The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics, by Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile Books, 192 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1788161787
The Irish border can be confusing. Indeed, it is hard even to be sure that you are crossing it. There are no checkpoints or fences, and it is only haphazardly signposted. Country roads run past fields and low hills, crossing and recrossing a line that has rarely been accurately mapped. When watching the road during drives to Donegal, I know I am in the Republic when I pass a particular garage that only accepts euro. My Southern friends tell me they know they are in the North when the roads become smooth.
It has always been difficult to draw the Irish border cleanly. It follows the contours of the historical Irish counties. These lines were first delineated in the early modern period according to the competing claims of landed families: they are thus winding and meandering, ill-suited to the task of defining the borders of two industrialised states. The border runs through farmland, marshes, hills, and small wooded areas. There are no dramatic natural barriers between North and South. In the absence of man-made landmarks this frontier can seem an ephemeral or unreal thing.
The border’s liminal and vague nature may be part of what so has so annoyed the British politicians who have recently been asked to think about it. The failure of all involved parties to find a workable solution to the challenges posed by a post-Brexit border has proved the main obstacle in finding a parliamentary majority for Theresa May’s deal. In attempting to undo the border knot, Brexiteers have wavered between exhibiting an Olympian distance from reality (see Rees-Mogg’s suggestion to return to the border practices of the Troubles) and a sort of frustrated ignorance when confronted with it, such as when a senior Tory remarked that Ireland should, “know [its] place”.
The politics of Northern Ireland seems a closed book to many in Westminister. The DUP are seen as a bizarre anachronism, forced upon the Conservatives due to May’s political miscalculations. Sinn Féin’s abstentionism is a bête noire of aggrieved Remainers, who are unable to understand why an Irish republican party is so opposed to taking seats in the British parliament. The motivation of both of these misunderstood political parties is tied to the border.
This line has been frustrating British politicians for over a hundred years. Herbert Henry Asquith, after tiring of the intractable negotiations over the limits of a potential Northern Irish state, referred to one stretch of the border as, “that most damnable invention of the perverted ingenuity of man”. Diarmaid Ferriter’s new book is an attempt to alleviate some of this frustration by imparting understanding. The Border’s quality and clarity means that it deserves a large audience, particularly among members of the European Research Group. The history of the Irish border, and the politics tied to it, must be understood if the current impasse surrounding Brexit and Ireland is to be overcome.
The line partitioning Ireland exists as the confluence of four political and social forces, of which three were key to its creation. The first was the Irish nationalism of the early twentieth century. In 1914, after a hundred years of advocating for home rule, Irish nationalists had finally secured a bill’s passage through the imperial parliament. This success is attributable to the size of the movement in Ireland, the sense of cohesion gained through more than three decades of a strong cultural nationalist movement, and to the particularities of British electoral politics.
The British state was the second relevant actor in the border’s creation. Since the Act of Union in 1800, the imperial parliament had included a hundred Irish MPs. This attempt to draw Britain’s first colony more closely into the British state posed parliamentary problems by the mid-nineteenth century. As political contests between Tories and Liberals became more intense, and their majorities grew slimmer, both parties learned to rely on the votes of either Irish nationalist or unionist MPs in order to form governments. During the bitter struggles over fiscal and parliamentary reform in the early twentieth century, the Liberal party was only able to secure majorities by promising the Irish nationalists a new home rule bill, one that the newly disciplined House of Lords could not block.
Here is one of the first instances of a recurring theme in the story of the border; Irish politics is often only important to the British state when it proves an obstacle to goals, or when it can be a means to subvert other obstacles. Ireland’s place on the British political agenda correlates directly with the vagaries of English electoral maps; Irish issues become important to UK politics when Irish parties hold the balance of power in the House of Commons. So it was with the fourth Home Rule Bill.
This happy political compromise was interrupted by a neglected third force in Irish politics, Ulster unionism. Since the seventeenth century Flight of the Earls and the subsequent Ulster Plantation, the northern province of Ireland had reversed its historical status as the centre of Irish defiance against England. A Protestant population descended from English and Scottish settlers came to form a large bloc. The economic success of Belfast (early twentieth century Ireland’s only truly industrialised city), as well as the strong religious divide between Protestant and Catholic communities, created a sense that Ulster was different from the rest of Ireland.
The desire to preserve this difference is the core of what motivated the Ulster unionist movement, and one of the great virtues of Ferriter’s book is his understanding of Ulster unionism. The unionists truly did fear discrimination and persecution in a Catholic-dominated Irish state, and the formation of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912 displayed the lengths to which they would go to avoid becoming part of it. By 1914, Ulster unionism was an armed political movement, effectively led by charismatic figure and representing a large minority of the island. They could not be ignored, politically, morally, or prudentially.
When Irish nationalists began to arm themselves in response to the UVF’s successful gun-running, the British government realised they had to find a new solution to the Irish problem. It was during 1914 negotiations between Irish nationalists and unionists in Buckingham Palace, along with their Liberal and Conservative English partners, that the line that still divides Ireland was first officially proposed. Only four counties (Down, Antrim, Londonderry/Derry and Armagh) had unionist majorities but the leaders of unionism also pushed for Fermanagh and Tyrone to be included so as form a slightly more viable statelet. Irish nationalism, which never properly accounted for the existence of a million-plus Irish people fiercely opposed to the creation of an Irish nation, was only willing to accede to a temporary partitioning of four counties. Almost no one then believed a partition of Ireland would be a permanent solution to the problems revealed and heightened by the Home Rule crisis.
Perhaps the only point where Ferriter falters in his analysis is when he considers the drawing of the border. He correctly identifies all the right players in the politics that led to its creation and gives a brilliant short history of the key events. However, he focuses his account of the drawing of the border on the talking-shop of the mid 1920s Irish Boundary Commission. Considering that the commission merely rubber-stamped what had been decided previously, he would have been better to weight his account more towards the pre-1914 period. This was when the principle of partition along county lines, with the six eventually excluded counties, were first conceived of and proposed. It is here that one might find the intellectual and emotional origin of partition as it happened. Ferriter’s account of the border commission is strong, but its ten-plus pages seem a disproportionate fraction of a short book to spend on what was, ultimately, a political sideshow.
Ferriter might also have made more explicit the importance of violence in the history of the border. Given the reality of Northern difference, the partition of Ireland may have always been a latent possibility once the nationalisms of the nineteenth century reached Ireland. However the border only became a proposal, and then reality, when armed groups were formed to advocate for it. Throughout the subsequent century, people have been fighting and dying over the line that separates Ireland, and this violence has variously prompted and shut down negotiations on the border’s future. Ferriter is not unaware of the importance of violence to Irish history, and his account does not ignore this issue, but it could be strengthened by a foregrounding of the violent and atavistic in this history.
These are merely issues of emphasis however. Ferriter’s small book covers all important events and personalities while managing to maintain the difficult balance between focus and contextualizsation necessary in short thematic histories. This is particularly evident when he covers how the outbreak of war changed the border issue. By 1918 the border dispute still involved Irish nationalists, Ulster unionists and the British state, but the complexion of each of these parties had changed. Unionists had sacrificed huge numbers of men in defence of the union during the war and felt compelled to maintain the United Kingdom at any cost. The British state had been weakened by war and the make-up of government radically altered. And the Irish nationalists had been utterly transformed by the Easter Rising of 1916. Sinn Féin and republican separatism had replaced the Irish Parliamentary Party and Home Rule as the moving forces and ethos of the nationalist movement. Such changes are at once sweeping and subtle, and Ferriter traces the transformations and through-lines with assurance.
The border came into existence with the Government of Ireland act of 1920 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. These documents sought to protect unionist majorities and ascendancy in the North while ending republican rebellion across the island. Northern Ireland gained its own parliament while staying within the union, and the new Southern state had a government that was mostly relieved of formal ties to Britain. Ferriter correctly notes that the subsequent Irish civil war was not primarily motivated by partition but rather by the degree of independence offered to the new “Free State” (it is a refusal to recognise the validity of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, as opposed to the border as such, that prevents Sinn Féin from taking seats in Westminster). Southern nationalism assumed that the border was an unworkable and illogical division of a complete nation, one that would soon give way.
That confidence appears strange at a century’s remove, and it worried many contemporary Northern nationalists. Northern nationalists, long excluded both voluntarily and coercively from politics at home while being largely forgotten by the South, are the last of the four major forces involved in the border dispute. Irish nationalism was formally split by the border, but divisions between North and South had existed long before then. Northern nationalists were often minorities among unionist populations and thus had a very different experience of life and politics from that which was common in the South. They felt that the Dublin-centred nationalist movement did not sufficiently account either for Northern differences or their own needs.
Ferriter is withering in his assessment of Southern ignorance of the North, and a major virtue of his historical analysis is his willingness to reveal his own views. He is not hamstrung by the hyperbolic even-handedness that afflicts some historians writing about the North. He is critical both of Irish nationalism’s failure to account for the existence and desires of unionists, and rightly outraged at the discriminatory anti-Catholic ethos of pre-Troubles Northern Ireland. His prose is not disfigured by qualifying remarks or academic whataboutery, but instead characterised by a consistent standard of analytic judgement. This is a difficult task for an historian dealing with the partition of Ireland.
The actual partitioning of the country proved difficult to enact. County divisions are important in GAA matches and in Irish humour, but the economic and social life of 1920s Ireland did not correspond to these lines. The new border divided families, towns and even individual properties in two. Some issues important to border residents, such as how to divide up the border-spanning fisheries of Lough Foyle, were not resolved for decades. The border was long synonymous with bureaucratic confusion, and this helped the borderlands to become a hotbed of smuggling and small-scale criminality. The sense of uncertainty that motivated the border’s creation long presided over its administration.
After the Irish civil war came to a partial resolution in the mid to late 1920s there followed a long stasis on the border. For fifty years the policy of each of the four social forces relevant to this frontier did not significantly shift. The British government largely ignored the day-to day-governance of Northern Ireland and made no diplomatic overtures of note to alter the border. The Southern government protested against the border’s existence while taking no meaningful steps to undo it. Northern nationalists refused to participate in the politics of the new Northern state, refusing to officially recognise the hated partition of the island. Ulster unionism established what Tom Paulin memorably called, “a gritty sort of prod baroque”, a regime of social underdevelopment and sectarian discrimination that set Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the UK in poverty and injustice.
This separate status suited both unionists and the British state. Ferriter sums up well a central characteristic of unionism; the desire to be a core part of the UK while being separate from it. This attitude is nicely summed up in a joke that he quotes: ‘the quickest way to insult an Ulsterman is to call him Irish. The second quickest is to call him English”. Ulster unionists do not innately trust or connect to England and are always vigilantly looking out for betrayal from Westminster. This sense of insecurity is founded partly on the visible apathy and disinterest towards Ulster that is often displayed by UK governments, as well as on the essentially defensive and reactive nature of unionism as a political project. Ferriter is again correct to note how little Ulster unionism has developed politically from the initial position of opposing integration in a united Ireland. Unionists’ primary concern has been to spot threats to the border’s future and act against them.
Unionists fears were realised, and the long border stasis ended, with the outbreak of the Troubles at the end of the 1960s. The period of civil strife was caused by a particular collision of the manifest unjustness of the Northern Irish state and the long-term and unresolved division of Catholic and Protestant populations in the North of Ireland. This violent period would see changes to the border both politically and in an everyday sense for the population of the borderlands.
The British state was drawn back into Northern Ireland, militarily and politically, to try to find an end to the violence. Changes to the border were both considered, and trialled, as solutions to the conflict. North-South co-operation across the border was one element of the Sunningdale Agreement that prompted the mass unionist protests that undid that agreement. Ferriter notes some internal UK government documents of the period that moot changes to the border; sections of North and South being traded to make the border more defensible and manageable than the winding uncertainty the British army found itself patrolling in the seventies and eighties. Unworkable as this solution might have been, it does display the lack of sentimental attachment to the current Northern state felt by the British government.
The desire to undo or protect the border was at the heart of the conflict in Northern Ireland, and it is grimly fitting that the border country was among the most violent areas of Northern Ireland during the long years of the conflict. The small town of Strabane was the most bombed town in Europe during the Troubles. The Provisional IRA, along with other paramilitaries, made use of the border in their armed campaigns; smuggling supplies and victims across the border and slipping into the Republic to evade police and army pursuers. The sense of order breaking down along the border was common: parts of the area were referred to as “bandit country”.
The Troubles were the only period of the twentieth century during which there was something close to a “hard” border in Northern Ireland. The roads crossing the border had never been accurately mapped, and this liminality was part of what so frustrated the British officers asked to secure it during the conflict. Certain high activity areas, such as South Down and South Tyrone, became a landscape of lookout towers and army checkpoints, aerially patrolled by army helicopters. The divide in border communities that had previously been bureaucratic became personal. Ferriter records residents feeling that whole networks of cross-border friendship and trade were broken by the suspicion and hatred of the Troubles. It is the memory of this dark and upsetting period that makes the glib suggestion by Rees-Mogg that we return to the border of the Troubles so upsetting to Northern Irish people.
This is not to suggest that all citizens of the North have, or had, the same attitude to the border. There was of course, the divide between unionists and nationalists as to the border’s efficacy and morality. But it also meant very different things to communities depending on their proximity to it. Take, for example, the two ghettoised catholic communities of the Falls Road in Belfast and the Bogside in Londonderry/Derry. To those in the Falls, part of a Protestant-majority city and over fifty miles from the Republic, the border seemed a far-off taunt; a physical manifestation of the isolation and injustice they felt. On the Bogside however, the border was a mostly imaginary line that lay only a few miles behind them. They still hated the reality of partition, but Derry republicans had the experience of being part of a Catholic majority in their city, as well as of slipping over the border on school or family trips. They thus felt less embattled and isolated than their Belfast counterparts. There was a similar, if inverted, attitude in unionist communities during the Troubles, and something of this urban-rural cleavage on attitudes to the border is still detectable today.
The Border could serve as a both a handbook for confused British politicians and an outstanding example of how to write a short thematic history. Ferriter’s treatment of the peace process is evidence of this. He manages to fit in an overview of the complex negotiations that culminated in the Good Friday agreement, all the while maintaining focus on the border and how it was impacted by the changes to Northern Ireland politics. The brevity and clarity of his prose and structure are exemplary. He captures the advances and ambiguities of peace with assurance.
The border, which had been hardened by violence, was softened by the peace. With the Good Friday Agreement and the ending of paramilitary campaigns, it lost the complex of checkpoints and army bases that had made it so difficult to live through during the Troubles. Cross-border trade and social life began to pick up again, and the sense of division between Northern and Southern communities notably lessened. Normalising life on the border over the last twenty years is one of the principal achievements of the peace process.
Peace brought about changes to the two Northern actors in the border drama. The leaders of Ulster unionism became the more hardline DUP, who traded their initial opposition to the Good Friday Agreement in exchange for power. Northern nationalists performed a similar hardline turn by voting for Sinn Féin, the party that grew out of the Provisional IRA. Sinn Féin’s refusal to take up the seats that they won at British general elections was not an impediment with voters but rather a boon. The hardline parties were looked to for reassurance. Their stronger positions on core issues, not least the border, were a counterweight for voters concerned by the compromises that the peace process required from both nationalists and unionists.
The peace allowed for Southern nationalists and the British government to feel less guilty about Northern Ireland. Southern nationalists could no longer be criticised for ignoring Northern comrades, as those comrades were now safely ensconced in both a power-sharing government and a much more equal society. The British state removed the vast majority of its military forces from the province, and the (very admirable) efforts of the Major and Blair administrations to find peace removed some of the postcolonial resentment that “the Brits” had felt from Irish quarters.
One question Ferriter leaves unanswered is the issue of why the British state is still involved in Northern Ireland. He is wise to do so, for this is a confusing area. The commitment of the UK to respecting and protecting the wishes of the unionist population seems sincere enough. However Tony Blair was also speaking truthfully when he declared that the UK has no “strategic interest” in staying in Ireland. The British feel a certain detachment from the North, one that is born of distance. At worst this is antipathy: Ferriter records Thatcher’s famous disdain for Northern unionists and nationalists. Even when Conservatives attempt a revival of the old “conservative and unionist” tradition, it comes across as a little clunky and improvised. Theresa May’s parliamentary statement in support of the union belongs more to her own genre of creative non-statement than representing a shift in British attitudes to the union (Brexit means Brexit, Enough is Enough, Strong and Stable).
The principal cause of this is the deeply unreflective and confused nationalism that underlies British conservativism at both the popular and parliamentary levels. The most famous fruit of this strange tradition is 2016’s Brexit vote, the same vote that is now threatened by the Irish border. Britain’s bold step away from the world as an island nation once again somewhat ignored the fact that there are two islands involved in the union, and a long and confusing land border to manage. The weakened May government relies on DUP support, and is unable to square the circle of exiting Europe while maintaining a strong union and a soft border.
The obstinate positions of the DUP and Sinn Féin are unlikely to change. The DUP’s insistence that Northern Ireland “not be treated” differently from the rest of the UK are, as Ferriter shows, utterly ahistorical. NI had a devolved government and separate status seventy years before Scotland or Wales; it has always been treated differently. This will not shift the unionist hard line. Maintaining their place within the union is the single core belief of unionism. If they must sacrifice the economic or social benefits of a frictionless border to achieve this they will do so without hesistation.
As for Sinn Féin, there is no electoral incentive for them to follow the wishes of frustrated Remainers and take up their seats. As long as there remains an oath of allegiance to the queen, and a British desire to remain in Northern Ireland, there would be a high political price to pay for a republican entering parliament. Sinn Féin are now an all-Ireland political project that depends on bona fide republican credentials for success. They will not give this up to soothe the anxieties of English liberals.
The above points would be obvious to anyone familiar with the history of the Irish border. That so many British politicians are not so familiar is a signal of Westminster’s abject failure to properly govern the six-county statelet that it helped create. Anglo-Irish relations, as well as the lives of those who must live next to or depend upon the border, would be greatly improved if Professor Ferriter’s book became mandatory reading in the House of Commons.
James McNaney is a freelance writer and researcher from Belfast. He insists that he is involved in activities other than thinking about the border.