Border may not wreck peace but it will be symbolic

Posted By: March 16, 2018

Jason Walsh. The Times. London. Thursday, March 15, 2018

Theresa May’s latest plans for a US-Canada style border in Ireland have been slapped down but, as British and Irish politicians spar over details of how a “frictionless” border could operate, the authorities on both sides of the frontier are assessing which roads to close.

Ever since the Brexit vote, there have been warnings that Britain’s departure from the EU will light the touch-paper in Northern Ireland, reigniting a conflict that has been subsumed for two decades into cultural questions. Oddly, this prognosis leaves out the IRA, which shows no appetite for reassembling. Whatever the future holds, the reappearance of customs posts won’t itself cause a return to conflict. Fears about the dissident groups ignore the fact that they are already active, in whatever capacity they can muster.

That does not mean the border doesn’t matter. British blimpishness is not confined to Brexiteers, and the one group that doesn’t make many figures in calculations about whether Irish affairs can be used to foil Brexit is the Irish. Suggestions that the Belfast Agreement, better known as the Good Friday Agreement, could be used to stop the UK leaving are misguided. Britain voted for Brexit; unless there is a second referendum, it must leave the EU or risk a catastrophic collapse of public trust in politics. The nature of the exit is up for grabs, but the exit itself is not.

Suggestions that the Belfast Agreement should be torn up are also a road to nowhere. The agreement is deeply flawed and rightly accused of institutionalizing sectarianism and entrenching the North in an endless culture war. Like the border, though, it is symbolic; symbolic of the “agreed Ireland” that we all pretend may one day have substance beyond our imaginations.

Anyone who doubts the value of symbols should consider the status of the Irish language, in either state. For that matter, Brexit was driven largely by symbolic concerns, not by trade deals, regulatory divergence or GDP per capita. Symbols are how we make sense of the world and our place in it, and this is what is at stake in the North.

The erasure of the border was symbolic. It was still there even if we could not see it, but its reappearance is no less unwelcome for that fact. If, as is likely, most of the open border crossings are closed, the symbolism will be entirely unwelcome: a loss of the connection to Ireland that was vouchsafed by the Belfast agreement. There won’t be a return to war, but something intangible will be lost.