Ferriter weaves a lively narrative, cutting briskly from angle to angle. He closes many chapters by looking at how artists – writers mostly – have dealt with the border. When identity is the issue, artists are often helpful. He quotes the poet WB Yeats who, speaking just a few years after the line was drawn, imagined a possible future when it would be removed. How would this happen? “By creating a system of culture which will represent the whole of this country and which will draw the imagination of the young towards it.”
...short, written presumably for a popular audience, but he cannot resist piling up scholarly citations and footnotes. This academic punctilio combines rather uneasily with journalistic polemic. A nationalist politician shows ‘exceptional callowness, bordering on the childlike’. A unionist politician ‘made a fool of himself and demonstrated his cowardice’. ‘A succession of clownish Tories’ revealed ‘the depth of their ignorance and contempt’. The result is a rather odd combination of dry-as-dust scholarship and sour knockabout. It makes for a somewhat jarring read, but we would be unwise to ignore either the facts it lays out or its passion.
Such power games can end badly, as this important account of a century of instability and violence shows. It is not all Britain’s fault. Ferriter, professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin describes the unholy trinity of “British duplicity”, “Unionist insecurities”, and “Irish Republican delusions” which led to partition and sustained the conflict until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 opened the prospect of an acceptable and stable settlement.
Numbering 208, there are more border crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland than there are between the European Union and the countries to its east, which amount to a mere 137... These facts come from a joint report between the Republic’s Department of Transport and the Northern Ireland Department for Infrastructure and are to be found in the Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter’s richly detailed The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics.
The Border has a chronological precision one expects from a historian, yet its pacy and concise narrative runs to just 144 pages and takes readers up to last week’s headlines. One can’t help wondering if it has the immediacy of a background executive summary for the next round of on-off Brexit negotiations.
Few British people will read this book because they cherish the disdain towards Ireland that has caused successive Westminster governments to wreak havoc there. But if a resumption of the Troubles proves part of the price of Brexit, then we shall have only ourselves to blame. Andrew Bonar Law, then Conservative leader, said in 1920 that he had concluded that the Irish were “an inferior race”. When Law’s successors appear to embrace the same contempt for our neighbours, we should not be surprised if some of them revert to behaving contemptibly.
A backstop would keep the border open “unless and until” a future solution is agreed, but the DUP insists ominously on a “blood red” line against any special arrangement for Northern Ireland. Brexiters oppose the alternative UK-wide backstop designed by the government, blithely dismissing the border as a non-issue or promising alternatives based on “magical thinking”. Ferriter’s judicious book shows that such recklessness, such “contemptuous arrogance”, is nothing new, and that it has always been the ordinary people of Northern Ireland who have paid its price. They deserve better.
Ferriter also reminds us that, despite their irredentist posturing, the Irish were just as detached. It isn’t often that writing on Brexit and Ireland is so uniformly unsparing and devoid of lazy moralism. This is a rare pleasure... Brexit is an attack on that ambiguity. Over just 144 pages — thin enough to resemble the sort of anti-Brexit polemic to which it is such a welcome counterpoint — Ferriter shows us why this is unlikely to end well. Anyone who wishes to understand why Brexit is so intractable should read this book. I can think of several MPs who ought to.