By Kate Fearon, a founder member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition.
I grew up on the then heavily militarized border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, just on the northern side. For an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty [a designated conservation area in the UK], it wasn’t pretty: the watchtowers, the wire, the checkpoints, the concrete blocks on the roads, the helicopters overhead: giant metal mosquitoes with high-decibel buzz. The official ‘Unapproved Road’ signs in the same black and ivory livery as all the other signs. White road markings in the north, yellow in the south. The very definition of a hard border. Over time, as the conflict waxed and waned, the border softened, became more porous, and, with the spiky antennae of the security architecture dismantled, meaningless, particularly to those who contested it.
When the UK and Ireland joined the European Union on the same day in 1973, they’d had a bit of history. Starting with that whole Plantation [the arrival of English colonizers] thing, ending with that Partition thing [the separation of Northern Ireland and the Republic], and some pretty nasty stuff – a shedload of subjugation, around 15 rebellions (one or two a century, roughly), civil war (just 1) in between, and indeed afterwards. So a lot of history, and none of it very good.
So, one of the most significant – and unexpected – side effects of joining the EU for these political intimates was that their own relationship changed. Before, they were defined in terms of each other – the colonial power and its colonial subject. But the EU provided a new centre of gravity, one where size – or former Empire status – really didn’t matter as much. Now, they could both be defined as full EU members, not master and subject. And the playing field changed: no longer just the small familiar territory of the 15 rebellions and the one civil war, but a much bigger landscape with other, bigger, players.
Flash forward to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), Northern Ireland’s grand political settlement. While the Americans, the Brits and the Irish were (rightly) in the spotlight, the role of the European Union in the process was low key, but key nonetheless. Not just in the explicit references to the European Convention on Human Rights in the GFA, or in the 1998 Northern Ireland Act (the legislation that gives legal effect to the international treaty that the GFA is) which refers to the applicability of Community Law in Northern Ireland.
More than that, the EU was our absent guardian in the process, a guarantor of our rights, irrespective of which government was in power in Dublin or London. Even more than that, the EU was there for us in a way that even the British and Irish governments were not, could not be, in terms of the structural funds used to underpin the peace process. The EU, as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, knew that peace processes are not exclusively about political elites, but also about providing stability and building trust and reconciliation within poorer communities and between divided communities. It knew (or at least had the sense to listen and respond to those who did know) that the creation of jobs, confidence and social inclusion are also key to sustainable peace. And it put its money where its mouth was, with a staggering 1.3 billion euros spent in the first three programmes. The money, wisely, didn’t just go to Northern Ireland, but was distributed cross-border, specifically in the context of European territorial cooperation, aimed at increasing “cohesion between communities involved in the conflict in Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland”.
Right now, the border is a construct: it exists only in the hearts and minds of those who want it to – principally some northern unionists, some northern and southern nationalists, and the English far-right. And that’s fine.
Border communities adapt. We used the punt [old Irish currency] and pound interchangeably on both sides. We use the euro and pound interchangeably on both sides. Some years the economic boom is on the northern side. Some years it’s on the southern side. Meanwhile millions of euros worth of raw materials criss-cross the border multiple times on route to production and export – mainly to the UK. We cross it on hundreds of minor roads, not yet re-designated ‘unapproved’. And we’ll continue so to do.
When the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland becomes the external border of the European Union, if in doing so it becomes more than the construct it is today, a subtle shift from miles to kilometres, maximum speed slightly slower in the north, it will make a difference. It will be a fundamental shift in the opposite direction to the peace process (passed by large majorities in referenda on both sides of the border). Everything about the peace process was about making the border less meaningful, less relevant, less central. It was about finding a new centre of gravity, rather like the EU presented a new centre of gravity for the UK and Ireland. The strategic triumph of the peace process was about enabling consent for an acceptance that both parts of the island were, are, inextricably linked. The principle of consent was king.
The border incited great passion when it was at its most meaningful, a lot of it, between the late 1960s and the 1990s, violent. So the strategic question for the peace process now is “how meaningful can we allow the border to be before it impacts negatively on our polity?”
If the unionists, (particularly the Democratic Unionist Party or ‘DUP’) see the EU secession negotiations as an opportunity to re-establish a meaningful border, thus rolling back years of joint enterprise – and communal consent – on the peace process, this is a sure threat to our polity, and our peace. If the EU secession negotiations result in reduced economic activity, and increased poverty, particularly in the north, and particularly in the north’s border areas, that is a threat to our polity, and our peace. These are the areas where high youth unemployment was one of the factors leading to paramilitary membership in the first place.
This is not to say that there’ll inevitably be a return to violence if there’ll be a hard border, at least not in the short term.The Prime Minister rightfully acknowledged the sensitivity in her letter to President Juncker. But if, during these secession negotiations it looks like what has been agreed, by political elites and by the publics – through referenda – on both sides of the border alike, will be undermined, then we need to be alive to that, we need to state, in word and deed ‘we do not consent’; we did not vote for this.
Kate Fearon is a founder member of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. She is a resident of Co. Armagh, on the Irish border.
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