are Catholic, some Protestant; some are strongly British Unionist and some Irish Nationalist. As I watch the river Shannon flowing to the Atlantic ocean, I cannot help wondering at the English inability to understand Ireland, north or south. For centuries English politicians have debated what they call “the Irish Question”. They mean, what can be done to stop terrorism and political unrest which has lasted centuries?

But in 2018 forget “the Irish Question”. Concentrate on the “English Question”, or rather three English questions. First, do the people of England who voted for Brexit really want a hard border in Ireland, even if it is disruptive at best and at worst, could lead to divisions and violence once again? And if they do not want that, how exactly will a soft border actually work? And finally, if the new border arrangements cannot stop unwanted people coming to Britain, what exactly was the point in voting for Brexit?

Published: December 25, 2017 01:56 PM


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