by Seán Byers & Stiofán Ó Nuallaín

Borders are scratched across the hearts of men
By strangers with a calm, judicial pen
And when the borders bleed we watch with dread
The lines of ink across the map turn red.

Marya Mannes, Subverse: Rhymes for Our Times, 1959

Empires love maps. They particularly love drawing borders on maps. Straight lines of course make the most straightforward borders. When Sykes and Georges-Picot, on behalf of the British and French empires, agreed to carve up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in 1916, most of the lines were straight. Thirty years before, at the Berlin Conference of 1884 when European powers confirmed the carve-up of Africa, another host of straight lines emerged, with some wiggly ones for effect.  Many of these newly created borders did not correspond to the actual historical, political or ethnic distinctions on the ground and have, as a consequence, led to a hundred years of bloody conflict. The plunder of the Indian sub-continent by Britain led to the deaths of tens of millions of people not outside the “modern world system”, but “…in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism’, in the words of Mike Davis. That came to an end when Admiral of the Fleet Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma and Viceroy of India (pause for breath) drew lines across an ancient civilisation leading to a million more deaths and the displacement of 14 million people. In Ireland, James Connolly declared that any partition of Ireland would mean ‘a carnival of reaction both north and south, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of Irish labour and paralyse all advance movements’.

Why the brief history lesson? Because when you follow the discussions in Britain from an Irish perspective it is revealing of the depth of wilful ignorance, among the establishment and even sections of the left, regarding the country’s imperial past and direct role in establishing an internal border in Ireland. The fact that this is now causing them so much trouble piques British exceptionalism: they are being forced to consider Ireland, and this is not how the world works. These frustrations are creating waves of schadenfreude (‘epicaricacy’ for our German readers) in Ireland as the British ruling class tears itself apart and the Union itself starts to crumble. But the pleasure of witnessing this tumult is bittersweet when one turns back to consider the potential impact on Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement and communities who potentially face the re-emergence of a hard border.

The Border

The ignorance of the British establishment, the liberal chattering classes and sections of the left about Ireland and the border is at times staggering and for different reasons. In the film Groundhog Day Bill Murray plays a TV weatherman caught in a time loop, repeatedly reliving the same day. Brexit negotiations are not dissimilar. The insistence that the backstop arrangement, designed to avoid a hard border, are continually revisited with new laughable suggestions when everybody knows that there are few viable alternatives as simple as:

  1. Ireland leaving the EU
  2. A United Ireland
  3. A customs border down the Irish Sea

Hardline Tory Brexiteers such as the European Research group (ERG) would gladly see a return to a hard border if it satisfies their objective of a swift exit from the EU. Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested in the past that arrangements ‘as we had during the Troubles’ would be the best solution. Broadly though the Conservative Party have continued their pretence that they are in agreement about the need to avoid of a hard border. The most recent suggestion put forward by the UK government is a twenty-mile customs zone and twenty inland customs posts with roving bands of customs officers. If in one swoop we move from no border to perhaps three borders, my own home twenty miles inside Northern Ireland would be on the border of the borders’ border.

The concern that liberal Britain and its radical Remainers have for the British border in Ireland is of course most welcome, and surprising, considering their complete lack of interest in Irish affairs since the Home Rule crises of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The border and raising the prospect of renewed conflict is clearly being used by Remainers to raise the stakes. Their prediction that Northern Ireland will inevitably descend into tribal sectarian bloodshed is a particularly incisive analysis and not at all based upon a deeply prejudicial, and exceptionalist understanding of this backward periphery of the shrunken empire. It suggests that the Irish will revert to their natural state without the civilising influence of the UK – as if the British state wasn’t in fact a key player in the conflict but rather a civilised referee trying to keep us from each other’s throats. This threat of a return to widespread armed conflict is routinely invoked by Remainers as among the primary reason to reverse Brexit in its entirety.

At the other extreme are some on the ‘full Brexit’ British left who have let their ‘social’ imperialist mask slip by siding with ERG fantasies of technological solutions that don’t exist, suggesting that a border would require ‘nothing of the imposing infrastructure and control that one imagines with the term “hard” border’. This has been accompanied by the argument that removing the backstop and delivering Brexit ‘means doing precisely what the UK government has refused to do ever since the negotiations with the EU over Brexit began: to assert its sovereignty in Northern Ireland’. These problematic assertions converge with the most backward right-wing thinking on Ireland and indicate a willingness to run roughshod over the GFA and peace process in order to achieve Brexit, regardless of the consequences.

That said, both of these schools of thought are at least partly right. It should be obvious by now that a hard border would not be acceptable to the nationalist community in Ireland, particularly those living in the border region and have experienced the reintegration of economies and communities that were once partitioned. In these areas the introduction of burdensome customs procedures and an increased security presence would certainly be met with mass protest and very likely a campaign of civil disobedience.

But while militant republican groups have vowed to exploit a hard border to escalate armed activity, a return to the violence of old is unlikely. Groups such as the New IRA and Continuity IRA are restricted by their lack of capacity but also, and more importantly, the fact that there is no real appetite for a renewal of the ‘armed struggle’. If anything, the community’s response to the death of Lyra McKee demonstrates the strength of opposition to the activities of those claiming the mantle of the IRA. More broadly, despite the obvious challenges the lie ahead, the nationalist/republican community at large is brimming with confidence that they are on course for a united Ireland sooner than anyone could have imagined prior to the Brexit referendum of 2016. Paradoxically, as successive opinion polls have shown, a hard Brexit would bolster the conditions for a peaceful path to reunification, further exposing the futility of armed strategies to achieve the same objective.

The beginning of the end?

So where is Brexit now? Most thought that the negotiations, such as they were, were over, until on Thursday 11th past the British Prime Minister met with the Irish Taoiseach and the mood music was a little more positive. If Johnson is a little more confident that he has the numbers to move a deal through parliament that includes the only real solution,  a version of the back, he may well throw the DUP under the bus. The appearance in the Daily Telegraph, the voice of the Conservative establishment, of an article on the same day declaring ‘Northern Ireland has long been a millstone round the neck of the rest of the UK and to fail to take back our independence because of it would be an historic tragedy’ is clearly a warning to the DUP.  If this throw of the dice fails and if there’s no agreement by the 19th October then the government must ask the for an extension, there might be some delaying tactics to get the Benn Act overturned, but it looks as if an extension just long enough to get ready for an election is the likeliest option, but you didn’t hear that here.

by Seán Byers & Stiofán Ó Nuallaín

Originally published on 11 October 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.