Troubled Borders

By Ross James Gildea


Birth of the Border: The Impact of Partition in Ireland

Cormac Moore, Merrion, 2019


Fifty Years On: The Troubles and the Struggle for Change in Northern Ireland

Malachi O’Doherty, Atlantic, 2019


If Ireland was once an ‘afterthought of Europe,’ as James Joyce ruefully put it, in Britain it has been fortunate to reach even those diminutive heights. We know that a country that hides from its own past will struggle to make sense of its present. One that hides from its present is in worse shape still. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the UK government’s handling of the border issue in Ireland.


It is impossible to grasp the meaning and consequences of the border without first understanding Northern Ireland. And yet, policy debate in the UK has shown the opposite inclination. Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismissed the border as a ‘gnat’ of an issue, likening it to the crossing of London boroughs. Former Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, admitted to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that he had not read the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg left a former Irish Taoiseach with the impression he had ‘no idea’ what the Irish border was.


And this misapprehension is not confined to the right of the political spectrum. In an issue of the New Statesman addressing the ‘return of the Irish question,’ the front cover offered readers insight into ‘how an ancient conflict is destabilising the British State’. Not content with the trope of ‘ancient conflicts,’ the potential victims of a disrupted peace in Northern Ireland were cast as its instigators. Those familiar with the colonial vernacular know what to read into both of these remarks.


In a sense, this lack of understanding is unsurprising. Since the GFA was signed in 1998, the reality of life and politics in the North–uniquely dysfunctional by the standards of Western Europe–has been sanitised by the language of conflict resolution and sidelined by the demands of the Peace Process. The story of ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland deserves a more prominent footing in the public square.


Cormac Moore’s Birth of the Border, a broad portrait of the period 1912-1925 in Irish history, and Malachi O’Doherty’s Fifty Years On, a forward-looking memoir of life during the Troubles, provide useful context to begin the discussion. In their own way, both books relay the tragic and ironic nature of Anglo-Irish relations, intimate connections between the personal and political, and how complacent minds are poor guardians of lasting peace.


According to Moore, when Ireland was partitioned in 1921, the impact was all-encompassing. The border not only affected the politics and security of the newly-formed jurisdictions, but ruptured systems of law, education, infrastructure, sport, and religion, each of which is examined by Moore in discrete chapters. It arbitrarily cut through townlands and separated neighbours. It widened psychological divisions between unionists and nationalists, polarising identity and affiliation. It contributed to ‘prolonged periods of economic stagnation and decline’ across the island. Moore quotes the Freeman’s Journal newssheet, which gave the following instructive assessment: ‘will anyone even adduce a single fact to show that such breaking up is not ruinous from every point of view?’


Looking back, one of the ironies of the new arrangements was the decision of the Free State government, in March 1923, to erect customs barriers between the two jurisdictions. Intended to disentangle the economic fortunes of the Free State from Britain, as well as to create economic pressure on Northern Ireland, its primary impact appears to have been to solidify partition. As Moore explains, ‘the temporary frontier on imported goods lasted for over 70 years, only rescinded due to the introduction of the Single Market throughout the European Union in 1993’. Though perspectives have shifted, wrangling over the border, the Customs Union, and the EU is not without precedent.


The ‘confusion’ and ‘uncertainty’ wrought by partition are central themes in Moore’s account. Basic features of Irish life, such as the railways, postal service, and fisheries, were no longer as reliable as before. People struggled to plan, with many unsure of what country to which they would soon belong. Moore recounts how some members of the nationalist community believed, amid the daze of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and proposed Boundary Commission, that residents of the Falls Road in Belfast would be able to vote themselves out of Northern Ireland. Quaint in retrospect, this story is indicative of a process beyond the control of ordinary people.


Despite the proximity of both countries, the British government knew little of Ireland and cared still less for its people, sentiment that coloured Anglo-Irish negotiations. The forthcoming Prime Minister, Bonar Law (1922-1923) believed that the Irish were ‘an inferior race,’ a declaration of enmity against which few of his Conservative colleagues would have rebelled.


Most disturbingly, partition coincided with an escalation in violence. ‘Between 1920 and 1922, waves of violence, including many sectarian killings, engulfed the six counties,’ as Moore puts it, and pogroms in Belfast resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Catholics. Moore cites estimates from a Catholic relief organization that over 20,000 Catholics were forced from their homes in the city, with many seeing their businesses destroyed. It was in these years that the Irish War of Independence morphed into an even more deadly civil war. Politics were the cause of–and were to be conducted amid–an ‘atmosphere of war, sectarian hatred, and boycotts.’


The surge in violence around partition provides the clearest bridge to the period discussed by O’Doherty in Fifty Years On. After decades of relative calm, war erupted again in the late 1960s. During the Troubles, over 3500 people were killed, and thousands more were injured.


In societies afflicted by cycles of violence, it is not long after innocence is restored that it can be, through some act of cruelty or another, stripped away from a new generation. Conflict has a way of reshaping the mind, introducing its own malevolent logic. Some of the most arresting dimensions of war are its psychological ones. O’Doherty’s work is at its most insightful when it illuminates these rarely discussed distortions of matter and mind.


Growing up amongst clashes between security forces and paramilitary groups, for instance, one quickly learns from what direction bullets are being fired, how noise travels on the wind, and whether you are in immediate danger. Everyday items, such as milk bottles (Molotov cocktails) and parked cars (car bombs), take on new associations. The undulation of helicopter blades cutting the night air is no reason to disturb sleep. Perverse heuristics are developed; O’Doherty recollects that when a crowded bar was sprayed with sub-machine guns, it could be judged that no more than six or seven were likely to be killed. A town centre bomb was unlikely to kill anyone, ‘or at least no more than one or two people’ (a shorthand which the 1998 Omagh bomb showed to be catastrophically erroneous when 29 people were murdered, including a pregnant woman and nine children). These are mental connections no human being should have to make. How quickly they develop, and are absorbed into perceptions of what is normal, speaks to the remarkable ability of people to adapt to their environment.


O’Doherty reprises the psychological aspects of his theme throughout his book. The narrative is marked by a recurring and spectral phrase: ‘the night the guns came out’. It refers to a decisive time in August 1969, when history fractured for another generation in Ireland. Against a backdrop of riots and home-burnings, the first casualties of the Troubles were recorded, including a nine-year-old boy, Patrick Rooney. In O’Doherty’s words: ‘the thing you have to understand about that night is that it traumatised Belfast. It exposed the reality of a society so divided it might erupt into civil war’.


Even today, the website of the public housing authority contextualises its work with this snippet:


In mid-1969, violence exploded in Derry-Londonderry and in Belfast, whole streets of houses were burned to the ground. Almost 2,000 families were displaced and hundreds of homes were destroyed in the biggest forced movement of people that Europe had seen since World War Two.


We can trace what followed–the civilian atrocities, sectarian retaliations, internment without trial, the psychotic attacks of roving, knife-wielding ‘butchers,’ and much else–to these beginnings. The night the guns came out is the narrative anchor for O’Doherty’s memoir, and symbolises the reckoning of a state formed, and sustained, by sectarianism.


These events, personally and emphatically rendered by O’Doherty, highlight the stakes of the border debate. Yet one of the striking parallels between our own political climate, and the years preceding the Troubles, is the air of complacency. Those who lived through the 1960s could hardly have imagined what was about to unfold: ‘I knew about the past periods of violence but I assumed that history was only behind us, that the passions that had produced warfare were expired’. Failure to imagine what would happen was no protection against it when it came. Decades of conflict, some of which still rumbles on, should be a source of pause for those convinced that the border is of marginal importance.


The uncomfortable truth is that Northern Ireland is not a normal state. And the degree to which it is ‘post-conflict’ is open to debate. Its celebrated power-sharing model has shown its fallibility, recently being re-instituted after three years without government. The state retains an ambiguous relationship with paramilitaries; it has been routinely embarrassed by efforts to constrain annual bonfires erected by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), in some cases even facilitating them. The death of journalist Lyra McKee in early 2019, inadvertently shot dead by dissident republicans, is one of the more prominent cases of continued military activity. The shooting of Kevin McGuigan and the sadistic murder of Paul Quinn are similar reminders that the bloodletting has not stopped, and that those participating in the Peace Process–a moniker that covers all manner of sins–are not solely peacemakers. Every year, hundreds of families are forced from their homes under paramilitary threat. Sordidly, many of the local ‘community workers,’ who pocket peace money and act as liaisons with the police, are members of the paramilitaries. It is on this dubious foundation that the state rests.


When we think of what makes a border, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Northern Ireland is, in fact, full of borders: between schools, housing estates, churches, communities. More than 100 barriers and ‘Peace Walls’ carve up neighbourhoods. Over 90% of children go to schools which are predominantly segregated. The country has higher levels of multiple deprivation than the rest of the UK, with almost 30% of households skipping proper meals. Fewer people have qualifications than the UK average, and economic opportunities are limited. The psychological toll of the place weighs heavy–more people took their own lives in the first 16 years after the Troubles than were killed during them. Northern Ireland is, in some respects, a place of grief, poverty, and depression.


But perhaps there is hope in one final irony. As O’Doherty reminds us, behind the fervour of the IRA campaign in the 1970s and 1980s, more furtive revolutions were happening. The real shifts that occurred in Ireland during this period were social, most notably the sexual revolution and the Women’s Rights Movement. This was made possible by a decline in religious zealotry and the elevation of secular and humanist values. A marginalised Catholic and nationalist community found liberation in shedding an aspect of its own identity. If further progress is to be made, it may require looking beyond the old boundaries.

The people in the North, having endured so many acts of attrition, have built a thorough resilience. These reserves will be important, as they head into another time of uncertainty. It remains to be seen how the UK’s departure from the EU will affect the tenuous balance on which the state rests, and its constitutional status is now a live question. Whatever the future of Northern Ireland, it cannot be decided by those who fail to understand it.


ROSS JAMES GILDEA reads International Relations at Mansfield College. He likes cats, chats, and caveats.


Art by Ellen Sharman

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