Across the sectarian divide

There is more to the border question than meets the eye, says James Harvey

Amidst all the sound and fury surrounding the House of Commons votes on the European Union Withdrawal Bill, it was easy to overlook amendment 25. This stipulated that there could be no change to Irish border arrangements without the agreement of both the Irish and British governments.

With the minimum of fuss the amendment was accepted by the government and nodded through, although only after the Independent Unionist MP for North Down, Lady Sylvia Hermon, had complained that such a serious issue should receive more than the 15 minutes allotted to it by government business managers. The status of the border was important, she claimed, because it was specifically defined in an international agreement between the Irish and British governments, and she wanted to “discuss whether the government had unilaterally amended the Belfast Agreement”.1 So was it back to the “dreary steeples” yet again?2

Not quite. It is true that Lady Hermon’s concerns about the international status of the Irish border do echo familiar fears about the impact of Brexit on the ‘peace process’. Lord Patten, the leading Tory peer who originally moved the amendment in the Lords that was so briefly ‘discussed’, has spoken of Brexit as an incendiary move that threatens the return of violence to Northern Ireland.3 Labour’s Keir Starmer, the shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union, has sounded similar alarms, using the threat of renewed violence to support his position on remaining within the customs union.4 Similarly, on both sides of the Irish border the politics of Brexit and the ‘peace process’ have become ever more intertwined, as the clock winds down on the United Kingdom’s EU membership. Thus warnings of the dire consequences a ‘hard border’ will have on the everyday life of border communities are conflated with, and weighed against, the interests of international treaties and trade.

In Britain the Irish border dilemma confronting Theresa May’s government is quite clear. She is trying to face three ways at the same time by promising quite contradictory Brexit outcomes to her various Irish, British and European interlocutors. So in Britain we were told that ‘Brexit means Brexit’: the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) will be leaving the customs union and single market. But to reassure the negotiators representing the EU 27 - including for this purpose the Dublin government - the British government has proposed an “Irish backstop” which will both avoid a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and maintain the perceived achievements of the Good Friday agreement. It is suggested that this will be done by partially keeping the whole United Kingdom within the customs union and the single market in respect to the movement of goods and regulatory alignment. What’s not to like? Surely this resolves all the difficulties and keeps everyone happy?

Apparently not. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, quickly rubbished the plan as “presumptuous nonsense” and, in the words of one commentator, “demolished it brick by brick”.5 In both off-the-record briefings and an official European Commission statement it was clear that the EU 27 were prepared to make an exceptional case of Northern Ireland, “for the first and last time, to preserve the frictionless border and the Belfast Agreement”, but this “unprecedented offer” could not be granted to the whole United Kingdom.6 Theresa May had already had difficulties in getting her divided cabinet to accept the proposals, primarily because this Irish “backstop” entailed Britain effectively remaining part of the EU beyond March 2019. To the more committed Brexiteers - such as David Davis, who apparently threatened to resign over the issue - the rather open-ended time scale of this arrangement was rather more ‘Hotel California’ (“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”) than ‘Hit the road, Jack’ (“And don’t you come back no more, no more”).7 The temporary suddenly seemed to be becoming rather more permanent - and with no incentive for the British government to make it any less so.


These British “backstop” proposals and the EU’s response ‘offering’ an exceptional status for Northern Ireland expose both the contradictions at the heart of the May government’s Brexit project and the fundamental divisions that produce permanent crisis in the devolved ‘government’ of Northern Ireland.8 In the Six Counties the divisions over Brexit and the hard border are intensified because they overlap with the political battle between unionism and nationalism - and more especially because of the Democratic Unionist Party’s parliamentary support for Theresa May’s minority government.

The DUP campaigned for Brexit and has maintained a long-term opposition to ‘Europe’ and the Treaty of Rome: its unionist defence of the sovereignty and integrity of the United Kingdom chimes well with the Tory Brexiteers and gives these provincial unionists a gratifying sense that they are at last playing a real part in the public life of ‘their’ British state.9 The veto their parliamentary position gives them over these aspects of the May government’s Brexit policy only adds to this sense of self-importance. The border with the 26-County state is their border, whose meandering contours are the hard reality and the symbol of their place in the United Kingdom. Any proposals that diminish that border, whether symbolically or in reality, cannot be tolerated.10

The EU’s ‘exceptional’ proposal for a special status for Northern Ireland does exactly that, because it not only treats the region differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, but brings it into alignment with the rest of the island. In this unionist reading, Northern Ireland’s ‘new’ border runs through the Irish Sea separating ‘the province’ from ‘the mainland’. Given the continued suspension of the executive and the assembly, and the pressures on the DUP arising from the enquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal,11 banging the Brexit drum seems to be a winning strategy. What better way to mobilise their communal electorate than play the old familiar tunes, but with new words: now historical enemies in Dublin are once again exploiting the border issue to undermine ‘Ulster’s’ place in the United Kingdom?

Given this history, the tight parliamentary arithmetic and how close the narratives of the Tory Brexiteers are to the hearts of Ulster unionism, the DUP’s alignment should really come as no surprise. However, the situation on the other side of the communal politics of the Six Counties might at first seem a little more surprising. The dominant party amongst northern nationalists, Sinn Féin, has planted its banner firmly in the ‘remain’ camp and swung behind the policy of Leo Varadkar and the southern political class. This makes electoral sense for these erstwhile revolutionary republicans on both sides of the border. At its crudest level in the increasingly heightened sectarian politics of the Six Counties, if the unionists are for it, nationalist parties must be against it. As if in response to the traditional tribal tunes of the DUP, during the EU referendum campaign Sinn Féin played its own old-time favourite about reunification of the nation.12

Just as Sinn Féin once sold the Good Friday agreement as a “transitional process towards a new Ireland”, it now suggests that continuing membership of the European Union, ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland and border polls can act as a similar high road to the republic.13 To supplement this appeal, the Provisionals have also played on the very real economic fears of the impact of Brexit - especially on border and rural communities dependent on agriculture and related industries.

Away from these border regions, in the 26 Counties Sinn Féin has its eyes firmly fixed on electoral respectability and the prize of a place at the cabinet table. Its support for the Dublin government’s position on Brexit is an important way to prove that New Sinn Féin can be responsible and play its part in defending the national interest of the 26-County state. In playing their part in this Brexit carnival of reaction alongside the Dublin government and the rest of the southern ruling class, Mary Lou McDonald and her party have abandoned any pretence of republicanism and shown their eminent suitability as a partner in maintaining whatever status quo emerges on either side of the Irish (hard or soft) border in the future.


1. BBC Northern Ireland News June 12: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-44445740. The official title of what is more commonly known internationally as the Good Friday agreement is the Belfast Agreement.

2. ‘Beyond the border quandaryWeekly Worker May 31.

3. The Independent May 2.

4. BBC Northern Ireland News January 29: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-42853018.

5. The Irish Times June 9.

6. Sky News June 11: https://news.sky.com/story/european-commission-rejects-uks-brexit-backstop-plan-over-hard-irish-border-risk-11401747.

7. Sky News June 7: https://news.sky.com/story/theresa-may-averts-brexit-crisis-after-david-davis-resignation-talk-11397395.

8. For one pro-Brexit view of these contradictions see P Ramsey and C Bickerton, ‘The Irish border: passing Brexit’s acid test of sovereignty’: www.thefullbrexit.com/irish-border.

9. See J Tonge, M Braniff, T Hennessey, J McAuley and S Whiting The Democratic Unionist Party: from protest to power Oxford 2014.

10. The Independent March 8.

11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_Heat_Incentive_scandal.

12. Belfast Telegraph May 8.

13. See News Letter April 28: www.newsletter.co.uk/news/sinn-fein-think-brexit-will-get-them-a-border-poll-but-it-won-t-says-trimble-1-8479501.