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Post Why Would a "Hard" Irish Border Draw Fire? Some Historical Background
Created by John Eipper on 09/09/19 3:11 AM

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Why Would a "Hard" Irish Border Draw Fire? Some Historical Background (Patrick Mears, Germany, 09/09/19 3:11 am)

This is a response to John E's comments to Tor Guimaraes' recent post (September 7th) commenting on the central role now occupied by the "Irish Border issue" in the Brexit drama being played out in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland and beyond. As is the case with most issues involving these two countries since 1167 CE when the deposed Irish King of Leinster, Diarmait Mac Murchada, requested King Henry II of England to militarily invade Ireland to enable Diarmait to recover his lost kingdom, the conflicts between Ireland and Britain are complex and not susceptible to simple solutions.

For at least since the third Home Rule Bill was being debated and finally enacted by the British Parliament in the early 1910s, the Protestant majority in the northern Irish province of Ulster was vociferously opposed to a single Irish Parliament that could enact domestic legislation for the entire island. This opposition assembled around the figure of Sir Edward Carson, who became the first signatory of the so-called "Ulster Covenant," which vowed to oppose Home Rule throughout Ireland "by any means necessary." To make this threat even more tangible, Carson was instrumental in the creation of a Protestant paramilitary force, the Ulster Volunteers, which later received a large shipment of weapons from Imperial Germany to carry out the UV's threats. By these developments and others (especially the "Curragh Mutiny" in March 1914), the supporters of Carson and his movement ultimately caused the British government to pause the implementation of the Home Rule Act until after the conclusion of the Great War, which broke out in August, 1914.

After the Armistice of November 11, 1918, pressure for the implementation of Home Rule began to rise on the island. Only three months later, the Irish War of Independence officially began with an ambush and deaths of two armed British soldiers by nationalist rebels in Soloheadbeg, County Tipperary. In this volatile environment, the British Parliament enacted the Government of Ireland Act in 1920, providing for the division of Ireland into two separate autonomous regions, "Northern Ireland" and "Southern Ireland," which would be governed in domestic matters by two separate regional parliaments. The Northern Ireland parliament was soon thereafter established in Belfast but the Southern Ireland parliament never materialized. The political legitimacy of this institution-to-be was rendered null and void via the creation of a nationalist parliament, the Dáil Éireann, by 73 Sinn Fein MPs elected in the UK's 1918 general election. The Dáil chose to reject the legitimacy of the British Parliament along with its plans for Home Rule in the south. Rather, this newly created legislature sought independence for Ireland.

The War of Independence concluded with the execution of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6, 1921 signed in London by Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith and Winston Churchill (among others). This document also created the Irish Free State, which was granted dominion status within the British Commonwealth and included only 28 counties of Ireland apart from the remaining 6 in the north (i.e., Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Tyrone, Antrim and Armagh), which formed "Northern Ireland" within the United Kingdom. This treaty along with some tweaks made later by an Anglo-Irish Border Commission, formally established the meandering and irregularly shaped border which runs for 499 kilometers (310 miles) between Carlingford Lough in the south and Lough Foyle in the north. This border has many unofficial border crossings (some of which amount only to a ladder perched against a rickety fence), which have caused the border to become (before the advent of the EU's single market) a convenient place to avoid tariffs by smuggling goods between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In April, 1923, the Irish Free State ("Saorstát Éireann") imposed tariffs on goods crossing the border from the UK into the country, thereby resulting in the construction of customs posts along this border. In the 1932 Irish elections, Éamon de Valera's Fianna Fáil party obtained control of the Dáil. DeValera, through his anti-British rhetoric, triggered the increase of border tensions between the Irish Free State and the United Kingdom, which resulted in the outbreak and intensification of an "economic war" between those neighbors in the 1930s. De Valera's rhetoric of the "lost" six counties found institutional expression through the provocative statement in Article 2 of the 1937 Constitution, which reads as follows: "The national territory consists of the whole island, its islands and the territorial seas." Article 3 continues with the declaration that "Pending the reintegration of the national territory and without prejudice to the right of parliament and government established by this constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole territory, the laws enacted by the parliament shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws of Saorstát Éireann and the like extraterritorial effect." (Emphasis supplied.)

Nevertheless, for all of its huffing and puffing the Irish government never transformed this official rhetoric, which continued off and on throughout the decades, into physical state action designed to reunify the island. However, this inaction did not hinder the the Irish Republican Army and its ilk from initiating armed action against the British authorities and engaging in terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland before 1998. Existing customs posts on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, originally built to collect tariffs and regulate the flow of persons across the border, began to be attacked by militant Irish republicans with increasing frequency as the period of "The Troubles" wound on. In 1998, however, this status quo changed dramatically with the signing of the Belfast Agreement, in which the signatories agreed to resolve their political differences exclusively through the decommissioning of weapons in the hands of paramilitary groups and the normalization of security arrangements in Northern Ireland. The Irish Republican Army later confirmed that this decommissioning has occurred and the nationalist Sinn Fein political party now participates in Northern Ireland politics. The Belfast Agreement and UK law also permit the conduct of a border poll in Northern Ireland and in the Republic to determine whether those two populations wish to reunite into one nation. If such a poll is held and the result is affirmative, the Belfast Agreement provides that this result will be implemented.

This equilibrium has been upset during the last few years when critical questions affecting the "Irish Border" arose again in the context of Brexit. The government of the Republic of Ireland quickly recognized during this process that a "Leave" vote would give rise to a number of complications involving the land border and the Irish Sea border between the two nations, especially those issues arising from trade relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic, including tariffs on goods crossing these land and sea borders. These issues include cross-border movement of plant and animal products for processing prior to their sale, as well as the enforcement of sanitary and phytosanitary standards concerning traded goods. Another critical issue is a fear that the establishment of a tangible, physical border between the two countries would result in a return of "The Troubles," with its primary manifestation being armed attacks on customs posts along the land border by nationalist militants.

I will first address the second issue mentioned above, which is the subject of John E's question at the bottom of Tor's post: why should a border emplacement draw fire? A common thread in Brexit literature that addresses this question focuses on the frequency of attacks on these structures during the time of The Troubles. Customs posts, walls and other structures located along the border that perform or otherwise facilitate Northern Ireland governmental functions suffered a disproportionately large number of attacks by Irish nationalists in the past because they are an obvious reminder of Ireland's partition in 1920 and British/Unionist oppression both beforehand and afterwards.

The Brexit issues involving trade relations between the UK and the Republic after Brexit occurs but before a free-trade agreement can be negotiated between them was first addressed and initially resolved by the government of former UK Prime Minister Theresa May and the European Commission in the text of the Withdrawal Agreement. This compromise provides that the territory of Northern Ireland would remain in the EU single market until a free-trade agreement can be negotiated by the UK and the Republic after Brexit occurs, and this compromise has been referred to as the "Irish Backstop." This aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement earned the ire of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland which, at least until recently, has been the keystone of the Conservative Party's majority in Parliament. As a result, the Withdrawal Agreement was never approved by Parliament and the Irish Backstop is now the subject of Boris Johnson's demands made to the European Union to erase this device from the Withdrawal Agreement. Johnson has threatened that, without the Backstop being removed, a No-Deal Brexit will result on October 31st, come hell or high water. For its part, the EU has consistently taken the position during the Brexit negotiations that, if the UK can propose an effective replacement for the Backstop, then the EU would seriously consider removing it and replacing it with such a proposal. However, to date no such proposal has gained acceptance by either Ireland or the rest of the EU Member States and the clock keeps ticking down to October 31st in the meantime.

Finally, the United States has recently entered this fray concerning Brexit, the Irish Backstop and the Belfast Agreement. An organized group of Irish-American Congressmen have announced recently that they will oppose the approval of a free-trade agreement between the US and the UK in the event of a "hard Brexit" that would threaten the Belfast Agreement:  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jul/31/brexit-mess-with-good-friday-and-well-block-uk-trade-deal-us-politicians-warn

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, has voiced support for this position. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/aug/14/no-chance-of-us-uk-deal-if-northern-ireland-peace-at-risk-pelosi . The Trump Administration has blown hot and cold concerning this controversy. Most recently, Vice-President Michael Pence declared to the press on his recent and controversial trip to Ireland that both the EU and the UK should essentially negotiate in good faith to reach a mutually acceptable resolution on this particular Brexit issue.

Finally, I recommend two sources for anyone with more than a passing interest in this topic. The first a recently published book authored by Irish Professor Diarmaid Ferriter and entitled The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics (2019). The other source is a series of articles appearing in the Irish Times collectively titled "Borderlands: A special investigation on Brexit and the Border," which collection may be accessed via a link at the end of the following article contained in today's Irish Times on the question of when should a border poll under the Belfast Agreement be called. https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/now-is-not-the-time-for-an-irish-border-referendum-1.4010213 .

JE comments:  Pat, this is the most informative summary of the "Irish Question" I've ever read.  Thank you on behalf of WAISers all.  Of course, I have a question:  presumably the Backstop would lead to a "special" status for the Six Counties, essentially as a tariff-free entry for the UK into the EU.  This sounds like a massive economic boon for NI.  So why is the DUP opposed?  Do they literally fear that the Republic will succeed in uniting the Island?


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  • Why Does the DUP Oppose the "Irish Backstop"? (Patrick Mears, Germany 09/10/19 3:56 AM)
    Before I address John E's question on my latest post (September 9th), I must apologize for my bad arithmetic. There are 32, not 34, counties in Ireland:  6 in the North and 26 in the South. Shame on me.

    I believe that John is right that the underlying concern of the Protestant Unionist community in Northern Ireland concerning the proposed "Irish Backstop" is a basic fear that their region will be united with the Republic of Ireland via a border poll as provided in the Belfast Agreement. Arlene Foster and other officials of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland have objected to the Backstop on the ground that, if it were to be implemented, the Backstop would require "different treatment" of Northern Ireland concerning trade matters and procedures arising between the UK and the Republic. Thus, the DUP argues, this undesired development would "threaten the constitutional order between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain."


    A similar objection has been voiced by this community over "placing the border in the Irish Sea," i.e., having border checks in Northern Ireland's ports for some traded goods shipped from England, Scotland or Wales and arriving via boat in these ports. In an effort to resolve this objection, there has been talk of having these checks performed somewhere "away from the border," which I take to mean prior to loading the goods on board ship for transport to Northern Ireland. However, this second objection still stands, as far as I know.


    JE comments:  For Americans raised on baseball, a backstop is the wall behind home plate.  The proposed Irish example is the opposite:  an open border between North and South.  Hence my confusion.  I now understand that the backstop refers rather to the Irish Sea "border" opposed by the DUP.

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