Europe

Brexit or No Brexit, the Irish Border Won't Disappear

The return of a hard line between Ireland and the North would aggravate the tension felt by British Catholics in Northern Ireland.

To be British and Irish Catholic: a comfortable balance threatened by Brexit.

Photographer: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

“No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further.’”

Thus declaimed Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell in 1885. More than a century later, his vision of a free and independent Ireland seems to have stopped Brexit in its tracks.

The issue is the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This has long been mentioned as one of the sticking points in whatever final agreement Britain reaches with the EU, because Ireland will remain part of the EU but Northern Ireland will depart along with the rest of the U.K.

At least on this side of the pond, this has tended to be treated as a side issue compared to questions like “What will happen to all the financiers in the City of London if Britain disentangles itself?” But this week, Britain's prime minister found that she could move no further in negotiations with Europe until the question had been resolved.

A little history illuminates the problem.

Before their separation, Northern Ireland was the largest area of Protestant settlement in Ireland. By 1922, when Ireland first achieved a measure of independence from Great Britain, it had a sizeable Protestant majority. Under the terms of the treaty that created the Irish Free State (the predecessor to the modern Republic), the six majority-Protestant counties of the north had the right to opt out. They promptly exercised that right. The Catholic minority there exercised their right to resent partition, and by the late 20th century, sectarian violence had hardened the border and made travel between the two parts of the island rather fraught.

Two things conspired to erase that border: the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and the EU. The Good Friday Agreement finally put an end to the Troubles, so that Britain no longer felt the need to control the border so stringently -- and the EU, of which both Britain and the Republic were members, provided the customs union and regulatory harmony that obviated the need to prevent goods and people from moving freely between the two nations.

In the early 1990s, when I drove north to visit the little Armagh town whence the McArdles hail, I passed a whole lot of soldiers with guns. Today, I’m told, the only thing to mark the transition is the road signs changing from kilometers to miles. No one wants to go back to the way it used to be. But as many have remarked since the results of the Brexit referendum came in, it’s hard to see how that can be avoided. If Britain leaves the border open, how would it keep foreign goods and migrants from pouring across it? If they harmonized their rules with the EU’s, that wouldn’t be a problem -- but if they do that, what would be the point of Brexit?

Yet reinstating the border could well cause more problems than it solves. More than half of Northern Ireland’s exports go to the EU, and of that share, a majority ends up in the Republic. Many people live on one side of the border and work on the other, a commute that would become difficult if they had to clear customs every day. And a re-established border might well become a focal point for Republican dissidents who didn’t like the Good Friday agreement, and would rather go back to fighting.

Worse still, from the British point of view, it could increase nationalist sentiment among Ulster Catholics who currently balance two identities, British and Irish Catholic. But if Britain pulls out of the EU, that could change, particularly if the economic dislocations leave a lot of people worse off.

And the electoral math is only likely to get worse for Unionists who want to maintain their British identity. Catholics are now within a few percentage points of overtaking Protestants as the majority; last March, Sinn Fein came within one seat of supplanting the DUP as the largest party in the Northern Irish parliament. Catholics are, unsurprisingly, much more keen on joining the Republic than Protestants are; with Brexit shaking up the economy and British politics, the demographic trends could well tip the scales.

Unionists, then, have a strong interest in keeping that border open, and keeping nationalist sentiment tamped down. Yet ironically, they’re the ones who seem to have made it harder to do so.

Before British Prime Minister Theresa May went into talks with the EU this week, there seemed to be an uneasy consensus on some sort of vaguely worded “regulatory alignment” between Ulster and the Republic, which would keep standards close enough to make customs inspections unnecessary. Unfortunately, after last June's disastrous elections, May had to form a coalition between her Conservative Party and the DUP in order to remain in power, and the DUP doesn’t want any sort of special status for Northern Ireland that would suggest, in the words of Henry Farrell, “that the two parts of Ireland were tiptoeing toward common government.”

On Monday, Arlene Foster, the head of the DUP, announced: “Northern Ireland must leave the European Union on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom. … We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland politically or economically from the rest of the UK.” The proposed deal collapsed.

On its face, this looks insane; Foster and her party are giving up a mile to gain an inch. But if you’ve spent any time watching Northern Irish politics, that sounds all too familiar.

There’s an old joke about Ireland that has always summed up those politics for me better than any long treatise could. George Bernard Shaw, it is said, was giving a lecture in Ireland, and at its conclusion, he opened the floor for questions. Immediately, a fellow popped up from the audience and said: “Pardon me, sir, are you a Catholic, or a Protestant?”

Shaw, a little taken aback, replied: “Neither. I am an atheist, sir.”

“And what sort of religion is an atheist?”

“It is no religion at all. I do not believe in God.”

His interlocutor considered this for a while, and responded: “I understand. There’s just one thing -- is it the Protestant or the Catholic god you don’t believe in?”

Religion in Northern Ireland is not just about the authority of the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury, not just about transubstantiation or married priests. It’s about tribe -- the British and Scottish “planters” who migrated centuries ago versus the Gaels who were already there.

And I suspect that old joke offers an even richer explanation for the politics of Brexit, and for the populist movements rising throughout the West, than it does for the weary battles that have been going on since the British planted their flag on Irish soil.

The secular, cosmopolitan culture that the EU represents dreamed of a world without boundaries, and even dreamed that such a thing was inevitable. Elites convinced themselves that we had moved safely beyond the old sectarian divisions, and certainly beyond such nonsense as tribe.

But those things do not go away simply because we declare that we’ve stopped believing in them. The old, hardened borders can reassert themselves on surprisingly short notice; a nation can march only so far before running into the boundaries we thought we had erased.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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