Reviews of The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics quoted in copies of the book seem very keen to emphasize how important it is to read it in order to understand Brexit. Out of the eleven paragraphs selected, six mention Brexit. This in itself is symptomatic: the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has become noteworthy for the general British public only because of its effect on Brexit negotiations. Otherwise, preoccupation with this region in the UK tends to be scarce, and the general public and electorate appeared to be somewhat uninformed about the history of this part of their country. As Irish novelist Colm Tóibín noted in an interview after the EU Referendum in 2016, “no one in the world would claim it was a campaign run with Northern Ireland in mind. It’s another example, in case we need one, of how little Northern Ireland matters to anyone in Britain” (cit. in Ferriter, 2019, p. 129).
Nevertheless, more and more British people are now paying attention to the impact that the border issue has on the viability of the Brexit project, but many have become more mindful too of the consequences that a disarranged, drastic Brexit will have on the people living on this area. This new awareness can only be positive. In recent months the testimonies of this community and the landscape of the border have been given more visibility on the media. However, Ferriter’s book focuses on Anglo-Irish politics. Anyone wishing to understand more deeply the experiences of the people who live and work on and across the border may wish to read also Garrett Carr’s book The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border, which Ferriter refers to on several occasions, as well as to other writers, poets or musicians. The reality of Irish lives tends to be portrayed by Ferriter through this prism, while Carr engages people in conversation and allows them to tell their own stories.
Ferriter’s focus is thus on the political processes involved in the relationship between Northern Ireland, The Republic of Ireland and The United Kingdom since Partition in 1920. A key argument throughout is the lukewarm interest of the UK government in Northern Ireland, and a lack of commitment to the reunification cause by the Republic of Ireland. For example, on the onset of Partition, Ferriter claims that the UK government was keen to disengage itself from the whole Irish problem, which had been having, in its opinion, a disproportionate effect on the affairs of the parliament in Westminster. For Ferriter, the Government of Ireland Act that brought about Partition in 1920 was “a reflection of the growing determination of British politicians to get the Irish question off its tables” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 9). Interestingly, at that point it was not necessarily assumed by the British side that Northern Ireland would continue to remain in the UK for eternity: “It was envisaged that the new Act would ultimately lead to Irish unity, but if the two parliaments could not agree to come together they could stay in isolation; there would be no forcing of Ulster to join the South but neither was there an assumption Ulster would remain a fully integrated part of the UK” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 8). In fact, according to Ferriter, Northern Ireland would come to have a different status to the other parts of the UK. Early on, there was no conscription or military service; later, the legal situation was entirely different there regarding abortion or same-sex marriage. Ferriter seems rather surprised that the DUP insist so ardently on refusing the Irish backstop because they are not prepared to accept that Northern Ireland be treated differently to the rest of the UK: “Nigel Dodds insisted the DUP wanted a ‘seamless border’ but also wanted, in facing Brexit, to be no different ‘from other parts of the UK’. This was another nonsense; Northern Ireland has always been treated differently from the rest of the UK” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 137). Additionally, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 meant that previous legislation about Northern Ireland was superseded and that Northern Ireland in effect would have “a different constitutional status from the rest of the UK” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 133).
What was the attitude of the newly independent Ireland with regard to Partition? Ferriter’s argument is that from the outset the Irish Free State discreetly washed its hands off the Northern Ireland’s business, whilst on public insisting that it was not prepared to recognise Northern Ireland. The aspiration to reunification was paraded out occasionally in order to gain political votes and reputation, but their attitude appeared rather passive, if pragmatic. As Ferriter points out, admitting the large Unionist population of Ulster within the state would have threatened its stability at a crucial time. Thomas Bartlett in Ireland: A History mentions this idea too: “Partition, along with emigration, were the twin pillars on which southern Irish society would be constructed in the period post-1922. Both of the main parties would continue to denounce them as evil legacies of British rule; but both also guiltily recognised that the first allowed democratic rule to bed itself down, while the second permitted the creation of a society that was both manageable and malleable” (Bartlett, 2010, p. 426). In fact, as part of a nation-building project, partition was also rather convenient in order to develop an Ireland that was truly Irish, without having to accommodate any of those other traits that were also present in Ulster: Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Britishness, Unionism. As Ferriter indicates, “for some nationalists, partition was not seen in negative terms; it could offer an opportunity to generate a ‘pure’ Irish identity uncontaminated by the ‘Black North’ ” (pp. 35-36).
Another issue that would make reunification rather difficult for the state was the fact that Northern Ireland was heavily dependent on funding from the British government. This would prove an enduring theme. According to Ferriter, “at the outset of its existence, four-fifths of the Belfast government’s revenue came from London” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 9). Later on, within the Welfare System, this dependence strengthened: “Britain by 1970 was subsidising Northern Ireland to the tune of £100 million a year” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 77). For the Republic of Ireland reunification would mean a heavy financial burden that may have a serious effect on the standard of living of, as they would see it, their own population.
Ferriter believes that a bigger effort should have been made by the Irish side to win over Ulster Unionists, involving them creatively, somehow, in the Irish project. Instead, the legitimacy of their concerns was dismissed by the Irish state. He calls this “the failure to engage with the reality of the unionist mentality, long an Achilles heel of Irish nationalism” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 17). In his book Ferriter outlines chronologically the difficulties that arose within Anglo-Irish relationships, mainly Ireland’s loosening of its ties with the Commonwealth, its neutrality during the Second World War, and the Troubles. It clearly became imperative to engage in a political process that would bring peace, stability and prosperity. Ferriter covers the diverse political agreements that, although unsuccessful at the time, gradually paved the way towards a political consensus by introducing concepts that would become key building blocks of the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement: ideas previously rejected, such as the fact that the Republic of Ireland would have to be allowed in the conversation, or the necessity to accept and respect equally all the different cultural identities present in Northern Ireland.
Given the many difficulties that were overcome by all parties involved to reach agreement and stability, Ferriter is not forgiving of the cavalier attitude of the Brexit supporters who have endangered the situation. He refers to it as “the contemptuous arrogance with which those who championed Brexit had treated the weight of Anglo-Irish history” (Ferriter, 2019, p. 144). However, it would be wrong to consider Brexit the only current difficulty in Northern Ireland, given the depth of the political disagreement over the Irish Language Act. Sadly, the Good Friday Agreement was not the future-proof solution that it was hoped it would be. However, at least the British public is now more aware than ever of the history of Northern Ireland and the role of the border in the politics of the UK and the EU, and, having gained a lot of experience since the EU referendum, is hopefully better prepared to evaluate critically the oversimplified choices and plans posed to them by their politicians.
Bartlett, T. (2010) Ireland: A History, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Carr, G. (2017) The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border, London, Faber and Faber
Ferriter, D. (2019) The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics, London, Profile Books
Peace Wall in a residential area in Belfast