Let me lay out my cards on the table: I am clueless about Irish political history.
I was born in the early 1980s in Wales. My childhood was spent in England and Wales. In did not learn about Irish politics or history at school. In my politics degree in the early 2000s I avoided all options about Ireland (if there were even any?), not due to any antipathy towards Ireland but because I knew so little so as to not know how interesting it might be. It took me until about 2006 to literally set foot on the island of Ireland (by that time I was in my mid-twenties). I’d been to more than a dozen European countries before going there.
Channel 4 did a little vox pop a few days ago about how poorly informed the British were about Ireland. It’s painful watching this.
Could you draw Ireland's border with Northern Ireland? The border with Northern Ireland has become a major Brexit stumbling block. pic.twitter.com/yyqCRpPFuW
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) November 28, 2017
For the record I’d do better drawing the border as my parents were geography teachers and grew up with maps and today – due to Brexit and what I’ve learned in the last two years – I’d do better on the modern politics too. I do know how to pronounce Taoiseach.
But that the Brits are clueless about Ireland and especially about the troubles is something I can really relate to. It was and is still me to some extent.
But even for the Brits clueless about Ireland there ought to be enough reason to care about the headache of the Irish border thrown up by Brexit.
For me it comes back to my childhood.
I remember going on trips to London with my parents and being confused why there were no litter bins in the Tube. Because of the troubles. The 1996 Manchester Bombing was a major shock. My uncle lives just outside of Manchester. One of the injured could have been him. I remember watching the news about the mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991.
The Good Friday Agreement ended all of that. And not only was Northern Ireland better for it, but England was too. And having both sides in the European Union helped too.
But having reached this point in my argument you might well be shaking your head. You’re exaggerating, Jon, you might be saying.
Yes, it is possible that peace in Ireland might manage to survive the imposition of a hard border if the UK leaves the EU Single Market and the Customs Union (because doing that will impose a hard border), but is that a risk that that anyone really wants to take? And how, anyway, can anyone begin to calculate that risk?
The peace settlement in Northern Ireland – as Fintan O’Toole so elegantly lays out – is based on ambiguity, and the way the Irish border issue in Brexit is currently going is trying to impose clarity, is trying to force a decision to be made. Without anyone understanding the consequences of that.
I find all of this especially hard to stomach as the UK is so paranoid about Islamic terrorism, to the extent that an anti-terror wall has been built along part of Whitehall (bottom of this story) to cope with the current threat – at the very place where the 1991 mortar attack was actually launched.
To sum all this up: even if you know nothing about Ireland, even if you do not give a damn about what happens to border to communities in Ireland, you still ought to care about peace in Ireland and in preserving the Good Friday Agreement (and an open border in Ireland is part of that). Because it made England a better and safer place too.
It is true that there is very much to be gained on both sides by the Good Friday agreement. However many in England also feel it was in fact a payment to the northern Irish nationalists to buy off terrorism.
As a Brexiteer I know many in England (who were the largest leave groupng in the referendum) believe it is wrong to put this agreement ahead of their vision for their own future.
Of course the Conservative and Unionist party by its very basis cannot accept this option but they are severely testing the willingness of the English group to give the differing nationalist groups more and more autonomy or decision making without even giving them a national parliament.