Playing politics with a political minefield : The Conservative approach to Northern Ireland’s border issue

"Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson appear to be participating in a competition as to who can utter the most reckless, provocative and ill thought-out statements regarding this politically sensitive issue."

In 2018, we are no longer living in the era of colonialism, land theft and violence that characterised British Empire. We exist in an age of technological and societal progress, wherein it is no longer politically viable for one nation to arbitrarily hold dominion over another. Therefore, many would question the thought process of a British government which seems to openly prioritise the “territorial integrity” of the United Kingdom, (i.e. maintaining control of Northern Ireland), over the interests, safety, and democratically expressed opinion of the people actually living there. I am writing this to outline concerns about recent developments concerning the Irish border issue, and how several MPs have approached this.

Giving up Northern Ireland as a British territory is something no Prime Minister could ever contemplate, according to Theresa May, in her violent denouncement of the EU’s suggestion that Northern Ireland could avoid a hard border by remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market. So far, so predictable- there has been no change in the appetite of Britain to hold onto Northern Ireland as its possession.

 Yet, when it comes to discussions about how to ensure the best deal for Northern Ireland (which 55.8% of the population voted to Remain within the European Union) - we are being told that ultimately we must be silently grateful that the Conservatives are “being generous” in agreeing to work with the EU to find a solution to the border issue, as Jacob Rees-Mogg declared in The House magazine last week. Allegedly, the Northern Irish people should just be silent and not worry one jot about our safety, our prosperity, the jeopardy of a relative peace and integration between Nationalists and Unionists that has taken countless years to achieve – we should settle down, and be grateful that we are even being given a second thought by Westminster.

It would be difficult to claim that Rees-Mogg’s choice language instils a lot of confidence that he views the Northern Irish people as equals, particularly as he went on to suggest that people who worried about the safety issues of reinstating a hard border were “almost encouraging violence.” No matter that the people making these warnings are doing so from a position of concern, and no matter that the sources include experts such as the head of the Northern Irish police federation, who warned that a return to a hard border would “make sitting ducks of the Northern Irish police force.”

Ultimately, Rees-Mogg has not been forthcoming in articulating any tangible advantages that the Northern Irish people stand to gain from a hard border being re-instated, which is looking increasingly possible- we are merely told be quiet and be grateful. Furthermore, for raising the concerns about our safety that were voiced by the people, the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, and the Police Federation, and trying to find a workable solution, he has referred to the EU as “stick in the mud,” then provocatively suggesting the Republic should also ‘accept our regulations.’

Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson appear to be participating in a competition as to who can utter the most reckless, provocative and ill thought-out statements regarding this politically sensitive issue.

Johnson’s infamous comparison of the Irish border to that of Camden and Westminster was denounced by the public as dangerously misinformed, provocative and disrespectful given the bloodshed and conflict of the Troubles. To me, it is unconscionable that we allow politicians to steer us backwards into a past which was characterised by fear, division and violence.  Regardless of whether the people steering us are doing so without caring about the consequences so long as it suits their own political ambitions, or sleepwalking us back there, through a fundamental lack of knowledge or interest in Northern Irish history, the effects would be equally devastating.

 These comments from Johnson and Rees-Mogg might derive from a lack of understanding, or may be evidence of an ideological viewpoint steeped in arrogance and entitlement, but neither option renders them particularly fit to be making decisions on behalf of the Northern Irish people. Johnson’s claims that the issue is being “exploited to prevent Brexit” indicate a myopic and arrogant worldview, which has no time to check its facts, take stock of political history, or look beyond selfish, political point-scoring.   

Further evidence of this is the leaked memo Johnson had addressed to Theresa May, discussing, clear as day, the possibility of the return of a hard border. This came after countless public assurances that this would not even be contemplated.

It is simply not good enough to make glib assurances from Johnson that there exist “very good solutions” to the issue, without any further clarification on what this entails. Platitudes are just not enough, given the weight of Northern Ireland’s fractious history, and the issue of the border is not one for MPs to dismiss as something to be toyed with.


Sara Peoples is a young Fabian member.

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