I see that Peter Hain – remember him? – has joined the growing chorus of doomsayers predicting all sorts of sturm und drang in the North in the event of a hard Brexit. Writing in The Guardian – where else? – Hain opines:
…..for Irish republicans and nationalists, an entirely open border, of the kind which has operated without security or hindrance of any kind for many years, is politically totemic.
He is not alone in peddling this nonsense. Former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern was at it two weeks ago, also in The Guardian, which alone of the British media seems to be taking this issue seriously.
Ahern had this to say:
It (Brexit) psychologically feeds badly into the nationalist communities. People have said that this could have the same impact on the nationalist community as the seismic shock of the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement on unionists, and I agree with that.
And we all know what happened after the A-I-A of 1985: riots, walkouts from parliament, political crises and a surge in Loyalist paramilitary killing.
Both Hain and Ahern are at pains to say that they are not predicting a return to violence by Republicans – heavens forfend! – but of course this is exactly what they are doing. Impose a hard Brexit, they are effectively telling Theresa May, and you risk provoking the IRA into picking up its guns again.
Hain was Northern Ireland Secretary when Tony Blair was in charge of the Northern peace process and Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach when the Good Friday Agreement deal was struck.
Having been intimately involved in the diplomacy which ended the Troubles both men should know better what the root causes of the violence and instability really were – and why and how they were ended.
Above all else they should know that it wasn’t the Border which started the Troubles in 1968 or 1969 at all. Nor was it the Border which ended them.
The Troubles had their roots in something much more commonplace: the Nationalist belief that as long as Unionists ruled the roost they could never get a fair share of jobs, houses and political power and the equally strong conviction on the part of Unionists that if they relaxed their grip on these things they would lose their place in the sun.
The conflict that followed, bloody and awful that it was, resembled a war of liberation and had all the necessary trappings – from guerilla warfare to heady battle hymns – but was really a simple struggle for Catholic civil rights that had got badly, even inexplicably, out of control.
The way that the conflict ended, as Hain and Ahern should know full well, proves the point. Not only did the Border not figure in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in the way anti-imperialists might expect but the IRA ‘s political wing actually accepted that it could stay as long as the Unionists wanted.
So no problem with the Border there.
What the Sinn Fein party wanted and got from the GFA was a share of power and a guarantee that they and their people would from thereon get a fair swig from the jug. In other words the 1998 peace deal was the culmination of a struggle for civil rights not for Irish unity.
The reality is that most Nationalists in Northern Ireland were not directly affected by the long queues and customs posts that Ahern and Hain now predict will return to fray nerves and tempers post-Brexit. They got on with their lives quite happily and, truth to tell, the customs posts that functioned for many years, even during the worst years of the Troubles, barely figured as an irritant.
What really annoyed people at the various Border crossing points were the permanent checkpoints manned by the British Army, RUC and UDR. Well with the GFA, they and the military have gone and will not be coming back no matter what shape Brexit takes.
Unionist bigotry and a police force that was sometimes nakedly partial always mattered much more to Nationalists than the Border. And they were angry at poor housing, long-term unemployment and the Unionists’ refusal to give them a say in how where they lived was governed much more than the bump in the road outside Newry that served as an international boundary.
The most that the Border figured in all of this was as a symbol of their second class citizenship. Once Nationalist inequality was substantially addressed in the GFA the Border faded away.
So while Brexit will not bring the bad old days back, the collapse of the power-sharing government at Stormont may, especially if that happens against a background of DUP triumphalism. Even so, I cannot imagine too many dissidents eager to take up cudgels, much less armalites, to bring back Stormont.
Nonetheless, Hain and Ahern, not to mention Theresa May and whoever takes over from Enda Kenny, would do better concentrating their energies in addressing that problem. The Border can wait.