Children of the Ceasefire: Reflections on the Border III

The Issue of the Border in Ireland is a debate caught between two fronts. The border, as it exists currently, is representative of a physical and symbolic/metaphysical indicator of relative peace and stability in Ireland. The openness of the physical border has consequentially allowed for civil debate and meaningful reconciliation between Northern and Southern communities to flourish. The absence of a physical manifestation of the border solidified by investment through the PEACE I-IV, and EDF schemes in Northern Ireland and the Border regions, has provided access to the necessary economic stability and growth to bring about political security and belief that co-operation and co-dependence can and must exist between neighbours.

The co-existence that has been guaranteed has been achievable together with European membership and the Peace agreement. It has been to the economic benefit of the majority of people either directly or indirectly, and the status-quo of shared responsibility for political/economic and/social issues is at the very least accepted by the majority of the political parties that represent those affected by the latest chapter of political violence.

For my generation, while the ties to place and identity are strong, and need be acknowledged, there exists a foundation of acceptance for interchangeable identity. The possibility of a positive conversation around the fluidity of identity. A willingness to accept the interchangeability of one’s own nationality and/or Irish  and even the interchangeability between imagined communities.

However, in casual conversation and when specifically pinpointed there is a less than enthusiastic acceptance of the interchangeability between Irish and British identity. The opinion that this is inherited  from an older generation is often brought up as one of the causes for prolonged negativity between the two historical blocs, but in fact it is the forward thinking of that majority that provided the space for the choice of interchangeable identity. The choice that they hoped to guarantee for future generations.

In the long term this should be the more pressing aspect of the Border issue from a southern perspective. The one that often revolves around the question of the metaphysical border, Hume’s “border of the mind”.

The debate around the need to avoid a physical border has been ended with Dublin, Stormont, and London all in agreement that it will not and should not be re-established. However it is the reality of International law that London will be obligated to construct such a physical border should parliament remain affirmed to the position of staying out of a customs union. So while all parties are in agreement about what not to do theoretically, there remains the actual lawful reality that our governments are obligated to enforce.

The solution to the physical problem of the border, the disrupting of the intertwined economies and shared communities  of Ireland, has been established as the Backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement. No other solution has emerged that is both reasonable and technically achievable in the timeframe that Britain has negotiated to achieve an orderly exit. Movement into the negotiations of the Future relationship with the EU has been prevented by the position that the DUP and the Brexiteer caucus of MPs have established.

The narrative of the Backstop to those opposed to it, is that it represents an un-negotiable breach of sovereignty which creates an unforgivable split between Northern Ireland and the UK. It is an unpopular solution to MPs who do not want to be tied to the common market with the EU without a definitive timeframe or release clause that the UK government has control over.

Some commentators have argued that the only way to move the proceedings forward is to drop the Backstop guarantee, in order to give the necessary momentum to push the withdrawal agreement over the line.

There are two immediate facts that emerge against these arguments that are linkable to the actual nature of the backstop. Firstly that the Backstop is a mechanism of last resort. It should only come into effect should no further solution be reached by the end of the transitional period of negotiations outlining the future relationship of the EU-UK run out in 31st December 2021. The Withdrawal Agreement is the default position for such an orderly exit. Secondly the UK is already tied to the single market, the customs union and the EEA up until this point on 31/12/21. Both parties (EU/UK) are unilaterally tied to the customs union. Secondly the Backstop is a solution of  British design, and is compromise to the demand to grant Northern Ireland special status within the Customs Union and the Single market. The Backstop is a guarantee that the North can in the long term hold onto it the essential unity of its integrated economy and society to the South, without having to consider the possibility of breaking legal and sovereign ties to the Union with Great Britain.

While the DUP’s stance is in some ways admirable in the sense that they stick to the principles upon which they were elected, they run the risk of undermining the political promise of those principles by choosing to denounce the Backstop. Their promise not to break sovereign ties with UK is limited to the economic and social realities. If there is no guarantee of the free flow of goods and services and business between North and South, there is a risk that the economy and therefore the society and livelihood of the North will be forced into a position of choice. Choice of where the best possible future for the region lies. What Union to choose. The problem for the political promise of Unionism as it is currently interpreted is perhaps not that its political arguments are wrong, but that they are tied to a specific interpretation of identity and belief in cultural intransigence.

In the face of a Brexit when the cultural beliefs are put to one side for the sake of economic and social stability, the question can be raised: In which Union does the future hold the most promise for the people of Northern Ireland?

Debates demanding a programme of national Unity from nationalists of every sect have been jumped to the forefront of the national consciousness as a natural response to the Brexit circus. The Republic of Ireland is only now coming to terms with the social and political changes, challenges and realities emerging from the thirty year positive trajectory of our now highly globalised and globally dependent export economy. The nation is to some extent still is in a form of identity crisis, emerging from a decades of social conservatism which has unfortunately been tied to specific expressions and narratives describing of our cultural Nationalism.

The objective of the early state was to throw out all aspects of what it viewed as colonial, while simultaneously reigning in and rejecting the uncompromising violent politically motivated supporters of Irish Nationalism. This, together with the unfortunate influence of a singularly influential moral intermediator (the Catholic Church) in actively of defining Irish social policy, in fact, undermined the principles upon which the ideals of the Irish Republican concept was founded – a shared community in which both historical traditions could not only co-exist but become homogenous.

The promise of the Good Friday Agreement was not only to begin the process to end Nationalistic political violence in Ireland once and for all, but to allow us to begin a revaluation of the inclusive values that defined Irish Republicanism, prior to it becoming understood as an exclusive form of identity.

Until recently the Republic has a divided attitude on the affairs of the North and struggles when placing our shared experience at the heart of an overall discussions of the national conversation. The question of the border and the current debate remains rooted in the immediacy of the ruinous potential of Brexit to the all-Ireland economy, and our unstable peace. 

Our ability to address the border issue and end the sectarianism that still exists in our day to day interactions between communities at a political and institutional level is undermined by our inability to converse about the possibility of a homogenous society North and South with a mind to the future and not the past.


By Matthew Redmond – hailing from Dublin, graduate of University College Dublin and the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin.

Image by David Dixon, licensed by Creative Commons.


Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger.

While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.