The Irish border and Brexit

Submitted by AWL on 2 October, 2019 - 9:56 Author: Micheál MacEoin

One crucial aspect of Brexit, the impact on the Irish (or, rather, British-Irish) Border, was comprehensively ignored in the British media during the 2016 referendum campaign itself.

It is fitting, then, that it has threatened to unravel the whole Brexit process, in the form of the “backstop”, a set of guarantees against the imposition of a hard border which have been written into the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU.

The flipside of that fact is that Johnson’s drive for a “no deal” Brexit, if it succeeds, will mean in effect a new partition of Ireland, a reversal of the slow process over decades within the EU which has made the border set by war in the early 1920s almost invisible.

Those who predicted that the issue of the Border would be straightforward would have been disabused of this notion, had they only read a book published in 2013 by the Irish historian Henry Patterson.

Ireland’s Violent Frontier: the border and Anglo-Irish relations during the troubles is a comprehensive history of the policies pursued by successive British and Irish governments in relation to the border, from 1969 to 1982, with an introduction covering the origins of the border, the IRA’s ill-fated “Border Campaign” of 1956-62 and the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s.

The heart of the book is a study of Anglo-Irish relations and security policy, based on extensive archive research. In it, Patterson demonstrates an interest in high politics (especially the role of politicians, civil servants and the security apparatus) and official documentation, which was in evidence even in his earlier, more Marxist-inspired works, in the late 1970s and 1980s. The book argues strongly that the role of the Border has been understated in many accounts, which focus instead on the conflict in urban areas, such as Belfast and Derry.

Though the 26-county state spent considerable resources in tacking the IRA within its own territory, and there is no evidence of collusion between the Irish state and the IRA (as Unionist have alleged), the Border and its relationship to security policy was nevertheless a constant source of friction in Anglo-Irish relations.

UK governments, on the whole, stressed that the ability of the IRA to operate in two jurisdictions, maintaining arms dumps and safehouses in the relative safety of the 26-counties, enabled them to maintain their “long war” against the British state.

The Irish governments, “with the partial exception”, Patterson argues, of the ferociously anti-republican Fine Gael-Labour coalition of 1973-77, downplayed this factor in favour of an emphasis on the alienation of the nationalist community from the Six Counties, and the need for far-reaching constitutional reform.

At the time of the book’s publication, much media attention was focused on debates over whether Provisional IRA attacks on border Protestants constituted “ethnic cleaning”. This is a claim Patterson does not, in fact, make directly. Describing the borrowing of the term from the Balkan wars as “sensationalist”, he nevertheless recognises its “emotional truth for border Protestants”, as attacks and killings continued, sometimes against civilians. There is no doubt about the psychological impact of attacks such as the hugely provocative bombing of a Remembrance Day ceremony in Enniskillen in November 1987, which saw 11 Protestants murdered and 63 seriously injured.

Though such brutal impacts of the IRA campaign are given due attention, the book covers a wide array of issues. One is how the relentless attacks along the Border functioned, in a phrase used at a 1988 Sinn Fein conference, to “keep the pot boiling”, preventing a deal between the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists which would marginalise republicans, and wear down Britain’s will to remain engaged in the Six Counties.

The Border, as a site of sectarian strife and as a strategic importance for the IRA campaign, has deep roots.

As Patterson argues, due to the geographic proximity of Antrim and Down to Scotland, Scottish settlers created stable demographic and cultural domination in those two counties even before the plantation of the late seventeenth century.

The border counties were different.

Fermanagh and Tyrone had Catholic majorities at the time of partition in 1921; Armagh had a Protestant majority overall but a Catholic majority in its southernmost regions.

Catholics and Protestants in the border counties “lived in close proximity in an intricate pattern which ensured that any border, however it was drawn, would be found deeply unsatisfactory by those who found themselves on the wrong side of it”.

Moreover, the position of border Protestants as a minority, “scattered in towns and villages and in their isolated farm houses”, created powerful bonds of communal solidarity, organised though the Orange Order (“strongest in the western, border counties of Northern Ireland”) and membership of the security services, including the vigilante Ulster Volunteer Force during the Home Rule crisis, then the B-Specials and its replacement, the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).

The book is very much focused on a particular time – the first two decades of the Troubles, when the Provisional IRA campaign was at its height. We can’t read off direct lessons for the present situation.

Nevertheless, it is likely that the border area, with its legacy of sectarian bitterness and tension, could well again become a source of friction on the ground. While the “factory of grievances” of the pre-1998 Six Counties does not exist in as acute a form, and the old raw material to sustain a prolonged armed campaign by republicans is therefore absent, it is highly likely that any physical infrastructure to enforce a hard border could become a target.

Infrastructure would require security force protection, providing a further target for radical republicans. If police are recruited from the local area, the scope for sectarian tensions to become inflamed is obvious.

Not surprisingly, there are some points to take issue with in the book. Consistent with his earlier work, including those written with Paul Bew, Patterson argues that partition “reflected not so much an imperialist imposition as a messy registering of profound political and sectarian divisions”.

Though there were indeed profound divisions in 1921, their “messy registering” in the form of partition cannot be abstracted from the imperialist power relations between Britain and Ireland, including the agreement of the Anglo-Irish Treaty at the end of the War of Independence in the context of Lloyd George’s threat of “immediate and terrible war” if it was not accepted.

It is wrong to argue, as some republicans and their more uncritical supporters in the socialist movement often do, that divisions within Ireland are simply the artificial creations of imperialism and that any recognition of the deeply-felt identity of the Irish Protestant minority (for instance, in a federal united Ireland) is inconceivable.

That does not mean, however, that the partition of Ireland was a genuine effort to reflect the demographics in a democratic manner. It was much more an attempt to create the largest possible contiguous territory for the Six Counties compatible with a stable Unionist majority.

Despite this, Ireland’s Violent Frontier is a fascinating work, outlining the complexity of the border issue in the twentieth century. If Brexit goes ahead, this century is set to bring its own complexities.

A federal united Ireland, with recognition of the rights of minorities, within the European Union, provides the best basis on which to unite the working-class to fight for a socialist Ireland and a Socialist United States of Europe.

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