For the Joy of Reading: The Border.
The history of British-Irish relations is a history of a
disaster, that began when Diarmuid MacMurrough, the King of Leinster, invited
the Anglo-Norman Lord, Richard FitzGilbert, known as Strongbow, the Earl of
Pembroke to restore him to his throne.
In 1170, Strongbow invaded Ireland and captured Dublin. This alarmed Henry II, who was only too well
aware that his great-grandfather, William I, had invaded England and had made
himself more powerful than his suzerain, the King of France. The fact that Strongbow had married Eva, the
daughter of Diarmuid MacMurrough only added to his concern. So, Henry II gathered an army, went to
Ireland and proclaimed himself the Lord of the whole country.
From there it went from bad to worse with the English Kings
and especially one Queen, Elizabeth I, asserting control over the whole
country. The centre of resistance was
Ulster, under the leadership of the O’Neill Earls of Tyrone. James VI and I then took the momentous
decision of planting Protestant settler as a colony in Ulster from both
Scotland, in the main, and England. The
Scots were Presbyterian and the English from the Church of England. The rest of Irish history hinges on this
colonisation. Northern Ireland, in
effect, is James VI and I’s colony. The
process began with the expulsion of Catholic tenants from their farms, and they
in turn rose in rebellion in 1641, massacring Protestants when they could. An English army under Cromwell invaded and
massacred Catholics in its turn. Thus,
centuries of conflict began that resulted in an independent Ireland and a
self-governing Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. This is where Ferriter picks up the story.
A border had to be created.
It was not obvious where the border was going to be, so the county
boundaries imposed by James VI and I in the seventeenth century were
chosen. This border has been described
as porous. It consists of streams and
tracks from one part of a farm to another part of the same farm, and similar
things. It is a border without natural
barriers, and that is the heart of the problem. As soon as it came into existence smuggling
became a common practice. Why, for
instance, would a farmer pay import duties to move a flock of sheep from one
field to another, on the same side of the border, just because the track to be
used crossed that border? This kind of
thing, of course, was ignored but smuggling became common because goods on one
side of the border were cheaper than on the other side. People became adept at finding routes across
the border that avoided the border posts, and this became a crucial security
matter when trouble broke out, which it did immediately.
South of the border there was an immediate, short and bloody
civil war. In the 1950s the IRA
launched a low-intensity border war which was notable for its lack of
success. Meanwhile the Ulster Unionists
were busy creating their own fiefdom within the United Kingdom, which was
different from the start because it had its own Parliament, at Stormont, and
its own Prime Minister. As laws became
liberalised within the UK, it became more different from the rest of the
UK. The introduction of the welfare
state by the 1945 Labour Government intensified its differences from what had
by then become the Republic of Ireland.
The Unionists also set about gerrymandering the electoral boundaries to
ensure their continued domination of Northern Ireland, and denied the Catholic
inhabitants their civil rights. It was
this spark that lit the fire.
In 1968, the Northern Ireland Civic Rights Association
(NICRA) was formed under the leadership of Eamonn McCann, following the example
set in the USA. A march was organised
that passed through a village called Burntollet. It was there that the Royal Ulster
Constabulary (RUC) “B” Specials ambushed the marchers and beat them to a bloody
pulp. It was shocking. I joined the protest march in London. It was not long afterwards that the Bogside
went up in flames and Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) rose to prominence at
the barricades fighting the RUC. That
was when the Wilson Government sent the troops in to restore order and the
Northern Ireland Premier, Captain Terence O’Neill, who had let the situation
get out of hand, resigned. It felt like
a revolutionary moment. All of this
happened because of the politics of Northern Ireland. It was nothing to do with the border.
The Provisional IRA (the Provos) soon found themselves in
armed conflict with the British army on the streets of Belfast and Derry (or
Londonderry of you were Protestant).
This led to arms smuggling across the border and the introduction of
internment without trial by the Conservative Government of Edward Heath. This led to protest demonstrations and, at
one in Derry, the Paratroop Regiment opened fired and killed 13 people
immediately. (I believe that one died
later). The Saville Enquiry subsequently
established that those killed were unarmed and completely innocent. One solder has now been charged, and the
case is going to court. The result of
Bloody Sunday was two decades of civil war, with the Provos on one side and the
British army on the other.
The Heath Government, to its credit, did try to find a
solution involving the Irish Government, but this was scuppered by Unionist
intransigence, led by the Rev Ian Paisley.
I had the misfortune to almost literally bump into him once when
lobbying Parliament and he is the only person I have net who, I felt, exuded
malevolence. One of the great ironies
of life is that in his old age he implemented a version of the Sunningdale
Agreement that he so vociferously opposed in 1974.
Eventually, after two decades of violence, the Good Friday
Agreement emerged, brokered by President Clinton and for two decades, until
Brexit, the peace has held. People were
allowed freedom of movement across the border, both states were part of a
common trading partnership, the EU, and there were well over 150,000 cross
border pensions, not to mention other areas of co-operation, such as
conservation policies, and tourism.
Ferriter’s point is that the border has been an
embarrassment to both the UK and Irish governments since its inception. The Conservative Party became committed to
the border because it had encouraged Ulster Unionist irredentism from 1910
onwards, with its slogan “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right” simply
because it wanted to cause difficulties for the Liberal Government. It then could not withdraw. Subsequent generations lost all interest in
Northern Ireland but were caught up in the rhetoric. The introduction of the Welfare State made
Northern Ireland a huge drain on the UK economy, costing £100,000s a year which
only increased with “The Troubles”. It
is estimated that, if Northern Ireland joined the Republic, the living standard
would drop by 15%. But their parties
are caught up in the rhetoric of “United Ireland”.
Ferriter’s narrative shows, time and again, that politicians
and governments on both sides of the border could not escape the historic
rhetoric that some of them had helped to forge and which others inherited as
“the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons even unto the third and
Then came Brexit and a border that had been porous to the
point of invisibility for 20 years suddenly became an issue. Quite clearly, if Britain was not a member
of the EU and the Customs Union, there would have to be a border. The problem is how to make this work. The Irish Government want a fluid border and
the Northern Irish Government agree with this, but they do not want to be on
the Irish side of the customs border.
They are arguing that Northern Ireland should not be treated differently
from any other part of the UK. This is
despite the fact that it has been since its inception. The British Government is arguing that Northern
Ireland is an integral part of the UK, but that the success of the peace
process over the last 20 years must be protected. Extreme right-wing Conservative MPs are
saying that this must not be at the cost of a backstop being in place that
would effectively allow the EU to interfere in the affairs of the UK.
Ferriter shows again and again that Conservative MPs are
intensely ignorant, even arrogantly ignorant, about the implications of the
border and its effective re-imposition on the people of Ireland both north and
south of the border.
This is a story that has not come to an end as yet. Indeed, it has just been extended to 30th
June 2019. It is also extremely