100 years ago the British put a border across Ireland – now it may bring down their government

The British must be wishing they had never put a border across Ireland to create an artificial divide between North and South.

It may have seemed a good idea to them at the time, allowing them to keep control of the newly created ‘Northern Ireland’ while reluctantly ceding self-rule to the rebellious, nationalist south.

But now the shady dealing of a century ago has come back to haunt them, because the border has proved an impossible sticking point in Britain’s negotiations with its European neighbours as it tries to leave the European Union.

The problem is that after Brexit, the border will not only separate Northern Ireland from the Republic, it will also separate the UK from the EU. Normally that would require customs posts with all the usual checks on people and goods passing through.

Interested in discovering more about your Irish roots? This free online genealogy course with Strathclyde University shows you how to trace your family tree and also covers the use of DNA testing in genealogical research.

But such checks were abolished in the Good Friday agreement, which brought the Troubles to an end and brought peace 20 years ago. Ireland, the UK and the EU have all stated that they are committed to their being no return to a hard border as that would result in renewed tension with the risk of a return to violence.

However, that’s where the cohesion ends. British Prime Minister Theresa May hoped that the problem could be solved by the use of technology to carry out customs checks while keeping the border open. Both the Republic and the EU have rejected that idea because no such technology exists.

After two years of negotiations, Mrs May accepted an EU plan that would see the UK remain in a customs arrangement with the EU for a transitional period that would largely remove the need for a hard border. The problem is that the arrangement would require Northern Ireland to also remain in all but name in the EU Single Market, while the rest of the UK left. There would also have to be some checks when certain goods moved between the UK and Northern Ireland.

This arrangement is what is referred to as the Northern Ireland backstop, and would only apply as a last resort if the UK and the EU failed to reach an agreement in negotiations to take place over the next two years. The deal also means the UK will not be able to withdraw from the arrangement without the agreement of the EU.

This has proved too much for Democratic Ulster Unionists, who refuse to contemplate any arrangement that makes them in any way different to the rest of the UK, as they fear it would isolate them and push them too close to a relationship with the Republic.

In most times, disagreement from the DUP would not matter as they are a small party and most governments have been able to get by without them, but Mrs May doesn’t have a majority in Parliament and relies on the Northern Irish MPs to keep her government afloat. Now the DUP leader Arlene Foster says they’ve been betrayed and is threatening to bring down Mrs May’s government if she persists with her policy.

Mrs May’s plan to deal with the border problem has also proved too much for many of her colleagues in the Conservative Party who fear it cedes too much power to the EU. Many are now plotting to force her resignation and elect a new Prime Minister.

With all this swirling around her, it would be not surprising if Mrs May and most British people were wishing that they’d never heard of the Northern Ireland border and that it had never been created.

Interested in discovering more about your Irish roots? This free online genealogy course with Strathclyde University shows you how to trace your family tree and also covers the use of DNA testing in genealogical research.

There is a supreme irony, of course, that the border created by one British government could bring down another one 100 years later.

Did you know?

Christabel Burton was an incredible Anglo-Irish woman who outsmarted Nazi interrogators to help free her husband from a concentration camp prison. Find out more.