How the Irish border was made and maintained

Exploring the multiple factors behind Ireland’s inexorable drive to independence.

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Diarmaid Ferriter’s book examines the factors responsible for the creation and maintenance of Ireland’s border and does so in succinct and engaging style. Step back and admire the first sentence: “The island of Ireland was partitioned in 1920, partly due to a combination of British duplicity, the insecurities, fears and desires of Ulster unionists, and the delusions and dashed hopes of southern Irish republicans, and partly because the likely alternative to a border was a civil war.”

During the Troubles it often looked as if civil war had arrived none the less. This is how I remember the border when I was growing up in County Donegal, in the Republic; soldiers with questions, customs officers, and watchtowers on hilltops. Security infrastructure and closed roads were the border’s most powerful manifestations, far more powerful than the line on the map. Currently it is the other way around. I have walked the border – its infrastructure is just hedgerows and streams, and it is impossible to distinguish a border hedgerow or stream from the others nearby. I lost track of the borderline many times. Up to 30,000 cross-border journeys are made every day and although the map confirms that the border has meaning, I don’t think a graphic symbol ever has has much impact as being questioned by a man with a gun.

Ireland’s inexorable drive to independence in the early 20th century also led to partition since its religious and national identities were closely bound and – another vital ingredient – there was a concentration of Protestants in the north-east. They declared independence from the independence. Ferriter can’t help but assign blame to specific people or mindsets, although there are some in Ireland who see the border differently – with gratitude, perhaps. However, no one could say the border was born of noble instincts. It was the result of shortcomings.

Ferriter also reveals much disinterest and misunderstanding – the same things now threatening to harden the border again. Partition was the side effect of a belief that our nations should reflect us. This might have been fine if we hadn’t had a rather narrow definition of “us”. So one can add a simple lack of imagination to Ferriter’s list of foibles.

The book is strong on the Dublin government’s ambivalence about the border during the first half of the 20th century. Its presence drew attention to the inclusions and exclusions of Irish identity – questions not easily answered. Instead Dublin found ways to “simultaneously deny and acknowledge the legitimacy of the northern state”. Helping to keep such double-think alive was a tendency to blame Britain for the border. Some still do. “It’s not the Irish border, it’s Britain’s border in Ireland” is a phrase getting used a lot currently. It is also the position of Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland’s major nationalist party.

As Ferriter’s book reveals, we in Ireland have always been well able to think in terms of us and them. From a unionist perspective the south was seen as hostile or with estrangement. From the south, northern unionism appeared little more than a siege mentality, while northern nationalism was some sort of wild cousin you’d talk to on the street but would never invite to your house.

To the southern “partitionist mindset” the border was unfortunate but at least it helped keep newly independent Ireland stable, Catholic, somehow pure. Fifteen years after partition an Irish writer commented, with some lack of self-awareness, that the border meant “sectarianism is safely confined in its Ulster quarantine”.

There was gradual progress. Ferriter looks, for example, at the writings of Ernest Blythe in the 1950s. A northern Protestant who served in the Dublin government and published books in Irish, he was, unsurprisingly, capable of fresh perspectives. To him, the border was Ireland’s self-harm and would only be removed through discussion with all our fellow country people. As Ferriter comments, at the time this was a “novel interpretation”.

However, it would still take decades for Irish politics to see northern unionism as valid and for northern unionism to mature enough to respond coherently. The 1983-84 New Ireland Forum, set up by the Irish prime minster Garret FitzGerald, was a sign of progress. One of its aims was to formulate a more inclusive Irish identity. It was an imaginative step in the direction that would lead eventually to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

By this time customs checks had already been removed by the single market and the border’s military installations were dismantled too. An invisible border on the land helped soften borders in the mind. We could look for other ways to define ourselves, and most people were ready and willing to do so. It gave permission to be two things, or more, at once: Irish, British, Northern Irish, unionist, nationalist, European. You no longer had to be hard-line.

Then came Brexit. There are more than 200 border road crossings and no technological solution seems able to outsmart one basic problem: to stop the wholesale invasion of protected markets, your car or truck will have to be pulled over and somebody in a uniform will examine your cargo. Northern Ireland’s fears are usually presented in terms of going backwards. “We want no return to the borders of the past,” goes one of the new clichés. A complete return seems unlikely, though: Ireland’s imaginations have expanded and won’t be put back in old boxes. Two people from unionist backgrounds recently told me they would now vote for a united Ireland, such is their frustration at being collateral to another country’s national story.

Ferriter weaves a lively narrative, cutting briskly from angle to angle. He closes many chapters by looking at how artists – writers mostly – have dealt with the border. When identity is the issue, artists are often helpful. He quotes the poet WB Yeats who, speaking just a few years after the line was drawn, imagined a possible future when it would be removed. How would this happen? “By creating a system of culture which will represent the whole of this country and which will draw the imagination of the young towards it.” 

Garrett Carr is the author of “The Rule of the Land: Walking Ireland’s Border” (Faber & Faber)

The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics 
Diarmaid Ferriter
Profile, 192pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special