Ireland’s British border 

The opening shots of the Irish War of Independence were fired one hundred years ago this week on January 21st 1919 writes Barney Cassidy. The 3rd Tipperary Brigade of the Irish Volunteers shot and killed two police officers in an ambush at Soloheadbeg to seize weapons and gelignite. 

If there is one thing physical force Irish republicans love, it’s a good anniversary. So, on January 19th 2019 a group of them in Derry detonated a car bomb at the city’s courthouse. Saoradh, a political organisation which seems to have some insight into their thinking. said: “it seems 100 years later Volunteer Sean Tracey’s comrades continue the unfinished revolution.” Their thinking is that returning to a strategy used in the 1970s, 80s and 90s and which failed to unite Ireland then might, by some alchemy, work this this time.

The attack was political idiocy. There’s no popular support for a return to armed struggle in Ireland and whereas most previous military campaigns initially coincided with high levels of popular mobilisation, there’s nothing like that happening today.

For most of the history of post-partition Ireland the border was something you could not avoid seeing. During the 1970s and 80s, crossing it often involved having a British soldier’s gun pointed at your vehicle, being searched and interrogated. Many minor roads were blocked or destroyed so that most traffic could be funneled through police and military checkpoints.

In this period, it was notorious for sectarian murders and was the setting for a protracted armed conflict. In the twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement it has become as unobtrusive for travellers and the people who live along it as, to use an example that would make sense to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the border between Surrey and Hampshire.


There are two groups in Ireland who would welcome a return to the old form of the British border. One is those Republicans who remember everything and learn nothing. They say, correctly, that the Good Friday Agreement’s principal achievement is to make Sinn Fein an active upholder of the state it was established to destroy. Like their political ancestors in the 1950s, 60s, 70s 80s and 90s, they want an opportunity to start launching a campaign of futile gun and bomb attacks. That’s why the chief constable of the police force in the north of Ireland  said “The last thing we would want is any infrastructure around the border because there is something symbolic about it and it becomes a target for violent dissident republicans.”

This is obvious to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Irish history. It’s also obvious that such a campaign will end in failure after a lot of pointless bloodshed.

The second group is the Democratic Unionist Party. For them it’s a matter of a sectarian, unionist ideology outweighing the human and financial cost of the border. 

Most people in Ireland oppose Brexit. 

For ease of reference I’ll describe the two parts as the southern state – that’s the one that will remain in the European Union (EU) – and the northern state, which is administered by Britain. 

Voters in the northern state took part in the British referendum and voted to remain. The 56% of remainers were a mixture of unionists and nationalists. The 44% who voted to leave would have been overwhelmingly DUP supporters, making the leave vote there even more reactionary than in Britain, as it would have had an expressly sectarian content. The microscopic left pro-Brexit campaign is best passed over in silence. 

To most rational people, the obvious solution is to retain the status quo and not have checks on goods travelling within Ireland. However, we are dealing with the concerns of the DUP and Brexiteers. From their point of view, that is a challenge to the integrity of the United Kingdom, what most other people call British rule in Ireland. That’s why they say there can be no border in the Irish Sea. 

Abolish the border

For the Dublin government and the EU, mutual recognition of standards with Britain is an unacceptable compromise and has been ruled out. It confers the advantages of remaining in the single market and customs union on a state which has opted out. The EU wants to make sure that food, pharmaceuticals, cars and everything else entering its territory meets its regulatory standards. This is precisely the opposite of what the hard Brexiteers of the European Research Group are promoting as the great advantage of Brexit. Extreme deregulation of environmental, safety and labour standards is precisely what they want. 

During the referendum campaign, the British border in Ireland was barely mentioned. It has now become a central point of contention.  

This border will be the EU’s land frontier with a non-member state. From the point of view of Brexiteers gasping for an end to freedom of movement it’s a potential nightmare. Anyone who can fly into Dublin airport can jump on a bus to Belfast and from there make their way to England, Scotland or Wales. That fact alone will be an incentive for the British government to have checks on people and goods. 

Any Dublin government that tries to establish border infrastructure at the instruction of the EU will pay a political price. All the southern parties pay some sort of lip service to the idea of a united Ireland and the symbolism of building border checkpoints around the time of the centenary of the state’s creation in 1921 will be horrible for them. Of course, that doesn’t mean to say that they won’t do it. 

There is a simple solution to all the talk of backstops, checkpoints, technological solutions and so on. It’s the one that Irish socialists have called for since 1921. British withdrawal from Ireland and the creation of a unified, independent republic. 

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3 Comments on Ireland’s British border 

  1. Alan Thornett // 22nd January 2019 at 10:14 am // Reply

    Great piece

  2. Yes, I also thought it was a great piece. However, as I started reading the last paragraph, I was expecting that the “simple solution” would be for the UK to stay in the Customs Union. This would follow well from what comes before and be topical. I do agree with the last sentence, but now isn’t the time for that – it is for later.

  3. Anyone wanting a bit more detail on the people behind the bomb should have a look at this piece. It’s pretty scathing about their technical proficiency and political stupidity.

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