The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, just might do what the Irish Republican Army never could: get the Brits out of Ireland.
Johnson’s a Brexit man, and people who voted for Brexit worry about contamination, about non-Brits migrating across the channel and settling in the shires, about national purity.
But which nation?
The people we call “British” actually are stitched together, Frankenstein-fashion, from four distinct nations. We tend to forget this, because almost 85% of the people live in England, which annexed Wales in the 1500s, grafted on Scotland in 1707, and surgically attached Ireland, against the will of the vast majority of its inhabitants, in 1801.
In 1922, most of Ireland was amputated by rebels, but the Brits managed to keep the northern stump of the island, where most of the Presbyterian “Unionists” lived. They wanted to stay united with the British crown rather than participate in a republic dominated by Catholics, so the Brits counted up voters and gerrymandered a border that would give Unionists the biggest chunk of Ireland that would still guarantee their majority.
That border’s been a problem ever since. Starting in 1969, the IRA fought a guerrilla campaign to erase it, which only built it up. Ambushes, helicopters, armed soldiers from Lancaster and London, internment camps, bombs, sectarian murder. Two generations of kids grew up in a war zone. The “Troubles” malformed nearly every aspect of their lives.
The war ended on Good Friday in 1998. Catholics finally got equal rights. The IRA decommissioned its rifles and plastic explosives. The British dismantled checkpoints. Barbed wire came down. Then the guard towers. And finally the soldiers went home. Northern Ireland is still part of the U.K., but the Irish border virtually disappeared. A full generation of kids have grown up in peace.
That’s why most people living in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit. Once the U.K. leaves Europe, the border will become a land boundary between different economic zones. The checkpoints will come back. Then the smugglers. Then the guns. Then the barbed wire. Then the snaking lines of cars and trucks. Then the IRA. And finally the soldiers from England with assault rifles.
The only one way to “get Brexit done,” as Boris Johnson puts it, and honor the Good Friday Agreement is to give Northern Ireland special status. Politically, it stays in the U.K.. Economically, it says in Europe. The customs border would be in the sea between the islands of Ireland and Britain.
Unionists refuse, because that would bind the territory closer to the Republic and loosen that stitching to the crown. And as fate would have it, 10 Unionist MPs (out of 650 total members of the British Parliament) gave the Conservatives their majority, so they got to dictate the terms of Brexit. Their stubbornness brought down Theresa May and installed Boris Johnson as prime minister.
But Johnson’s dictatorial style is so offensive that more than 20 members split from the Conservatives, shattering their fragile majority. That’s where we are today. Until and unless the Conservatives flip about 25 seats, Johnson is a lame duck.
Being lame turns out to be strangely empowering. Those 10 Unionists are now worthless to Johnson. Nothing binds the Conservatives to Northern Ireland except pride in the integrity of the British state, and apparently England is not too proud of its Irish stump.
Johnson persuaded Europe to renegotiate the “protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland,” and to save face he claims to have taken the whole U.K. out of the EU without a customs border anywhere. But anyone who reads the new document — Unionists and Irish Nationalists alike — sees that it erects a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.. Johnson is throwing the Unionists under the bus, and he’s betting that English voters will cheer.
On Dec. 12, we’ll find out just how “British” the English are. If England cares more about its borders than the U.K.’s, Boris will get Brexit done. And he’ll lose Northern Ireland.
Joseph Kelly is director of Irish and Irish American Studies at the College of Charleston.