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British exit, Irish wound

The border dividing Northern Ireland from the South has been a problem for years. If it now becomes a land frontier between the UK and the EU, old sores will open up

A fter the Brexit vote on 23rd June, some Irish nationalists had a rush of blood to the head. The border that was seared through the island of Ireland nearly a century ago was finally going to dissolve. After the Northern Irish electorate had voted 56 per cent to “Remain” in the European Union, they fancied, it had become inevitable that the province would gravitate towards the pro-EU Irish Republic and away from the Brexit-voting English.

But then came the reality. Polls still showed that 63 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate would vote to remain in the UK. Then there is the small matter of EU members such as Spain, which have their own secessionist movements and are terrified of setting a precedent. Last but not least, there is the money: Northern Ireland depends on financial support from London, and it is unlikely the EU would be so generous. The days are gone when Irish republicans could earnestly put forward an economic policy which their constitutional nationalist critics had always ridiculed as: “Fuck off, and leave your wallet on the mantelpiece.”

So the border will remain—but it will change. The principal reason is that the 310-mile boundary with the Irish Republic is also the UK’s only land border and after Brexit, it will become its only land frontier with the EU. The history of this boundary being asked to do extra work has rarely been happy, and there are real anxieties again: John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, visited Ireland in October and insisted that Brexit should not be allowed to damage the push for peace in Northern Ireland.

The border has always been a source of tension and crime, as well as a symbol of territorial division. Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, there has been a happy mix of relative peace, easy travel and tariff-free trade. Brexit could turn it back into the troublesome frontier that it has more typically been over the last 100 years. Anxious politicians want the border to stay soft, but the much-mooted “hard Brexit,” especially a British exit from the European single market, could make this impossible.

When he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Good Friday Agreement, David Trimble spoke of “that form of political evil that wants to perfect a person, a border, at any cost.” The Irish border is far from perfect; now it could well become less so as it changes. To make sense of what is likely to happen, it is important to grasp the varied practical meanings that a border can have— and how, in the Irish case, things have evolved in the past.

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In Prospect’s December issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues that Donald Trump was born to be a campaigning demagogue, but will he be too bored to rule? Ed Miliband and Michael Gove debate whether parliament should have a binding vote on the terms of Brexit and Christian Wolmar examines the driverless car delusion. Also in this issue: James Harkin examines the situation in Syria, focussing on Raqqa Ruth Dudley Edwards explores the battle in Ireland since the UK’s decision to leave the EU—will the border become a division? And Michael White looks at the life of Alan Johnson, the Labour MP and former postie.