Recently, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar presented a grim picture to EU officials in which he warned that a return to a hard border would portend a return to violence in the North and undo decades of meaningful progress towards reconciliation.
These images are over-exaggerated and not only misrepresent what the issue really is in Northern Ireland, but they misconstrue what are genuine concerns facing the North.
The rationale is as follows: during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, military checkpoints between the Republic and the North were intrinsic parts of the landscape and pat-downs and conversations with armed soldiers were realities for the people who frequently traveled across the border.
The open and regular presence of British soldiers made them easy targets for IRA gunmen, and countless gunfights, skirmishes, ambushes, bombings, shootings, and, of course, killings occurred in the borderlands.
Varadkar and the people who think like him believe that the return of checkpoints on the border will return the open targets for the IRA and elad to a resurgence of the organization and, particularly, attacks against British customs agents.
These fears are baseless and, at the very least, misconstrue what might genuinely be a return to violence.
Of course, republicans on all sides see Brexit as a political opportunity, and there are doubtless several republicans still wedded to the militant tradition who will seek to use customs posts as targets for an upsurge in violence. These groups no doubt reside in the small minority and it would take a significant change in Northern Ireland for them to win any degree of support on the island.
Furthermore, it is known that the Real IRA, a splinter group from the Provisional IRA, runs a smuggling network in South Armagh which stretches across the border into the south. It is thus easy to imagine these republicans attacking customs posts to protect their criminal enterprise, but they are a symptom of a different issue entirely that will require a different response than the prevention of customs posts.
On a broader scale, conditions in Northern Ireland do not now presently exist for there to be a broad return to violence on the scale that Varadkar seems to fear. When violence broke out in the 1960s, Northern Ireland was grossly discriminatory and anti-Catholic sentiment pervaded the highest reaches of power. This allowed Protestants to monopolize control of housing, public and private employment, and the political system, all of which they used to maintain their dominance over this society.
This system was maintained by a web of legal measures which barred Catholics from participation and any legal recourse to change, practically guaranteeing the maintenance of the unionist ascendancy indefinitely.
The poor state of the Catholic community combined with a clear sense of purpose among Catholics engendered a deep sense of resentment and bitterness which burst outward in the 1960s and fueled the violence which followed. Furthermore, Catholics had very little recourse through which to change and promote genuine grievances (even those acknowledged by Protestants) meaning that when they did choose to react, they were forced to do so through street protest.
These protests gave Catholic-dominated activism the appearance of a revolt against the state, directly enticing a forceful loyalist backlash.
These were two of the fundamental conditions which led to the outbreak of violence in the 1960s. It must be said that neither of those conditions currently exist. Power-sharing, an end to gerrymandering, among other measures guarantee that Catholics have equal access to power, meaning both that their grievances can be adequately aired in the public setting but also that they have equal access to state resources like public jobs and housing.
Anti-Catholic discrimination (at least in its institutionalized form) no longer bars Catholics from Northern society. While one cannot argue that this means animosities and hatreds do not exist--they are evident in many forms and in several examples--it does mean that the pervasive sense of bitterness and resentment which fuelled the conflict exists in a latent and largely contained form.
Still, Northern Ireland faces real challenges due to Brexit and the disagreements over the border. There is no feasible way for the UK to withdraw from the EU without leaving some sort of border in Ireland. As acknowledged, this might inspire isolated incidents of dissident republican violence, but the real issue is the political capital it will offer Sinn Fein.
Sinn Fein will without a doubt use the combined reality of a hard border with the fact that Northern Ireland voted by a majority to remain to accuse the British government of returning to the days of imperialism, dividing the island of Ireland by reinforcing partition and dictating terms against the will of its people.
All of this will give Sinn Fein the political capital it feels it needs to launch a concerted unification campaign. With Sinn Fein shifting the debate back to the constitutional question, the DUP will entrench itself back into its traditional position. There are already some calls from the DUP variably for the imposition of direct rule and calls for a hard border, both of which are premised on the ultimate desire of a stronger connection with Britain.
While it is impossible to preduct how a unification campaign might turn out, it does appear at the moment that both Sinn Fein and the DUP are looking beyond Brexit with eyes towards Dublin and London, respectively, each with an unfortunate disregard for the Assembly.
The imposition of a hard border will likely lead to the further polarization of a society that is already deeply polarized, and while this situation alone is unlikely to lead to violence, it comes with a host of its own problems, all of which would likely worsen tensions between the communities and might make events like that which occurred in Derry this past summer more likely.
Still, while this writer recognizes that civil unrest can lead to organized paramilitary violence, there is a profound difference between the two and one that Leo Varadkar would himself be wise to acknowledge.
Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Irish border must be a matter left between Britain and Ireland. EU technocrats, in truth, care little about the border and what it means for the two countries. This is especially true if the recent reports that the Brexit deal 'is 95%' of the way concluded, leaving only the border as the outstanding issue. A separate free trade agreement between Ireland and the UK might be a viable settlement, but whatever measure is pursued, it is clear that the issue is only primarily for the two countries now.
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