The new Irish border question

Saturday 13 October, 17:3018:45, Pit TheatreEye on the World

One of the outcomes of the Brexit vote has been a renewed, ceaseless and heated debate about the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The possibility of a ‘hard border’ is said to threaten the constructive ambiguities embedded in the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, seemingly fuelling old quarrels that many believed had withered away.

Since the Good Friday Agreement, many in Britain and Ireland have hoped for more generous cooperation across an increasingly open border, where citizenship would be less closely bound to questions of state sovereignty and become more a matter of personal identity and cultural association. Northern Ireland’s Unionists welcomed the agreement as a copper-fastening of partition, while nationalists saw the new ‘soft border’ as a necessary stepping stone on the long road to reunification. With the Republic’s decision to withdraw its constitutional claim to the North, the awkward question of national sovereignty could be parked, it seemed. However, just as the border seemed to be fading as a serious problem, Brexit has shone a light on a whole host of unresolved questions, fudges and evasions surrounding citizenship, democratic accountability and responsibility for political decision making.

Meanwhile, the issue of the border has also been raised in a different way – by the changing political climate in the South. Recent referendums have backed both gay marriage and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment’s constitutional bar on abortion. But if the ‘26 counties’ seems to be shaking off the old religious, social, political and moral certainties that defined its historic sense of nationhood, it seems a very different story north of the border, the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage and abortions are still not allowed. Now these laws in the North are at odds with those in the South.

All this raises new and interesting questions about Irish sovereignty and what constitutes a nation state and identity. Political commentator Fintan O’Toole recently pronounced the death of the old Irish nationalism and the birth of a new, more pluralist conception of ‘multiple citizenships’ based on shared space rather than bounded territory. But if the old ambitions and certainties of Irish nationalism have been put on the long finger or even consigned to history, what comes next?

Will the Republic of Ireland take its place ‘amongst the nations’ as an EU member state, growing apart from Britain and in isolation from the North? How will the Irish and British governments negotiate tensions between claims to cultural nationality in the North and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship south of the border? Will the Brexit debate about the Irish border be a determining factor in the island’s future or a footnote in history? Have the ghosts of the old nationalisms finally been laid to rest? If so, which forces and ideas will determine Ireland’s ‘post-nationalist’ future?