Patch Thompson is a postgraduate student at Queen’s University, specialising in Northern Irish and Labour politics and Anglo-Irish Relations.
Last week, during his first political appearance since resigning as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that, to his surprise, the question of the border in Ireland, which had previously been ‘assumed on all sides to be readily soluble’ was now ‘so politically charged as to dominate the debate’. Johnson’s shock at what anyone with basic comprehension skills should understand was mirrored this week when Owen Patterson and Theresa Villiers, two former Tory Northern Ireland Ministers, asked in The Times newspaper why the European Commission was ‘only listening to to Ireland’ on Brexit. Meanwhile, on the other side of the political divide, after visiting Northern Ireland last week, Lord Andrew Adonis proclaimed that ‘after three days’ he understood completely the situation in the North.
It is a disappointing reality that Westminster politicians, in general, keep themselves woefully uninformed when it comes to Northern Ireland. With a nominally devolved government and just enough distance from London to be happily regarded as a provincial oddity, the North can be ignored until something drastic happens. This approach has continued, unabated, despite both Brexit and the reliance of the government on Northern Irish MPs to achieve a workable majority.
Johnson and his colleagues in the militantly pro-Brexit camp have never showed an interest in tackling concerns regarding the border. For them it is a secondary issue to the grand narrative of their own careers. With Theresa May’s recent visit to the North, it has also become clear that she is willing to play chicken with the EU as part of her negotiating strategy. Ignoring the hypocrisy of the sudden claim that the backstop agreement previous negotiated with the EU breaches the Good Friday Agreement, and should therefore be ignored, there is little indication that her government has any serious comprehension of how a future relationship across the border should be managed. Even if there wasn’t such a long, difficult history of Anglo-Irish relations, such a blasé attitude towards the United Kingdom’s only land border with the EU would be reckless at best.
To many living, breathing and working here in Northern Ireland, this much has been clear since the start – which makes the involvement of Northern Irish politicians in shaping the government’s position on the border all the more frustrating. Cross-border relations were always going to be a major issue in the event of Leave victory, and not just in the purely economic sense. It has also renewed questions of identity and belonging that, given the current political impasse at Stormont, appear to have no easily foreseeable answers. The Tory position, arguing against both a Hard Border with the Republic and any form of increased scrutiny, is ignorant of this. It is also ignorant of the many ways in which there already is a border, unseen by many, between Northern Ireland and Britain. In a practical sense, there are already checks on goods and livestock performed after crossing an invisible border ‘in the Irish Sea’. Socially, as has been confirmed by official statistics recently, the North has some of the most deprived areas in the United Kingdoms, with sky rocketing levels of early, avoidable deaths linked to deprivation. If Northern Ireland is to be considered, post-Brexit, completely at one with the rest of the United Kingdom then this cannot go unaddressed. Neither can the gross injustice of the treatment of women and LGBT+ people in the North, where archaic laws on abortion and equal marriage result in second class citizenship compared to the rights that are the entitlement of individuals across the rest of the United Kingdom and now, increasingly, in Ireland as well.
Given all of this, it is naive to think that a solution to the many challenges facing Northern Ireland can be found in Westminster. Equally, while Nationalists might argue that the North’s brightest future lies as part of a United Ireland, there is a long, difficult road to be traveled before that position becomes widely accepted. Perversely, the one institution that has shown, and continues to show, understanding and regard for the realities of the North is the same institution that we are bound to leave, the European Union. After we leave it is uncertain who, if anyone outside of a still empty Stormont, will hear the concerns of the 1.8million people in Northern Ireland today.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.