Bordering on Madness?

There are about twice (some estimates say over 3 times) as many border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic than the entire eastern border of the EU from Finland, through the Baltic States, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania.  This startling statistic does not seem credible but click on this link for more detail. The oddest feature perhaps is the Dummully Polyp, almost an island of Monaghan (IE)  surrounded by Fermanagh (NI) apart from a c 100m link with the rest of Monaghan which has no road and is actually a short stretch  of the Finn River.  The main road from Clones to Cavan crosses the border 4 times in a few miles (the old railway line used to cross it 6 times). Guy Verhofstadt on his tour of the border remarked “I’m a Belgian, so surrealism comes naturally to me. But to reinstate a border would be more than surreal: it would be totally absurd.”

It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the turbulent period between 1912 and 1922 which led to the formation of Northern Ireland and the border. A quote by James Craig one of the founding fathers of Northern Ireland may give a flavour of the times: “All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State. It would be rather interesting for historians of the future to compare a Catholic State launched in the South with a Protestant State launched in the North and to see which gets on the better and prospers the more. It is most interesting for me at the moment to watch how they are progressing. I am doing my best always to top the bill and to be ahead of the South”. I would dispute that there was ever any reciprocity, whereas every effort was made to make Protestants welcome in the South, the North was deliberately formed as a sectarian apartheid state. The six NI counties were chosen as the maximum area in which a permanent Protestant majority could be guaranteed (this is in fact no longer the case as the 2011 census showed the Protestant population dropped below 50% of the total for the first time) . The temporary border established in 1922 followed country boundaries, with a boundary commission formed to produce a more sensible border, however no agreement could be reached and the temporary border became permanent.

It might be best to wait till the 100th anniversary 2022 to give a definitive answer to Craig’s question but I suspect however he would be turning in his grave, given that the South has prospered, whilst the North has stagnated. This has happened despite the fact that at the time of partition it was much wealthier than the South and accounted for over 80% of the industrial output of the island of Ireland. Now it is much poorer than the South, accounts for less than 8% of industrial output and is reliant on transfers of c £5,500 per capita from the UK exchequer to keep afloat.  The one area in which the North may still be better than the South is in healthcare with the UK NHS being considerably more efficient than the mixed Irish system (though the outcomes seem better in Ireland). The Irish are however moving towards a improved NHS like system Sláintecare, but one in which health and social care are integrated. The NHS on the other hand is near breaking point and will be weakened if not completely destroyed by Brexit.

There is agreement on all sides that the return of a hard border, or indeed border of any kind, would be a disaster for the region, economically and possibly may lead to violence. This violence would probably not be on a par with the troubles but a worry none the less. It will of course be impossible  to close.

There is still a lack of clarity over how a hard border can be avoided after Brexit. The UK produced a document over the summer relying on technological solutions, which was widely ridiculed and considered by the EU as “Magical thinking“.  However in December the  joint report from the negotiators of the EU and the UK on progress during phase 1  seemed to settle the issue. There are 2 crucial paragraphs 49 and 50.

These seem clear cut in that the two paragraphs taken together effectively rule out the UK leaving THE Customs Union. Para 49 is believed to have been written by the Irish Government and Para 50 dictated by the DUP. There was a suspicion at the time however that the UK was using weasel words and had agreed this only to move onto phase 2. It was hoped however that the UK would stay in A Customs Union, essentially the same thing but badged differently. This week however PM May has categorically ruled out being a member of the Customs Union. This has prompted commentators such as Prof Richard Murphy on his TRUK blog to state:

We now know that the UK will not be honouring this agreement. The UK says it will not join any customs union. A hard Irish border is, then, inevitable.

I am not sure why the EU is still in talks in that case. It seems illogical for it to be so. Britain has broken its word. There is no Irish deal. So what can there be to discuss in that case?

The UK Government is however hopelessly divided and it is by no means certain that it will hold together.

Matthew Paris’s article in the Times on Saturday is an exceptionally well crafted piece and finishes with:

Wickedness may not always lie in the carrying forward of bad projects. It may also lie in allowing oneself to be carried forward by them, knowing their wrongfulness. Perhaps that is the more culpable, for zealots at least believe their madness. A special kind of guilt attaches to the sane majority of the Conservative Party today. It is written across their faces.

The cracks may be showing. Anna Soubry who has compared the three Brexiteers of DD, Boris and Fox to Foggy, Compo and Cleggy of the last of the Summer Wine was outspoken on news-night yesterday…

If it comes to it I am not going to stay in a party which has been taken over by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson. They are not proper Conservatives.

The Tories seem however to have an amazing ability to cling together. The next few weeks would be fascinating if the stakes for both the UK and IE were not so high. A few things seem obvious

  • The EU will support Ireland to the hilt.
  • Leaving the Customs Union is seen as delusional by the EU 27 and the EU thinks the UK is bluffing.
  • The UK is hopelessly divided at Government, Westminster and countrywide.
  • The EU is in a much stronger position than the UK.
  • GB would ditch NI if it felt it could get away with it.

It is very difficult to work out what is going to happen.

  • The UK may see sense, back down and stay in the customs union.
  • There are some who think articles 49 and 50 mean special status for NI for slow learners.
  • In the case of a hard Brexit the majority of the NI population would vote to join the South according to a recent Opinion Poll.


Does anyone know a good crystal ball supplier?


  1. PJ -

    Well, in respect of N.I. the Tories are deservedly hoist on their own petard. It will not end well for them. No crystal ball needed for that conclusion!

    1. Sean Danaher -

      yes I hope so but like a zombie the Tories seem to rise from the grave. What they lack in intelligence they make up for in low cunning and a deep understanding for the English id.

      1. PJ -

        Agree. However, the id they understand is a failing demographic (like the orange one in NI). It is elderly, blue-rinsed, and dying off. I was astonished when I visited before the last election to find billboards in rural England showing Alex Salmond picking an Englishman’s wallet from his back pocket. This is what procured the unexpected majority and the unavoidable Brexit referendum. The English establishment have a historically overdue comeuppance coming, entirely self-inflicted. I am sorry for those they have deceived and who will suffer most.

        I am hoping for a data leak from the BVI or some other non-brexit related event to bring the current rotten edifice down, taking with it the Downton Abbey version of capitalism beloved of Rees-Mogg. It may not happen neatly or quickly, but I have no doubts about the inevitability of the outcome.

  2. Peter May -

    I consider the EU will not allow what the Republic do not want – why should the 27 members – some of whom are quite small?
    I therefore consider that the Republic is also likely, in effect, to prevent us from leaving the EU.
    The UK government statements are just inconsistent fudge and obfuscation to keep the Tories together – they are not working in the interests of their entire people, for whose best interests they are supposedly elected to work – not that you’d realise it from their actions!

    1. Sean Danaher -

      There is a statement from the German Foreign Minister I think – I will need to look it up which talks bout the difference between power and sovereignty. In essence it said whereas the UK might be more sovereign after Brexit Ireland would be more powerful. I think you may be right. It is interesting that the Irish (south of the border at least) have seen extreme nationalism and realise the harm it can do. I have come across extraordinarily little schadenfreude from the Irish; just genuine concern.

  3. Ivan Horrocks -

    Sean, another very interesting and topical blog on what we might term the ‘Ireland conundrum’. No doubt you’ll have seen reports today and yesterday of the machinations of the Brexit sub committee. If I chaired a meeting at the OU on such important matters and came out with as little to show as they did I’d expect serious criticism – but hey, ho, this is only about the future of the UK so it doesn’t really matter if they can’t make decisions – on anything. Jesus! If this had been a plot in some fictional TV series critics would have panned it for being far fetched. Now this is Tory reality.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      the whole thing is beyond parody. The DUP of course are reveling in all this flag waving, drum beating and old Empire nostalgia. As Ian Paisley (Jr) was exhorting PM May yesterday NO SURRENDER!

  4. Ivan Horrocks -

    As you’ll have seen from the top story in The Guardian this morning, Sean, the whole border matter is now done and dusted as far as the EU is concrned and now the UK government will have to deal with the outcome. ‘What you sow you will reap’, comes to mind.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Thanks Ivan.

      I am a Guardian supporter and have subscriptions for the Irish and New York Times. I have seen the article.

      As I said in the article paras 49 and 50 are vied by some as special status for slow learners and the picture heading the Guardian article is a SF poster “Special Status No Hard Border!” SF think Brexit will be a disaster and there is a belief that whereas the DUP may have won the battle in the last GE, they have lost the war. The DUP is good at day to day tactics but SF much better at strategy.

      I have zero sympathy for the delusional cakeism of the current Tory government. Gone is the time when they could simply send a gunboat up the Liffey. I’m not a fan of the Tories at the best of times but can at least respect pragmatists like Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke. The current ERG crowd are truly loathsome. he original definition from the Irish word tóraí meaning outlaw, robber or brigand seems even more apt than usual.

      The interview with Helen McEntee (Irish European Minister) on the Today programme was interesting. The interviewer insisted that the UK was leaving the CU and SM but Helen refused to be drawn, simply stating it was up to the UK to come up with a workable solution.

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