The Irish Border has once again become a contentious issue Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 collection

The Irish border has recently loomed large as perhaps the most difficult challenge in negotiating Brexit. All sorts of proposals have been offered to ‘fix’ the problem of the border, from May’s backstop, to ‘technological solutions’, and even a suggestion that the Republic of Ireland rejoin the UK. All sides – the government, the EU, Tory backbenchers, Labour – have emphasised their opposition to a hard border, and even if (in some cases) one can question their sincerity, this is an impressive show of unanimity. But it has not translated to much in the way of action, as the UK seemingly sleepwalks towards a no-deal Brexit.

Well-known are the straightforward economic and political costs of a hard border: closing-off of important markets, difficulties for those who cross the border for work, the threat of terrorism. But while these consequences would be difficult and potentially dangerous, a hard border’s effects on the people of NI’s conception of their own national identity would be just as significant.

In symbolic terms, perhaps the most important part of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland, was its explicit commitment to the right the people of Northern Ireland to “identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both”. Northern Ireland, from the outset, was a sectarian entity: James Craig, the province’s first head of government, famously ‘boasted’ that NI was “a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state”. Irish Catholics were routinely denied civil rights and seen as second-class citizens, and the 30-year Troubles were in many ways the result of the sectarian tension that arose bubbling over. The declaration that the people of the province had the right to be Irish, that this was recognised and respected, was a formal declaration heralding the end of the period.

“Being Irish in Northern Ireland is much easier today than it was 20 years ago”

Nonetheless, formal declarations are empty without substantive action to back them up; an invisible border was the change that allowed Irishness to exist harmoniously in Northern Ireland. To feel Irish in NI, especially during the Troubles, could often mean feeling occupied, walled off from your own nation by a seemingly artificial border manned by a foreign army. But today, the open border means that the island is continuous: if you’re not aware of where the border is, the only indication that you’ve crossed into a different country is that the speed limit is now in kilometres. Being Irish in Northern Ireland is much easier today than it was 20 years ago.

A hard border would threaten this. Any indication of the border immediately demarcates division on the island, whether that be through security or customs checks. The border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (the Irish sea) is natural, but the border between Northern Ireland and the South can only be artificial. It exists because of centuries of colonial rule and British-created division, that means that Irishness often includes an opposition to this colonialism, a pride in independence and resistance: the most celebrated moments in Irish history are the rebellions of 1798 and 1916, and the country’s anthem is Amhrán na bhFiann – the Soldier’s Song.

Can such pride be consistent with living contentedly under a British union? For many, this comes down to a practical question. If Northern Ireland can govern its own affairs, if its people are free to identify as Irish, and if the border between NI and the Republic is porous, then the union creates no pressure to give up one’s independence. But when these things are compromised, being happy with NI’s place in the UK becomes trickier for those whose Irishness is important to them. A hard border would draw a line between Irish people in Northern Ireland and their own country, and put Irishness at odds with living under the union, creating frustration and resentment.

“Irishness and Britishness need not be opposed”

If a hard border would make being Irish more difficult, it would have an even more disastrous effect on those whose identities do not fit within the narrow confines of either ‘Irishness’ or ‘Britishness’. The Good Friday Agreement’s promise of respect was towards those who identified as “Irish or British, or both”. Those last two words, “or both”, suggest a new way forward for Northern Ireland: an identity that moves past longstanding division and that believes that Irishness and Britishness need not be opposed. To believe that one can be both is to reject the sectarianism that has been ever-present in the history of the province, and to accept Northern Ireland’s complex dual inheritance on its own terms. Being Northern Irish – to be not primarily one or the other of British or Irish, but to be from this province and proud of it – is powerful and possible.


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But the compatibility of Irishness and Britishness would be destabilised by a hard border. The ease with which it is possible to reconcile the two when considering one’s personal identity is dependent on whether they are reconcilable in practical terms. With a hard border, harmony between the two would no longer be possible. The line between Britain and Ireland would become clearly marked and practically significant, with infrastructural changes literally enforcing the division. Ultimately, a hard border threatens the progress that Northern Ireland has made. As 29 March looms, we must all redouble our efforts to ensure that it is avoided.

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