Of Course Ireland Was Going To Be A Thorn In The Side Of Brexit – Has History Taught Us Nothing?

A now demolished British Army watchtower near Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh

As an Irish person living in the UK, I am still shaking my head in confusion, struggling to comprehend Brexit and the factors that persuaded 52% of the electorate to vote to leave the EU. While many have tried to look for rational explanations for the result, the consensus appears to be that there is not one to be found. The UK’s decision to leave the EU was, instead, a hugely emotive one. Brexit stirred up something in the hearts of many British people: a nostalgia for empire, a fear of the other, or the emotive promise to ‘Make Britain Great Again’.

Similarly, there are many rational reasons as to why Ireland is resisting any attempt by the UK to impose a hard border. Economic factors feature highly in this debate, as do security and practical concerns. Many seem to have forgotten, however, that, like Brexit itself, the border in Ireland is an incredibly emotive issue.

The Border Today

Two miles from where I grew up, the border between County Louth in the south (or the republic if you wish) and County Armagh in the north (or Northern Ireland if you wish) looks like this today:

This same road (now renamed the A37) continues for another 5.5km (or 3.4 miles if you wish) until it crosses the Fane river and re-enters the republic in County Monaghan:

The beautiful ambiguity of the Good Friday Agreement that made peace possible is illustrated by these two pictures. The only indication that you are entering a different jurisdiction is the change in road markings and the road signs alerting you to the fact that the speed limit is now in miles per hour. The big constitutional question is pushed to one side. It is not forgotten but it is also not acknowledged except for whatever practicalities are required. It is still there but you have to look for it. If you don’t want to see it, you don’t have to.

Irish emotions and Brexit

Brexit will change this. Brexit has to change this. If the UK continues its current negotiating strategy, Brexit will make the border un-ignorable. The impact will not just be practical but emotional too. When Irish emotions concerning the border are raised in the Brexit debate, it is usually done in a foreboding tone, warning at the possible return to violence. While this is a genuine concern, it is only a tiny minority of a minority that would consider this a legitimate response. Rather, the emotion dominating the vast majority of people living in border communities will be a profound sense of sadness and fear. Sadness that the spectre of the past has come back again more visible than in decades, and fearful as to what the future may bring.

Anger will, undoubtedly, be felt too and faux surprise from the rest of the UK establishment that Ireland is an unforeseen stumbling block in the Brexit negotiations is particularly irksome. Likewise, Irish anger will not be defused by patronising op-eds conjuring up images of the Irish border as being about the rural peasantry smuggling a few milk churns, or hot takes calling for the Irish Prime Minister (because Taoiseach is not a word the British are familiar with) to behave himself and stop acting like the bold little child that he is. Indeed, it was almost inevitable that eventually certain parts of the British media would resort to crude, borderline racist Irish stereotypes reminiscent of the political cartoons of the Victorian era.

Lessons from History?

Surely, if one were to reach back to Victorian Britain, rather than just look at the cartoons for some artistic inspiration, they would take heed from the defining issue of late nineteenth century British politics: Irish home rule. The magnitude of this question divided political parties and ended numerous careers; left an indelible mark on British constitutional law; and, ultimately, ended up in secession, violence, and the birth of a new state. In short, the question was not easily resolved and arguably has not been resolved to this day.

When, therefore, has a solution to anything between the UK and Ireland been straightforward? The answer is never. Merely talking about Ireland reveals insights into one’s particular political perspectives. Is it Northern Ireland or the north of Ireland? Ulster or The Six Counties? Is it Ireland, the south, the republic (should ‘republic’ be capitalised?), or the 26 Counties? Are we talking about the ‘Irish border’ or the ‘British imposed border in Ireland’? The Good Friday Agreement, as illustrated by the pictures above, left the big questions to one side; perhaps for final resolution in the future when the passage of time would make them more manageable. Perhaps this perpetual suspension was itself the lasting resolution. Brexit has shattered this illusion, and sparse, disingenuous policy papers outlining ‘trusted traders’ and electronic customs regulations will not mend this carefully negotiated ambiguity.