It’s easier to get rid of a hard border

Vincent Boland has written a major piece for the FT magazine (£) entitled “Dividing Line: Brexit and the threat to the Irish Border“. The article is all more absorbing for being written for the casually interested globalised audience that is the FT’s typical readership. Boland doesn’t deal in economic statistics or confusing politics but on the intense, often harrowing experience that remains the living legacy of the Troubles on both sides of the physical border. And here he identifies the paradox hinted at in the title:   that the quickest way to get rid of a border is to make it hard.

Unlike in Seoul, South Korea, there is no ministry of unification in Dublin. Yet as any student of borders knows, when contested frontiers disappear, they do so remarkably quickly. The border between West and East Germany disappeared almost overnight. And Brexit could make the Irish border, once again, a contested frontier.

Hardline Irish nationalists, such as those in Sinn Féin, often take a contradictory stance on the border. On the one hand, they believe Brexit has brought forward the day of Irish reunification and, on the other, they insist that the border must not be touched, the quicker for it to disappear. Garrett Carr, who walked the length of the Irish border and wrote a book, The Rule of the Land, about his experience, says that the ­softening of the border over the past 20 years has, paradoxically, made it more durable.

“Flexibility makes things survive for longer. People along the border talk about it like they talk about the weather — it has become almost an environmental feature,” Carr says. “The quickest way to get rid of a border is to make it hard. Then it becomes a polarising issue and people start to develop some kind of front against it — it creates the sense of being an imposed entity. When a border stops rubbing people up the wrong way, when it stops challenging their identity, that’s what makes it endure.”

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London