Yesterday, I spent a very enjoyable lunchtime at a nice restaurant in one of the most monumental buildings in America – New York’s Grand Central Station – with old friends from Ireland, took the train home, switched on the radio and there on the afternoon news magazine on our local public radio station was more nonsense about how a Brexit-induced hard border in Ireland could re-ignite the Troubles.
I should have stayed downtown.
WNYC is not alone, alas, in peddling this canard. Virtually every media outlet in the Western world, and beyond for all I know, has fallen for the absurd proposition that if Brexit produces a Border between North and South resembling that which existed pre-EU, then the guns and bombs will almost certainly be back on the streets of Belfast, Derry and south Armagh.
Here, for example, are two of the most normally cautious and careful news magazines to be found on any news stand in this country or in Europe, The Economist and Newsweek, one British, the other American, opining on the matter.
First, The Economist:
During the Troubles of the 1960s-90s, the border was dotted with army checkpoints and watchtowers, as well as (until 1993) customs controls. The melting away of the militarised frontier into a mere line on a map was perhaps the most visible achievement of the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 accord that largely brought an end to three decades of violence.
Yet there is a serious risk that a hard border could return. After Brexit, this will be the only land boundary between Britain and the European Union.
Nobody predicts that violence is about to return to Northern Ireland. But a return to a hard border would further destabilise an already fragile political situation. One peace-loving old-timer jokes that he would personally blow up any installation erected on the border.
And this is Newsweek:
But any significant change to the Irish border threatens to damage business, and new barriers could also stoke old tensions. Making it significantly harder to travel between Northern Ireland and Ireland might enrage one half of the bitter Northern Irish political divide; the Republicans and Nationalists who eventually want to see a united, independent Ireland. Impediments to travel between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., meanwhile, would be problematic for the Unionists; Northern Irish people who want the province to stay joined with Britain.
And here is a video produced by the European parliament, implicitly saying the same by invoking the need to protect the peace process from a hard border.
The problem with this analysis is that it starts from a flawed and overly simplistic premise, which is that the Troubles were all about the Border, when they really weren’t. It may look that way to the uneducated outsider but the truth was a whole lot more complex.
The Troubles were sparked by two things: first, a demand from the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland for civil rights, for a greater measure of equality and for institutions, such as the police, which acted in a way which could command their support and allegiance. Second, the refusal/reluctance of Unionists to acquiesce.
In the early days of the civil rights campaign the national question, i.e. the demand for Irish re-unification and the removal of the Border, figured hardly at all in the protests. In fact civil rights leaders were keen to stress that reform not revolution was their priority.
Most Unionists however chose to see it all very differently, regarding any demand for change as a challenge to the existence of the state.
The response of Unionists was to regard the civil rights movement as a wolf in sheep’s clothing and to meet it with obdurance and violence, either directly via the RUC or more often by way of the mob, Burntollet and Bombay Street being bloodily eloquent examples.
The fact that a significant section of Unionism would not countenance reform and was prepared to use violence to preserve its privileges persuaded a significant section of the Nationalist community that the place was irreformable and had to be pulled down. Hence the Provisional IRA and its quarter of a century of violence.
But those who did advocate that approach were always in the minority. The bulk of Nationalists gave their votes to the SDLP, a party which embodied the politics of reform. The Provos only came to command Nationalist politics when they moved into ground once dominated by the SDLP.
The fact that the party most violent in its opposition to the Northern Ireland state eventually accepted its existence as long as it was made a warmer and more welcoming place for Nationalists, as happened when the Provos signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, is surely compelling evidence that the Border played a secondary part in the genesis of the Troubles.
None of this means that a hard Border will be entirely harmless. Life for a significant section of the population on either side of the Border could be made more complicated and difficult. But the idea that this could so enrage Nationalists that they will again reach for the gun is unsustainable nonsense.
Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first civil rights marches in Coalisland and Derry and there now exists, on paper at least, a settlement that essentially addresses satisfactorily the question raised by civil rights: whither the place of Nationalists in Northern Ireland?
Via the offices of Sinn Fein, Nationalists now have a guaranteed place in government while all the other demands of the civil rights movement of the Sixties have been met, some in spades.
Most Nationalists appear content with the Good Friday Agreement, even if it is in cold storage as I write this post, and in that gratification it is possible to discern the underlying truth of the Troubles, which is that they were never really about the Border but about the well-being and position of Nationalists in the existing constitutional status quo.
So, why has so much of the world’s media, not to mention foreign governments, fallen for the hard Border codswollop?
Well, the Troubles have been over for nearly two decades and a new generation of journalists and politicians are coming to the Troubles possibly for the first time. They come to the topic more in ignorance than enlightenment and in such circumstances are ideal prey for the unscrupulous.
Foremost among those peddling the ‘hard Border equals new Troubles’ nonsense has been Sinn Fein, who have even staged mock Border crossings for the media with controls of such severity that they resemble nothing that I can remember from my student days of trips to Dublin when the EU consisted of just six countries in a common market.
But such reconstructions make great YouTube videos and wonderful propaganda which untutored reporters and politicians are quite happy to accept. They know no better.
The hard Border scenario presents Sinn Fein with endless political possibilities and it certainly helps to have in the background a seemingly intractable deadlock in the talks to revive Stormont. That gives credibility to the dark warnings.
Is that why Sinn Fein have just recently discovered the centrality of the Irish language or marriage rights for gay and transgender people? Is that why agreement in the negotiations to restore the Good Friday Agreement has so far proved so elusive? Will Stormont be revived only when Brexit is settled?
Or am I being just too cynical?