Sunday 24 February 2019

Diarmaid Ferriter: 'The Border' is a deft history of the 'problem child' no one really wants

Politics: The Border

Diarmaid Ferriter

Profile, hardback, 144 pages, €16

'We got it wrong in 1921': Margaret Thatcher is said to have admitted to Garret FitzGerald that partition was a mistake
'We got it wrong in 1921': Margaret Thatcher is said to have admitted to Garret FitzGerald that partition was a mistake
The Border by Diarmaid Ferriter

Margaret Thatcher found the Irish Border a bit of a puzzle. When the Iron Lady first examined Ireland on a map, she complained that the line between north and south was full of "kinks and wiggles".

After finally being persuaded that straightening it out was not an option, she admitted to Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald: "We got it wrong in 1921."

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As Diarmaid Ferriter's short but wide-ranging history of Irish partition makes clear, Thatcher was by no means the only person to reach this conclusion. Any Brexit negotiator worried about Ireland's 'backstop' should remember that the Border also once seemed like a temporary solution, grudgingly accepted by Michael Collins and other republicans who assumed Northern Ireland would be too small to survive for long.

Almost a century later, it is still the defining issue of Anglo-Irish relations - and a logistical headache that the best political brains in Europe apparently cannot solve.

At 144 pages, Ferriter's book is a quick read but certainly not a light one. Just like the UCD historian's best lectures, it skilfully condenses a vast amount of research into a coherent narrative packed with striking quotes and acerbic commentaries. While his focus is naturally on high politics, he also adds some welcome colour by citing the works of songwriter Christy Moore, poet Seamus Heaney and novelist Eugene McCabe - whose powerful description of the border region itself would take some beating: "A dim, hidden country, crooked scrub ditches of whin and thorns stunted in sour putty land; bare, spade-ribbed fields... housing a stony-faced people living from rangy cattle and welfare handouts... To them a hundred years was yesterday, two hundred the day before."

Despite the book's slightly scattershot feel, it has a clearly identifiable theme. Ferriter depicts Northern Ireland as the problem child of a messy divorce, deeply traumatised because neither parent seems to really want custody.

Even David Lloyd George, the prime minister whose Government of Ireland Act first created partition, secretly yearned to wash his hands of it. British soldiers might die for king and empire, he mused, but "I do not know who will die for Tyrone and Fermanagh".

During the Anglo-Irish Treaty talks, he described unionists as "a pugnacious people" and told Sinn Féin's Arthur Griffith: "There is nothing we would like better than that they should unite with you."

Unfortunately for all concerned, the Boundary Commission set up to design a more sensible frontier soon became politically toxic. The two governments suppressed its report and Ireland was left with what Ferriter calls a "ridiculous" geographical barrier surrounded by a dense rural road network. One house in Fermanagh straddled both jurisdictions, prompting the Catholic Registration Association to argue that four Protestants should be disenfranchised because they slept in "the foreign part".

Ever since then, British leaders have tended to see the North as an expensive nuisance. Winston Churchill secretly offered Éamon de Valera a united Ireland in return for support during World War II (Dev didn't trust him to deliver and refused).

Tony Blair devoted himself to creating a peace agreement but found the Orange Order "unbelievable people... there is nothing more irritating than sitting in a room with someone who claims to be British, but who treats you as though you are nothing to do with Britain, even though you are the prime minister".

On this side of the Border, meanwhile, most taoisigh have paid lip service to the idea of scrapping it. De Valera's 1937 constitution claimed ownership of the entire island and there was much romantic talk about taking back "our fourth green field".

His successor, Seán Lemass, however, privately derided northern nationalist politicians as "old women" (a grave insult in his book) and thought they were just as "intractable" as their unionist counterparts.

The next Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, did his best to keep up the pretence. "It is impossible for true Irishmen, of whatever creed, to dwell on the existence of partition without becoming emotional," he declared in a 1970 speech.

The reality, Ferriter caustically notes, was that many true Irishmen were "well able to remain unemotional about the Border by not engaging with it in any way".

Some people, of course, had no psychological hang-ups about making the journey. Ferriter includes several humorous asides on smugglers, including one elderly lady in the 1950s who used a hot water bottle to bring whiskey up north and tea leaves down south.

Another archival gem is the 1939 Irish Tourist Association advert that urged Belfast Telegraph readers to spend Christmas in Dublin, calling it "the gayest city in Ireland!"

A few weeks ago, Tánaiste Simon Coveney suggested that Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg might change their minds if they read a little more Irish history. Ferriter's erudite and insightful book would be a fine place to start.

Diarmaid Ferriter will be discussing 'The Border' at the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival on March 31, www.mountainstosea.ie

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