At the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s I used to visit Crossmaglen, a village in South Armagh close to the border with the Irish Republic and notorious as an Irish Republican stronghold.
I would go there with my friend Ben Caraher, a teacher in Belfast who came from the village and was a low profile but important figure in the moderate nationalist SDLP.
Once we were taking a walk along a road in the pretty countryside outside the village, when Ben remarked that one day the natural beauty of the place might attract tourists.
“It is not as dangerous as it looks around here,” he said and then added – in a classic qualification that has lived in my memory for over 40 years – “but you have to be a bit careful about trip wires.”
Powerful roadside bombs, often detonated by various kinds of command wire, were at that time a deadly feature of the South Armagh countryside. They killed many of the 123 British soldiers and 42 Royal Ulster Constabulary police who died there between 1970 and 1997. Described by British home secretary Mervyn Rees as “bandit country”, the area was so dangerous for British forces personnel that they only travelled by helicopter.
Those lethal wires linked to explosives are long gone thanks to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998, but in a broader sense the 310-mile-long border that divides Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic itself constitutes a trip wire which, if touched or interfered with in any way, has the capacity to trigger a political explosion that could end 20 years of peace.
The removal of the physical border with its hundreds of blocked and cratered roads and blown bridges, channelling traffic through a few heavily guarded military checkpoints, was an essential part of the GFA.
Protestants and Catholics, unionists and nationalist communities, which each make up about half of the 1.9 million population of Northern Ireland, could choose to be British or Irish without either being able to dominate the other. A stable balance of power between the two was held in place by an elaborate structure of institutions and laws negotiated by the leading nationalist and unionist parties of the day and buttressed by the British and Irish governments acting in cooperation along with the EU.
This structure has maintained a hard-won peace for over two decades, but it is now crumbling under the impact of Brexit. The referendum of 2016 opened the way for – indeed made it difficult to avoid – the resurrection of the border as an international frontier between an Irish Republic as a member of the EU, with all its rules and regulations, and the UK determined to be outside it.
The radicalism and gravity of what is proposed by the Brexiteers is masked by mumbo-jumbo about “backstops”, “hard borders” and “max fac” (maximum facilitation) borders that will somehow be automatically monitored by technical gadgetry which, though yet to be invented, will apparently be sure to make any human presence unnecessary.
The debate about the “backstop” in the UK ignores the political and demographic realities on the ground in Northern Ireland.
“Brexit is absolutely disastrous for the Good Friday Agreement,” says the author and commentator Brian Feeney, formerly head of history at St Mary’s University College in Belfast. “All this stuff about bar codes and cameras [monitoring the border] is nonsense. They would not last a weekend because people would pull down any cameras or similar arrangements.”
The threat to a hard border is often portrayed as coming from dissident Republican groups that never accepted the GFA.
But these are small, fragmented, under surveillance by MI5 and lack popular nationalist support. More likely are spontaneous protests by farmers and local people on the border determined to prevent an international frontier once again cutting through their neighbourhoods.
Much of the border runs through land populated (on both sides) by a majority of Catholics and nationalists. Any new barrier would probably in practice require the deployment of military force.
After all, the EU is like a club which requires porters at the door to keep non-members out – or ensure that, if they do enter, they abide by the club’s rules and regulations. In the case of Northern Ireland, the guardians at the gate would be customs and other regulatory officials, but these could not be stationed there in the face of local nationalist opposition without police protection; and the police would not come without the deployment of the British Army, which would presumably operate from a network of fortified positions, potentially even blocking many of the 300 roads crossing the border – as they did in the past.
The “backstop” is portrayed as an insurance policy under which all of the UK would remain in the customs union if the UK and EU cannot agree some other way of avoiding a “hard border”. But the latter could not be recreated without reigniting the Northern Ireland conflict, something that neither nationalists nor unionists want to happen, but that might be brought about by the momentum of events, just as it was in Northern Ireland in 1968-69.
Some supporters of Brexit argue naively that the UK government could solve the problem by allowing almost free passage of people and vehicles and relying on cooperation and goodwill to ensure that their passage, and the goods they carry, will be registered electronically.
Feeney is scathing about such plans, saying: “All this stuff about bar codes and cameras is nonsense because only the good guys will obey them. The rest would cross the border from Cavan and Monaghan where there are no bar codes or anything else.”
Cheap but illegal Brazilian beef and American chicken would thus flood out of the UK and into the EU through the unguarded Northern Ireland breach in its defences. The EU could not permit a trade deal with the UK that allowed Northern Ireland to become a smugglers’ paradise.
But the problem of the Irish border is not primarily about trade and commerce, important though these may be.
What is really at issue here – and the “backstop” is unwittingly at the centre of this – is the shifting balance of power between the Catholics and Protestants on the island of Ireland. Brexit may be divisive in England but is even more so in Northern Ireland because it plugs into the 400-year struggle between the two communities, a historic confrontation which over the last hundred years has gained its most visible expression in the island’s partition.