Britain’s struggle to manage its exit from the EU continues to grip the headlines. There are divisions within the major political parties with strong positions for and against anything proposed by the government and preventing consensus.
The parties are not talking to each other but only at each other and the four nations that form the UK are also divided with two each for and against anything you come up with. It is to the credit of Britain’s democratic traditions that it is trying to negotiate its way through all this chaos to come to a decision that people will believe is what the majority wants.
The debates have thrown up a new set of terms signalling lines on the sand (no pun intended) and one that represents a stumbling block to the current exit plan has been called the ‘backstop.’ The objective is to avoid a ‘hard’ border which will require customs and immigration checks between Northern Ireland (part of UK) and the Republic of Ireland (part of EU).
In short, this clause would stipulate that even if Britain is unable to come up with suitable trade and security agreements with the EU, this border will be soft. This means all kinds of possibilities that no political party likes; Northern Ireland alone would be in a customs union with the EU, or the whole of the UK will, and fears that Ireland will try to absorb the northern bit, and so on.
This is the only land border that Britain has with the EU and comes with a lot of baggage. This border is about 500 km long meandering through houses, across fields and over rivers. It is not just soft but politically sensitive for Ireland and the UK. The nature of the border was a key part of the settlement under which the terrorists of Northern Ireland agreed to lay down their arms and participate in the political process in 1998.
The violent fight, over many years involving bombings and killing of innocent people, was essentially a fight between people of Northern Ireland, a little bit of land in the northeastern part of the island of Ireland accounting for about three per cent of UK’s population, who wanted to remain a part of the UK (mostly Protestants) and those who wanted to become a part of Ireland (Catholic).
Oh, it was so easy to create borders at one time! Just look into Britain’s colonial history. It is especially easy when you have to create a border many thousand miles away and leave before the blowback, but harder to do when it is your own border. We know how Britain arrived at the border partitioning India and Pakistan with millions scrambling to cross to a ‘safer’ side and we are still dealing with the consequences of that decision. Britain’s border for Nigeria cut across ethnic lines so severely that it was an artificial nation and it’s struggling with its identity even today.
If you have the time, borders provide you with a nice walk through history. So, from a colonial perspective, it is heartening that Britain finally decided to take some lessons from its past and treat carefully the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Especially since this border is not somewhere far away. And it forces Britain to stop thinking of itself as an island.
The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston