“I don’t think my visiting the Border is really going to give me a fundamental insight into the Border beyond what one can get by studying it,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North-East Somerset. This comes from footage of a public meeting where Rees-Mogg euphemistically stated that the British government could “keep an eye on” the border, and suggested that there should be a return to the sort of inspections at border-crossings that existed during the Troubles. Historians may, by these words, be minded of Arthur Balfour, and more recently, Mo Mowlam: when the former was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887, and the latter Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 1997, as the first decision of each upon their appointment was to visit the jurisdiction which they had just accepted responsibility for, that they might receive a better understanding of it. One also remembers the words of Ronan Fanning, the later Professor of Modern History at UCD, who suggested that the First World War gave Herbert Asquith the excuse to do what ‘he had always wanted about Ireland: nothing.’
One wonders what Rees-Mogg meant when he suggested that he had ‘studied’ the border- such conjures up images of him pouring over maps in the British Library, by candlelight- however this is not the first time that his knowledge on the subject of Northern Ireland, and most specifically the border, has been called into question. In an interview in May, with Mark Carruthers on the BBC’s The View, the Conservative MP stated that “walking through a few fields” would not provide him with a drastically enlightened view, and that all the information he needed on Northern affairs he could acquire quite happily via conversations with his colleagues in the House of Commons who represent Northern Irish constituencies.
The last comment is the one in which Rees-Mogg reveals not only his own ignorance but his utter lack of interest in the subject on which he speaks with confidence. Presumably, Rees-Mogg was referring to the eleven NI MPs who take their seats in the chamber, all of whom are from the unionist tradition, ten of whom are from the same party (namely the Democratic Unionist Party), and only one of whom represents a seat which actually sits on the border. The extent to which this is a satisfactory resource with which to gain a good working knowledge of a post-conflict society is strained even still when one considers that Westminster tends to a be a pasture of Northern Irish politics, where one will not find the best and brightest but rather those who were causing more trouble for their parties at home, or are generally political outliers.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, via Twitter, expressed his disbelief that a “senior politician could be so ill-informed about Ireland + the politics of the Irish border. We have left the Troubles behind us, through the sincere efforts of many + we intend on keeping it that way.” This raises the noteworthy point that the Good Friday Agreement, not just a recognition by Republicans of Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, but also a recognition by the unionists party to it that Northern Ireland is an intrinsic part of the island of Ireland, and the Irish nation. As Bertie Ahern said at Arbour Hill in 1998, “Antrim and Down are, and will remain, as much a part of Ireland as any southern county.”
This is where we get into the real heart of the issue, which is too often missed by too many: the aversion to a hard border on the island of Ireland is not so much economic as it is cultural. When Rees-Mogg’s party colleague Boris Johnson compared the Irish border to that which lies between Camden and Islington, not only did he fail to mention how foot-traffic is monitored along the latter, but he failed to realise that South Armagh has more in common with Monaghan, in a spiritual sense, than Camden does with Islington. The discussions of a reappearance of border checkpoints and inspections bring minds and memories back to a darker place, that an overwhelming majority voted to Leave.
At the time of partition, the wife of Edward Carson’s private secretary likened the division of the country to the “cutting of a live animal in half,” and that emotion should be borne in mind by politicians today as there are once again people who do not know what their country will look like in the very future.
Obviously there are economic concerns from businesses which operate on a cross-border basis, such as funeral directors, which have been discussed in various sections of the media and also form the main plot of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon, yet there is not enough heed paid to the cultural indignity which will be done by attempting to impose a border where one does not naturally sit.