Return of hard border would be a political and security disaster

Posted By: April 24, 2017

Deaglán de Bréadún.Irish News. Belfast. Monday, April 24, 2017

When he was starting out as a newspaper reporter, the late John Cole of BBC fame secured an interview with the British prime minister at the time, Clement Attlee. It was a good start to his career but the circumstances in which it took place are what make it really interesting today.

The head of the UK government had been on holiday in Sligo. Although Cole doesn’t give the date, the Labour Party leader’s visit probably took place in 1948. There was clearly no sense of a threat from the IRA which was at a very low ebb: members had been interned and in some cases executed during the `Emergency’, as the Second World War was called in The South, and the movement lost credibility because of a naïve flirtation with the Nazis.

The Attlee episode has a particular topicality today because, in his memoir `As It Seemed To Me’ (Phoenix edition, 1996), Cole describes how the PM and his wife Violet, who was driving, were stopped at a customs post at Belcoo, County Fermanagh.

The elevated status of the couple did not deter customs officials from inspecting their luggage on the day, nor the fact that they were on their way to the Fermanagh home of the north’s prime minister, Lord Brookeborough, for an overnight stay.

Reading about it all now is a salutary reminder of the cross-border régime at the time. Cole recalls how Mrs. Attlee was required to open the suitcases in the car-boot, `presumably to ensure that she and the prime minister were not making a killing out of imported nylon stockings, then in short supply’.

In later years, when the UK and Ireland had become members of the European Union, customs posts ceased to be part of the landscape and the soft border between north and south became a reality. But now, with the British “declaration of independence,” a hard border looks set for a return.

The re-appearance of customs posts, perhaps under some other title for public relations reasons, would be a disaster in political and security terms. Let us recall that, at about 5.30am on Sunday, November 11, 1956, customs posts located at Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone and five places in Counties Armagh and Fermanagh were destroyed: one of them was burnt down, the rest blown apart. The timing was carefully chosen: Armistice Day takes place on November 11 and B-Special patrols had been taken off the border to allow their members to take part in commemorations.

Three of the same six posts had been destroyed in a similar attack 18 years before, in 1938. In another incident, on August 22, 1972, nine people were killed by an explosion at a customs post outside Newry, including four customs officials, two lorry-drivers and three members of the IRA unit which planted the 50lb bomb.

There were other episodes of a similar nature but the point is surely made that, if you want to avoid violence, setting up customs posts on disputed borders is not always a good idea. Yet that appears to be what we are faced with when the UK leaves the EU in the next few years.

No doubt there will be technological features unknown to customs officials of a previous era but there seems to be a strong possibility of new structures being put in place that will almost inevitably become targets for violent attack by militant republicans opposed to the Good Friday Agreement. Instead of `targets`, perhaps `irresistible temptations’ would be a better description as they would symbolize a hardening of the Border and a reinforcement of partition.

No far-sighted Nationalist would want that, nor would any sensible Unionist wish for such an outcome. In that context, it is a pity that the talks on restoring the power-sharing Executive have so far proved fruitless. The impression from outside is that Sinn Féin is not terribly worried because when they brought down the house of cards last time, they benefited enormously at the polls.

While the present writer is a long-time supporter of the Irish language (as well as actually speaking and writing in that medium) and the right to same-sex marriage, it is worrying that these worthy but essentially minority issues are being allowed to jeopardize cross-community government and ultimately the peace process itself. At the same time, it does appear that, for some unionists, “compromise” is actually a four-letter word.

A far preferable scenario to the current stalemate would be where both sides brought this tiresome saga to an end and a sensible agreement was reached, involving generosity and sensitivity all round, so that the two communities in The North could unite against any negative consequences of Brexit, especially a hard border.

Let us remember those who died so tragically at customs posts and other places in the past and resolve never to permit the circumstances where those dreadful events could be re-enacted in the future.