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Boris Johnson seems hell-bent on destroying decades worth of trust in Northern Ireland

David Anderson/Holyrood

Boris Johnson seems hell-bent on destroying decades worth of trust in Northern Ireland

Winding a circuitous 310-mile meander from Carlingford Lough across to Lough Foyle, the border that bisects the island of Ireland is currently all but invisible. Ask where it lies in this or that field, and most won’t be able to say, exactly.

There are more border crossings in Ireland than along the entire border between the USA and Canada. Sometimes it runs down the middle of a road or divides bridges in half. In the village of Jonesborough, the church stands on one side of the border, the graveyard on the other. But for the last couple of decades, it’s scarcely mattered.

On bigger roads, you’ll spot the speed limits go from kilometres to miles-per-hour but – thanks to the alchemy of Europe – each month 177,000 lorries, 208,000 vans and 1,850,000 cars barely notice as they go from North to South or vice versa.

Around 30,000 people commute across the border daily. 

It’s a far cry from the prickly boundary of my childhood. During the Troubles, many of the 270 or so public roads that cross the border were blown up or blocked with spikes by the British Army, in an attempt to stop paramilitaries from smuggling weapons into Northern Ireland. The region was studded with checkpoints that provided a perennial target for deadly IRA attacks.

In one of the most notorious, the 1989 Derryard checkpoint raid, 11 Provisional IRA members arrived at the Fermanagh mini base in the back of a makeshift armoured dumper truck. Unbeknownst to the soldier who pulled them over, they were armed with assault rifles, machine-guns, a grenade launcher, and a flamethrower. 

When the vehicle was stopped, they opened fire on the King’s Own Scottish Borderers who were manning the base. Two soldiers were killed in the attack: 21-year-old Lance-Corporal Michael Paterson, from Scotland, and 22-year-old Englishman Private James Houston. The IRA unit had intended to detonate a 400lb bomb as they fled to ensure the checkpoint was obliterated, but it failed to properly explode. The Army fired more than 100 rounds in repelling the attack.

That such a contested line could be blurred and near forgotten is a triumph of negotiation and international law. The European Union has its roots in a desire to short circuit conflict by encouraging political integration. In Ireland, the project has surely seen one of its greatest successes. With the free movement of people and goods, the border was no longer a running sore. Its near-absence is one of the essential conditions that enable our fragile peace.

So it is with a mixture of fear and despair that I watch the UK Government torch the Withdrawal Agreement they signed less than eight months ago. Infuriatingly imperfect though that document was, the Withdrawal Agreement did at least pledge to avoid a hard border in Ireland by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods. 

That such a contested line could be blurred and near forgotten is a triumph of negotiation and international law

Despite Brexiters’ insistences to the contrary, there have only ever been an extremely limited number of outcomes for the EU’s new westerly border. Always the elephant in the room, handwaving about technological solutions may have allowed negotiators to kick the Northern Irish problem into the long grass but there was always going to come a crunch point. Or, in keeping with this government’s flip-flopping love of U-turns, more than one. 

If the UK is to reject EU rules (and to do otherwise would make a nonsense of leaving the union), they have to pick between a border on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea. Neither is ideal, but even the most ardent Europhile will ruefully admit that the time has passed to point out that the best solution would be to cancel this Brexit madness.

The Irish Protocol saw the UK Government plump for the lesser of two evils – border checks in place at sea crossings between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. With the Internal Market Bill – in a move that they admit breaks international law – they are reneging on that commitment. Despite the fact that he signed the Withdrawal Agreement, after fighting an election on the back of his “oven-ready” Brexit deal, the Prime Minister has accused the EU of threatening to “carve up our country” by imposing a “blockade” in the Irish Sea. We are, therefore, back to the other option. A hard border in Ireland looms.

Once unleashed, violence tends to acquire its own tit-for-tat logic. It is not easily contained

In an interview with Channel 4 News last year, dissident Republicans the New IRA said that they would consider any border infrastructure a “legitimate target for attack”. With membership believed to be in the low hundreds, the New IRA do not have anything like the strength of the Provisional IRA, but they can’t easily be dismissed. Last year, they were responsible for the murder of journalist Lyra McKee, who was shot whilst covering riots in Derry. Recent reports claim that they have forged alliances with armed militia groups based in Middle East, including Hezbollah, to bring in funding and weapons. 

Once unleashed, violence tends to acquire its own tit-for-tat logic. It is not easily contained.

No right-thinking person wants to make decisions based on the threats of thugs, but neither should a rational government dismantle the conditions underpinning the peace and security of its people. Quite aside from the practical considerations – no one wants to see a return to goods lorries queueing for hours at Newry – the border is heavy with the symbolism of division. 

It comes with visions of camouflage-clad soldiers brandishing weapons at the side of the road. Of murdered young men beaten in lonely barns so that every major bone in their body was broken. Of smuggling and gun-running. Of lawlessness and bitterness; a legacy of mistrust, poverty and communal trauma.

For a project that rests so heavily on dreams of a glorious past, the proponents of Brexit have a shockingly selective memory.

Over the last few decades, Northern Ireland has crept away from violence. Getting the Good Friday Agreement over the line required an enormous amount of work to build trust – between communities, as well as between the British and Irish governments. The Johnson government seems hellbent on dismantling that trust. Where that leaves the peace, only time will tell. 



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