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

Poll shows majority in Northern Ireland favour reunification with Republic amid Brexit fears

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.

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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 Boris Johnson 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, former Prime Minister Theresa 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.

Mrs May’s plan to deal with the border problem  proved too much for many of her colleagues in the Conservative Party who fear it cedes too much power to the EU. They  forced her resignation and elected a new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, in her place.

Unfortunately for Johnson, he faces exactly the same stumbling block as Mrs May.

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The inability to solve the Northern Ireland problem has led to Johnson threateing to take the UK out of the EU by October 31, with or without withdrawal agreement in place. The move has caused so much controversy that it’s thrown the British parliament into chaos.

The opposition parties have combined to prevent Johnson leaving without a deal, which would mean Britain would have to delay its departure. Johnson has said that he would rather ‘die in a ditch’ than do that.

The upshot is that his government is now in tatters and there will soon be an election to resolve matters. If he loses, Johnson will be the second British Prime Minister brought down within just six months by Brexit and the Northern Ireland backstop.

It would not be surprising if he and most British people were wishing that they’d never heard of the Northern Ireland border and that it had never been created.

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?

‘The Irish Robin Hood’ - Redmond O’Hanlon is a legendary figure in Ireland. His ancestors had been a powerful family up until the 17th century, when their land was taken during the Catholic uprising and the Cromwellian invasion. So he became a highwayman. Find out more.