Perhaps the most exhausted quotation in modern poetry is W.B Yeats: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the land”. It begins Patrick Cockburn’s book Chaos & the Caliphate. It is woven throughout Thomas Pynchon’s epic Gravity’s Rainbow, and has served title for books on madness to collections of wildlife photography. Never the less, there is always a temptation to reference ‘The Second Coming’ when talk turns to Northern Ireland and the border. Yeats grew up between London and County Sligo, now in the Republic, and perhaps five miles from Lough Melvin, which lies prostrate along the border. It – like the other counties that form border country and Ulster itself – was rocked in the sectarian turbulence of the last century, known as the Troubles.
Violence flared between Britain and the Irish nationalists during Yeats’ lifetime, culminating in the Easter Uprising of 1916. But the Troubles refer to an era of violence named the ‘long war’ by the IRA, which began in 1968 with a Catholic Civil Rights March, and ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. During this period, Britain suspended the Northern Irish assembly and imposed direct rule in an attempt to restore order between the predominantly Catholic nationalists, and the Protestant Unionists. The result was a low-level civil-war pockmarked by bombings and disappearances. For many, British Army checkpoints, particularly along the border, became a metonym for life during the Troubles.
A Canada style relationship with Europe – as is now being muted by the government – simply falls short
Asked recently by a BBC reporter whether concerns about a solid frontier returning to Ireland were not just part of ‘Project Fear’, as some have claimed, a bus driver who makes his living crossing the border replied, “they’ve never lived in Ireland with three check points to go through between North and South”. An end to frictionless trade with the EU is setting off claxons in factories throughout Britain. Car manufactures such as Ford and Toyota have made it clear that unimpeded access to the EU is what makes the UK such an appealing place to invest. A Canada style relationship with Europe – as is now being muted by the government – simply falls short.
Despite the vivid illustrations of ‘global Britain’ painted by the Leave Campaign, the point that long distance trade is cumbersome when compared with trade between neighbours, in a single market, is now being made in stark terms by business leaders. In Ireland, the threat to commerce has a human face. Small businesses – like the aforementioned bus company – depend on easy access to North and South for survival. The cultural implications of checkpoints once again squatting on roads throughout the hills of Donegal, Cavan and Armagh are also consequential.
Although crossing the border by road was sometimes difficult, it was not until the 1970s when systematic efforts were made to strangle transit by the British authorities. Craters were dug in roads and bridges were blown up. Checkpoints, suspicion, and scrutiny became the burden of the local people whose lives transcended the frontier. Few are suggesting that when the border of the Republic becomes Europe’s northwestern boundary, violence will erupt once more. Yet catholic and protestant schoolchildren cross every day, mingling with one another. In a study conducted by Queen Mary’s in Belfast, 93% of ex-pupils from integrated schools said that it had increased their respect for diversity, that being ‘catholic, protestant or other’.
Any hindrance to integration is likely to stunt a germinating frond of the peace process. the DUP recognize this. Despite its euroscepticism, the party propping up the increasingly saggy Conservative government is starting to look like a bulwark against Brexit. The EU is intent on a backup-plan that would establish a sea border between the mainland and Northern Ireland. The DUP will not tolerate any deal which sees Northern Ireland and Britain treated differently. Having fought a 30-year war against unification with the Republic, it is hardly surprising that they find the idea of a border between themselves and Britain repugnant.
In Ireland, the threat to commerce has a human face
Hopes of a breakthrough revived briefly when Minister for Brexit Dominic Raab made an unscheduled visit to Brussels, but perhaps due to its impromptu nature, the meeting only lasted an hour. Following this, government sources are saying that negotiations have hit a “real problem”, and EU negotiators are saying a no-deal scenario is increasingly likely. On hearing that the EU wanted plans for a sea border drawn up in case more desirable proposals were not ready in time, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman said that no-deal is now “probably inevitable”. If there is not a deal on the table when the clocks strike thirteen, because the Conservative Party was so desperate to stay in power that they leant on the DUP, then Faust himself would be proud.
Despite this, and the increasingly suggestive language like ‘open ended backstop’, that is creeping into the lexicon, there does appear to be genuine desire to resolve the border issue. As of the EU summit in Brussels, Britain’s transition period is set to be extended, potentially until 2021, as the search for closure continues. This might fly with Europe, but Theresa May will have a hard time selling this to the leave wing of her party. With Raab trying to make Parliament’s final vote either for the government plan, or for no-deal, the Prime Minister’s position is becoming precarious.
The New Labour government of 1997 made the two greatest contributions to European peace and security that this country has made since the Second World War: The reversal of Milosevic’s Serbia in defense of the Kosovo Albanians, and the Northern Ireland Peace Process. with the election of Milorad Dodik in Bosnia, Serbo-fascism is once again threatening to cut apart the Balkans along sectarian lines. The danger in Northern Ireland is not so immediate, but few predicted the two deadliest years of the Troubles, culminating in the collapse of Stormont, would arise from a civil rights march. Peace in Northern Ireland is only 20-years old. We must not take it for granted.