13 November 2017

Northern Ireland’s internal divisions matter more than a hard border


We all know that alongside the divorce bill and citizens rights, the Irish border completes the unholy Trinity of Brexit negotiation blockers.

A minority Government, in hock to its absolutist faction and reliant on DUP support to survive, can never really have much room for manoeuvre. Hence the opportunistic swirl of ludicrous hyperbole ranging from frictionless border sci-fi to the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement.

The slogan for all seasons that purports to unite everyone is “no return to the hard borders of the past”. Yet, as a former resident of those borderlands during the Troubles, I suspect there’s less to this hopeful verbiage than meets the eye.

The “hard” border –though “less soft” is arguably a more accurate description – ran from 1921 until the years after the IRA ceasefire, effectively ending with the termination of Operation Banner – the British Army mission to support the civil power in Northern Ireland in 2007.

One of the key tasks for the Army was to contain and oppose the use of the Irish border by the IRA and other republican terrorists who used the frontier to supply arms and evade capture after attacks.

In the border county of Fermanagh these attacks were characterised by a large number of murders of Protestant civilians or members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment. Isolated communities like these were devastated by their their assailants operating with almost complete impunity, fleeing into the Republic of Ireland after their dirty work was complete.

The response was permanent vehicle checkpoints manned by the Army near or on the frontier. The tactical wisdom of these installations was always questionable – static buildings became the target for ever more ingenious and lethal attacks by the IRA – but there’s no doubt at all that for a substantial minority of the frontier inhabitants this hard border was a welcome if largely symbolic reminder they were still inside the United Kingdom and not wholly forsaken by their Government.

In other parts of the frontier, it’s fair to say that such border installations were a prominent reminder of injustice, oppression and occupation. Far from being welcome, they were merely disruptive and alienating. Constant attacks by IRA units triggered ceaseless upgrading of the architecture until, before the 1996 ceasefire, these structures buried their inhabitants in mortar proof bunkers away from remotely operated camera controlled road barriers. In parts of South Armagh, huge, impregnable towers laced the hills and surrounding countryside with a web of electronic surveillance. Castles of Ulster by Jonathan Olley is a pictorial reminder of the terrible beauty of these structures.

No one hears about, or seems to acknowledge that these hard borders with all their dystopian functionality were once relied on and welcomed by a large section of Northern Ireland’s population – perhaps the same dangerous slice of public opinion which has recently grown disaffected with Stormont rule and which harbours the perception that Nationalists have been rewarded while their identity – enshrined by the border – is diluted. These same people probably voted Remain, against the grain of the Northern Irish Brexit regional result.

There is currently no security reason for such border installations to exist. There’s every reason to find a solution which will allow this international frontier to function with the absolute minimum of disruption for people and trade. Connectedness is a huge ally in the fight against extremism.

But if we want to get there, we need to stop obsessing about hard borders in the wrong place. The mindset of division, as potent and real as any line on a map is unfinished work. Sinn Fein relentlessly seek to internationalise the Brexit challenge. A future for any functioning polity inside or outside the EU is dependent on bridging the giant neighbourhood canyons of mistrust and unsettled grief within not across our contested boundary. It really won’t matter what the border looks like until this debt is settled.

Ian Acheson led the independent review of Islamist extremism in prisons and probation ordered by then Justice Secretary Michael Gove in 2016