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Brexit and the Irish border

Updated Wednesday, 31 May 2017

How are Brexit and the Irish border connected? Dr Philp O'Sullivan reflects on the changing geographical relationship between the UK and Ireland.

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The European union and Irish flags

Brexit and the Irish border: an introduction

I started writing this article on February 1st, 2017, as the House of Commons voted to trigger Article 50 starting the process of withdrawal from the EU. One week previously the UK Supreme Court confirmed that the so-called “devolved nations” of the UK, namely Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will have no veto on the process of Brexit. The Westminster government is currently indicating that the UK will leave the European single market and also the customs union. As the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would become the only land border between the UK and the European Union (EU) and all EU citizens would retain the right to travel freely to Ireland, this surely means that the only way to prevent free movement of goods and people between the EU and UK is the re-establishment of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Meanwhile in the United States president Donald Trump has begun to build a border wall between the US and Mexico. After decades of globalisation and the free flow of people, goods and services, reinforced borders are the new order all of a sudden. How are Brexit and the Irish border connected? How do we make sense of this?

Students who prevaricate over putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) when trying to start an assignment might be slightly comforted by the fact that I have been intending to write about the implications of Brexit for the island of Ireland since the referendum on June 23rd, 2016. But in one way or another I have been thinking about the Irish border since my early teens. Born in Dublin to Irish parents, my family moved to England for my Dad’s job in the early 1970s. Born in Ireland, raised in England, I have now lived in Belfast for 25 years, so issues of national identity, where you belong, and where people think you belong,  were impressed upon me from quite an early age.

The Irish border revisited 

Firstly, a potted (imperfect) history of the border for those unfamiliar with Ireland. The full history of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales is complex, but by 1800 the island of Ireland was a single political entity under British rule. After a failed military Easter Rising in 1916 in Dublin the 1918 general election gave victory to the political party Sinn Fein, on the platform of independence from Britain. However this move to an independent Irish state was fiercely opposed by the majority Protestant population  in the north-east of Ireland in the province of Ulster, whose primary identity was firmly British. They did not want to be governed by a Dublin Parliament and were also worried about the influence on social policy of the Catholic Church. There were economic concerns too: Belfast and the north-east of Ireland was an industrial powerhouse based on shipbuilding and linen industries whilst the rural economy of the rest of the island was poorer, with no real industrial or manufacturing base. So in addition to religious and cultural differences, protestant north east Ulster had economic reasons for wanting to divide itself from the less economically developed south. Faced with a real prospect of civil war the 1920 Government of Ireland Act partitioned the island between the 26 counties of the Irish Free State and the 6 counties of Northern Ireland. The drawing of this 310 mile border was contested from the start and subsequent review by the 1925 Irish Boundary Commission changed nothing: once in place the border was set.   

When a border is not always a true border 

Brexit and the Irish border illustration. Map, colour. The counties of the island of Ireland. The current counties of Northern Ireland are in red, whilst the historic counties of Ulster that are not in Northern Ireland are shown in green. The counties of Ireland. The six counties now constituting Northern Ireland are shown in red. The remaining three counties from the historic definition of Ulster are shown in green.

There are well-known geographical anomalies with this border. The Republic of Ireland is also informally known as ‘the South’. Even whether the S in ‘south’ should be lower case or upper case has political connotations.   The ‘South’ includes county Donegal, actually the most northern county on the island of Ireland. Ulster comprises nine counties, but only six of these are actually in Northern Ireland; Antrim, Armagh, Tyrone, Derry/ Londonderry, Fermanagh and Down. The three remaining Ulster counties, Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal are in the Republic. The drawing up of the border in 1921 disappointed many nationalists and catholics now included in Northern Ireland; for example the city of Derry / Londonderry  and  two of the six counties, Tyrone and Fermanagh had catholic nationalist majorities. Similarly many protestants and unionists who did not wish to be part of the southern Irish state in the border counties of the South also felt abandoned. 

Since 1921 the border became the physical manifestation of the division between those who wished to remain in the United Kingdom and those who wanted a united Ireland; a 32 county state independent from Britain. Many unionists firm allegiance was to the British crown and to what they only referred to as ‘the mainland’ of the island of Britain. In contrast, an IRA campaign from 1956 to 1962 attacked the border and is still known as ‘the border campaign’. What became known as ‘the troubles’ or conflict in Northern Ireland from 1968 to 1994 focused on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, and some of the worst sectarian killings took place in border areas. 

Europe and peace  

In 1973 the UK and Ireland simultaneously joined the European Economic Community (now EU). John Hume, leader of the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party), then the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, forcibly argued that as both the UK and the Republic were now partners in a wider European partnership and union, this reduced the political and psychological significance of the border. If the continent of Europe, which witnessed horrific world wars in the 20th century came come closer together to cooperate, this placed the Irish-British conflict – symbolised by the border and partition - into a new context. Then the peace process began with the 1994 IRA ceasefire and the signing of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in 1998. Improved relations and increased cooperation between the British and Irish governments as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement meant that British-Irish relations were at an historical high. In a sense normal politics, though still with failings, returned to Northern Ireland. The divisions which fuelled the violent ethno-national struggle and which claimed over 3,500 lives, was arguably becoming less relevant with each passing year.    

As the 21st century started, the globalised age of the internet promised a world without borders. The imperfect but successful peace process in Northern Ireland showed that historical and geographical disputes could be accommodated and overcome. Brexit and the Irish border in a new, vvisible variety threaten to undermine the improved relations and re-impose the invisible border that had become anonymous.  Ironically the need for a re-established border, with all its negative implications, does not represent the will of the people in Northern Ireland; they voted 56% to remain. It is arguably an increased sense of English nationalism aligned to concerns of immigration in England which led to Brexit. For those considering the UK as a union of four nations, the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland and in Scotland (68% voted to remain) are being ignored. To those in Northern Ireland who consider themselves Irish, Brexit is seen as a diminishing both their Irish and European identity. Furthermore, a vibrant English centred nationalism could weaken the more tolerant overarching British political identity has bound the four nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together.  

Brexit and the Irish border: fluid identities

There is still time to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit and the Irish border such as physical immigration checks and custom posts. A common travel area is still in place, but a new border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will once again become the visible manifestation of the tangible, political separation between the two parts of the island of Ireland, and between the UK and the European Union. A physical border as the renewed symbol of partition could yet be re-established. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland, agreed by the Good Friday Agreement, had been parked and essentially fudged, you can now drive from Belfast to Dublin and only know you have crossed the border when the traffic sign changes the speed limit from miles per hour to kilometres per hour. If you couldn’t notice it, maybe it didn't matter after all anymore. The Good Friday Agreement allowed people in Northern Ireland to choose Irish, British, or even both as their national identity and to hold passports from Ireland, Britain, or one of each. Now that the UK, including Northern Ireland of course, is making steps to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol and leave the EU, the separateness and binary otherness of the UK and Ireland has been spectacularly amplified.  

For an example of Brexit and the Irish border amplifying differences, take Rory McIlroy, arguably the world’s greatest golfer, a role model and face of a new successful outward looking Northern Ireland. He considers himself Northern Irish and British, but he played amateur golf for Ireland as the sport is organised on an all island basis. He will not play in the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan because he refuses to be forced to choose between representing either Britain or Ireland. He will not choose so he will not participate. Being put in one box, or under one flag, still matters profoundly in Northern Ireland. Brexit and the Irish border in its reinforced format now force us all to choose whether we like it or not. 


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