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The Irish Border: Bloody Past, Uncertain Future

John Dorney By John Dorney Published on February 28, 2017
This article was updated on April 19, 2017
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Narrow Water Castle on the northern side of the Irish border.

If one travels from the town of Dundalk in the Republic of Ireland to Newry, just inside Northern Ireland, one may notice Elizabethan tower houses overlooking the road; square, grey blocks of stone, surrounded by lower perimeter walls.

These lookout forts were built by the English in the 16th century to keep watch on the hostile, Gaelic, rebellious north. This area has been a conflict zone since before there was even such a thing as Britain, let alone the two modern states of Ireland.

The English solved their problem of Ireland’s restless north by colonising it with English-speaking Protestant settlers in the 17th century, changing forever the demographic and religious profile of the province of Ulster. The following hundred years witnessed a hellish series of wars, massacres, and reprisals between dispossessed Catholic natives and Protestant settlers.

Both sides adopted and enshrined stories of their own innocence and victimhood, and of the other side’s malevolence. To this day, northern Irish Protestants celebrate their ancestors’ victories in the battles of the 1690s with ferocious pride. Irish Catholics speak grimly about ‘plantation’ or Protestant colonisation and Oliver Cromwell, whose forces smashed the Irish Catholic cause in the 1640s.

1922: A New Border

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Protestant Orangemen commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne in 2012.

In the early twentieth century, as the rest of Ireland, after a bloody struggle, became independent of Britain, the majority-Protestant north was hived off to create a Protestant, unionist (in favour of the union with Britain) homeland named Northern Ireland, while remaining within the United Kingdom.

By 1922, a new border ran through the north of Ireland, separating Northern Ireland and what was then called the Irish Free State – a mostly Catholic, Irish nationalist, entity.

However what the border did not do, and never has done since, is totally satisfy either political community. Making Northern Ireland majority Protestant meant that the unionist community south of the border had to be abandoned by their Ulster Protestant kith and kin to integrate as best they could into the southern state.

North of the border the problem was more serious still. Even at its birth, Northern Ireland was nearly 40% Catholic and nationalist, a percentage that has since increased to near parity with Protestant unionists. From 1937 until 1998 the southern Irish state (renamed the Republic of Ireland in 1948) formally claimed the territory of Northern Ireland in its constitution.

So on one side, the border was always seen as a kind of unnatural amputation of Ireland’s historical territory. On the other side, Protestant unionists pictured themselves huddled behind the border, their only refuge against the hostile forces without and the untrustworthy Catholic minority within.

From the very start, the border saw the most brutal violence.

'See what partition has brought about'

In the month of February 1922, the Northern Ireland government arrested 20 footballers from Monaghan (a county just south of the new border) in the city of Derry, accusing them of being members of the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA).

In reprisal, the IRA along the border kidnapped over 200 Protestant unionists and imprisoned them in barracks and jails in the south, holding them as hostages for the release of the Monaghan footballers.

Just days later, a party of armed Northern police from the Ulster Special Constabulary (in reality a unionist militia) ventured by train into the southern town of Clones. The IRA raked their carriage with machine gun fire, killing five and capturing thirteen. From then on both sides fortified their border posts, firing on anyone who tried to cross.

The local newspaper lamented:

Armed men face each other rifles in hand… Farmers will not till the land. There is no trade across the border. Men who lived with each other in perfect harmony and ridiculed the idea of the border now see what partition has brought about.

Hundreds died violently along the border between 1921 and 1922.

In the 1950s, a later generation of the IRA launched another, rather ineffective, border campaign. Times had changed in the south, as a result of a civil war in 1922-23 between the IRA and the new Irish government and the IRA had gone from being a semi-official army in 1921 to an outlawed, clandestine organisation.

Its assault on Northern Ireland produced little either in political or military terms, but it did produce a fresh crop of ‘martyrs’; most famously Sean South from Garryowen, who was gunned down while attacking a Northern police station in 1956 and subject of a rousing Irish Republican ballad.

A War Without Battles

It was the 1970s, however, that saw the most horrific violence along the border. A movement among Northern Catholics for full civil rights provoked a violence response from the Northern state and sparked off what proved to be an interminable internal conflict that stuttered on until the late 1990s.

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The bullet riddled van in which the IRA shot dead 10 Protestants in 1976.

This was a war without battles, in which winning was measured by the ruthlessness of the last reprisal. In 1975, southern pop group The Miami Showband were ambushed as they were returning from a gig in the North by loyalist (Protestant unionist extremist) paramilitaries, dressed as British soldiers.

Three of the bands five members were killed and the other two survived only because two of the gunmen managed to blow themselves up with their own bomb.

The following year, a short distance away from the site of The Showband shootings, in reprisal for a string of loyalist murders of Catholics the previous day, the local IRA machine gunned to death ten blameless Protestant building workers at crossroads named Kingsmills.

Just a short drive way from there, in 1979, the IRA killed 18 British paratroopers at Warrenpoint, with two bombs detonated from a vantage point across the border in the Republic of Ireland.

All of these incidents happened with a very small area just north of the border and they were repeated, if generally on a smaller scale, throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1993, as a twelve year old being driven over the border, I remember the heavily fortified British Army checkpoints, the nervous, well-armed soldiers radioing in the car’s registration, and the heavy machine gun on the concrete bunker overlooking the road.

From Peace Process to Brexit

By the mid 2000s, all of this had disappeared. The conflict in Northern Ireland, still colloquially referred to as 'The Troubles’, was ended by a combination of war weariness and political compromise.

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Both the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries called off their campaigns in return for entry into a peace process. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 secured a repudiation of violence on all sides.

Through a complicated system of ‘power sharing’, nationalists and unionists must jointly form the government of Northern Ireland’s self-governing body, the Executive. Northern Irish citizens could now formally be both citizen of the United Kingdom and of the Republic of Ireland.

The British Army dismantled its fortifications and listening posts along the border. Roads that had long been closed to prevent ‘terrorist’ infiltration of the North were reopened. By demilitarising the border and acknowledging Irish identity within Northern Ireland, those recalcitrant IRA elements opposed to any compromise with Britain were effectively defanged.

All of this though, depended on a wider set of circumstances. The European Union had made borders irrelevant in much of western Europe. As soon as political violence was ended, the Irish border similarly could be made into an irrelevance, no more an obstacle than a county or provincial boundary. Dual nationality posed no administrative problems as long as both Ireland and Britain were part of a wider alliance of pooled citizenship – the European Union.

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British troops mount a roadblock along the border in 1988.

What no one in Britain seems to have bothered to think about was what would happen if the above no longer applied. Hence it is unsurprising that while Britain itself voted to leave the European Union in mid 2016, Northern Ireland voted to remain.

At the time of the referendum, those in favour of ‘Brexit’ blithely dismissed concerns about re-erecting the ‘hard border’ in Ireland. Of course, they told concerned questioners, there would be no return to the days of customs posts, let alone military fortifications.

However, the logic of the new status quo dictates otherwise. Britain left the European Union in large part so that it would not have to accept immigrants from EU member countries. The only way to prevent EU citizens from entering the United Kingdom via the Republic of Ireland is to reinstate checks along the border. Conversely it appears as if the EU will not let the UK remain within the European common market and customs union. So we may soon be seeing the return of customs posts along the border.

Two weeks ago protesters mounted fake customs posts north of Dundalk, causing huge traffic delays, in order to demonstrate what an inconvenience the return of real border would be. But in fact the situation could be much, much more serious than mere inconvenience.

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Northern Ireland’s autonomous ‘power sharing’ Executive is highly unstable at the best of times, being a compulsory coalition between deadly enemies. It has just recently collapsed over a corruption scandal involving the Democratic Unionist Party, causing their nationalist governing partners, Sinn Fein, to resign from government, triggering fresh elections within Northern Ireland.

If the political centre in Northern Ireland is discredited and if militant Republicans are again given an unpopular ‘hard border’ to attack, the resumption of armed conflict in Northern Ireland is no longer unthinkable as it seemed just a few short years ago.

Those who trumpet the reassertion of national sovereignty at the expense of transnational organisations such as the EU, must ponder fully the consequences within Europe. Resurrecting borders means forcing those on either side to choose allegiance. Forcing such a choice can have bloody results.

Irish historian. Author of 'Peace After the Final Battle' The Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924. Editor of the Irish history website www.theirishstory.com