The Border - The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics
by Diarmaid Ferriter
Published by Profile Books
Review: Marcel Krueger
It's quiet as I cross the border. The Enterprise emerges from the granite flanks the Gap of the North, for a moment there is the small grey hulk of 17th-century Moyry Castle visible to my left, and then the train chugs into the fields and hedgerows inside the Ring of Gullion. I've slipped into the North. While there is no visible sign of it, there is always a moment however that indicates the division between the Republic and the United Kingdom: when the phone networks change and the onboard wifi skips for a moment. A few phones across the almost empty carriage of the afternoon train start beeping, but that’s the only indication of a chance in jurisdiction. I could pay my tea in Pound or Euros all along the way anyway.
As I write this, the ship of fools that the House of Commons in Westminster has become is with every day producing new proof that as a parliament it is no longer functional and increasingly declaring its own bankruptcy over the issue of Brexit, and as Professor Tanja Bueltmann put it on Twitter: 'As a historian I am fascinated by watching a democracy dismantle itself.
As an EU citizen I am worried about what is happening to my home. As an observer I am facepalming basically every minute now. Never forget: everything that is happening is a *choice*, not a requirement.' And one of the things that is, unsurprisingly, seemingly confusing the British parliament is the border on the island of Ireland, the one I cross so often, quietly, on the train. If they would have time in between voting down any constructive motions for any progress, I would make historian Diarmaid Ferriter's latest book mandatory reading for every single Westminster MP. It's a small book, just 184 pages, but it concisely and understandably lines out the history of the Irish border from its creation in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act to the present day with (or without) its Backstop.
In 7 short chapters, Ferriter charts the negotiations between the Irish revolutionary government and the British Crown that lead to the Anglo-Irish treaty (and subsequent civil war in the south) and the creation of the border; and the often bizarre details of its inception, for example that the newly created border in Silesia between Weimar Germany and the new Polish Republic served as one of the blueprints for the Irish one. From then on he (literally) follows the border and its political implication for the leaders in Dublin, Belfast and London over the next decades, into the conflict in the North and how the subsequent opening of the border as part of the Good Friday Agreement helped overcome division and sectarian hatred and slaughter.
But this book is not purely historical or political non-fiction. Ferriter also weaves in voices from all areas of society and what the border meant and means for them, and how much the two countries on this island are interconnected: there's the Irish Football Association/Football Association of Ireland and Gaelic Athletic Association history of a divided and yet united Ireland (in sports at least) and the perspective of writers and poets; like Eugene McCabe (who's farm driveway crossed from Monaghan into Fermanagh) describing the borderlands as a '"dim, hidden country, crooked scrub ditches of whin and thorns stunted in sour putty land; bare, spade-ribbed fields... housing a stony-faced people living from rangy cattle and welfare handouts... To them a hundred years was yesterday, two hundred the day before."' And then, a few decades on, there's also the man who owns a bridge across the border and decides to plant his chip van smack-bang in the middle, avoiding taxes North and South. As Ferriter puts it, when referring to the shared commemoration of the Irishmen who fought in World War I: 'Such attention to inclusive commemoration, alongside the peace process and the sense of an "invisible" or "soft" Irish border, greatly improved relations between North and South; ultimately, up to 30,000 were travelling over the border each day, and that was convenient and valuable for both jurisdictions.'
What's most striking in this book is the crystal-clear analysis of past and contemporary blunders especially in London. The last few pages addressing the implications of Brexit on the Irish border are interspersed with recent quotes by English politicians who seem to have unlearned everything that should have been the lesson of the almost 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland followed by twenty years of peace. It hurts to read these bon mots of buffoonery collected in one place, and Ferriter's analysis sadly only increased the clinching of my guts and the fear of what mini-Trump Boris Johnson or the living cartoon Jacob Rees-Mogg might do if given free reign over politics that have a direct and immediate impact on the communities on this craggy island.
But there was, it seemed, a return to the politics and and ignorance of the past over the course of next two years as a succession of clownish Tories revealed the depth of their ignorance and contempt when it came to Ireland, none more so than Boris Johnson, foreign secretary from July 2016 to July 2018, who embarrassingly suggested the invisible boundary between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster as a possible model for a post-Brexit border.
Ferriter has no solution for the dilemma of Brexit, but ends his book with a quote by Benedict Kiely, 'the most that can be hoped for is that all Irishmen will some day learn to view the past without passion, ...'
The next time the House of Commons suspends its sitting amidst a crisis that has implications for millions of people because of a leaking roof or sewage leak, every single MP should a) receive a slap with this book (as I said, its relatively small) and then read it. The border with its past tragedies and current hopes must stay open.
Wherever possible we recommend that readers of Elsewhere buy their books from a bricks and mortar bookshop or direct from the publisher.
Marcel Krueger is the Books Editor of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His writing has been published in numerous places both online and in print, and he is the author of Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps (I.B. Taurus, 2017) and the upcoming Iceland: A Literary Guide for Travellers (I.B. Taurus, 2019). You’ll find him on twitter here.