In the wake of the Brexit vote a number of prominent observers have rushed to print with dire predictions of the consequences of the referendum, while Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has demanded an all-Ireland Border poll on the grounds that the North, like Scotland, voted for ‘Remain’ while the English & Welsh plumped for ‘Leave’.
I can understand McGuinness’ call more so than the journalistic Cassandras. It was a clever piece of opportunism, jumping on the Scots’ bandwagon to independence but Martin’s little ruse also smacked more than a little of someone making an unreasonable demand confident in the knowledge that it was never going to be granted.
First there was no way Enda Kenny’s ‘coalition-government-with-FF-in-all-but-name’ was going to agree to such a thing. The Good Friday Agreement is where Dublin politicians of all stripes wish to see the North parked for the foreseeable future and beyond, and they will do nothing to endanger it.
Which leaves a Northern Ireland-only Border poll which Martin McGuinness knows full well a) would not be granted by Cruella or whoever succeeds her in Stormont House and b) would be won by the Unionists, probably handily – and does he really want to see that happen? I think not.
Which leaves the journalistic prophets of doom. Prime amongst them was Fintan O’Toole who in this piece, provocatively headlined, ‘The English have placed a bomb under the Irish peace process’, published first in The Guardian and then in his own Irish Times, argued, as a sub-heading put it:
‘Brexit unthinkingly jeopardises the Good Friday Agreement, the greatest modern achievement of British diplomacy (and is) an insult to Ireland.’
Prime amongst the dire consequences of Brexit – and threats to the peace process – in O’Toole’s mind was that the old Border will come back, which would be primarily an immigration border which would have to be policed.
Perhaps, but what this argument, the central plank of his case, rests upon turns out to be, after a moment or two’s reflection, a foundation full of nothingness.
Not only was the old Border as porous as a kitchen colander but O’Toole’s implied assumption that the Troubles in the North were about the Border, that, to borrow his own example, the IRA drew angry recruits from the Catholic community because the Dublin-Belfast train stopped at Newry for passport controls, is fundamentally flawed.
The reason for the Troubles had nothing to do with the Border but everything to do with Catholics’ very real sense of injustice in the North – and because of Unionism’s obdurate refusal to ameliorate their anger, the consequent Nationalist conviction that if the Northern Ireland State was irreformable then it had to be brought down, by force of arms if necessary.
The Troubles were, to quote a sage of my acquaintance, a civil rights struggle that got out of control. But they were not about removing the Border or even softening it.
In that sense the Provisional IRA’s campaign was a bit of a con trick. It was fought nominally to get rid of the Border but was really an expression of Nationalist anger and frustration that the Unionists wouldn’t allow the Catholic community a fair and rightful swig of the jug.
This explains why, except for a few ideological Republicans, the Sinn Fein leadership was so easily able to bring its base along the journey to the Good Friday Agreement, an accord which embraced accepting the consent principle and the destruction of the IRA armoury.
And if the consent principle was not about accepting the Border, then I do not know what it was about. Decommissioning the IRA’s guns, meanwhile, was a statement saying that if Nationalists got their slice of the cake they would no longer be needed.
The conclusion of all this is simple. As long as the post-Brexit arrangements leave in place the defining features of the Good Friday Agreement, which are primarily about according Northern Catholics their political place in the sun, then the recent EU referendum will not fundamentally challenge the post-1998 peace. No matter what greets the traveler as he or she reaches the Irish Border.