Irish student Eoin McSweeney is studying an MPhil at the University of Cambridge and discusses the attitudes of Cambridge University towards a troubled area of the UK
If Brexit ever happens, the only thing certain about the ‘Irish question’ is that a border of any breed would be a calamity. The ideation is founded on irrational logic and would unravel arguably the most meaningful peace agreement since World War II. Its possible construction has evidently become the most salient issue in British politics.
The present arrangement has brought twenty years of relative peace and ended nightmarish violence which had blighted generations. Bloodshed, grief and a crisis would be the only result if a physicality, however small, eviscerated the invisible border. If one Irish citizen was to die as a result of a No Deal Brexit, it would be the ultimate act of indifference on the part of Britain’s political elite – that’s saying something considering our shared history.
In light of this pellucid reality, the Irish government took the sensible and indeed necessary step of insisting there be a back stop. This was an arrangement painfully at odds with the whims of the Democratic Unionist Party unless the entire UK was to remain in the EU Customs Union and Single Market. When discussing Brexit prior to the vote, the UK electorate was true to form and gently pushed the Irish border issue to the back of their mind, instead focusing on non-existent threats such as evil Turkish men landing at Dover with broadswords.
As it became apparent the problem was not going away, British politicians were quick to criticise the Irish position. The generic narrative was essentially that the pesky Irish were conniving with the EU to scupper the British government’s efforts to ‘get on with it’. The cheek of those selfish, bureaucratic, tax-dodging, sniggering leprechauns.
Tory MP Boris Johnson thought the backstop was a ‘convenient fiction’ and had been exploited by EU politicians. Speaking at the Pendulum Summit in Dublin in January, he also claimed his nation was being ‘held to ransom’.
In April, Bertie Ahern, one of the men whose signatures ratified the Good Friday Agreement, claimed another Tory MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, didn’t understand the intricacies of the Irish border. Mr Rees-Mogg denied the accusation and called Mr Ahern a comedian. However his regular pontifications concerning Ireland have affirmed his lack of either basic knowledge or empathy. For example, footage from a public meeting which emerged in August appeared to show he thought it was an option to return to border checks ‘as we had during the Troubles’.
Both MPs have suggested utilising advancements in technology to clamber over the nuisance. Vehicles could pass through unmanned border posts stationed with cameras and checks could be carried out at warehouses rather than the border. Yet the cameras are then a target for even local citizens, and when one is taken out, who protects the engineers tasked with replacing them from paramilitaries? The border primarily runs through areas where Catholics vastly outnumber Protestants and unless the structural foundation is defended permanently, it cannot exist. A permanent defence means either a presence of British soldiers or police and suddenly we return to pre-1998 Troubles.
While Mr Johnson and Mr Rees-Mogg can aptly and oftentimes be dismissed as caricatures of 19th century Britain, they are not the only members of the established institutions here who hold such irrational views. Sections of the media have also jumped on the bandwagon, clawing desperately at any opportunity to stay relevant. As an illustration, The Sun has consistently vilified Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, claiming he is ‘a bigmouth and a fool; who ‘cravenly obeys’ his ‘EU masters’.
When I first came to study here I expected the espousal of such a myopic viewpoint from these institutions. Their hubris was extensively reported across the Irish Sea and it is natural to fabricate a customary Brexit scapegoat at every stage of this harrowing process. Nonetheless, I was also expectant of a more knowledgeable and cultured British populous at Cambridge, removed from political oratory and media hyperbole.
While most of the students I’ve discussed this issue with have an enduring understanding of Irish history, many are still under the impression the Irish government and EU are in some way attempting to punish Britain for their disobedience. The conversations I have with British students generally belie a necessary degree of sensitivity concerning the real political situation on the ground. A large number of those who admit to a botched British negotiation process will usually caveat their shame with a measure of blame levelled at Leo Varadkar’s hard stance on the border.
It is not just some students who are under the impression the Irish are trying to get one over on their largest trading partner. I have spoken to professors who are willing to opine that because Ireland is overly reliant on the EU Mr Varadkar is facing a difficult situation, but has placed all his eggs in one basket. Granted this rationale is predicated on sounder logic, but is still composed of a flawed presumption that the EU is concerned only with making Britain suffer. The reality is that the EU would be satisfied with an expeditious Brexit, but it is protecting one of its members from violence, a benefit of remaining within the Union worth consideration.
My most galling encounter was with an employer at a career’s fair. When I asked him what the company’s contingency plan was for Brexit, he wasn’t worried about either the economic or social consequences of a No Deal. In his own words, he didn’t see Northern Ireland returning to the days of civil unrest, violence and murder.
Saoradh, the political party formed by dissident Republicans in 2016, has been distributing pamphlets in Belfast urging the citizenry to ‘agitate’, not emigrate. This is civil unrest. In January, a bomb exploded outside the courthouse in Derry. This is violence. Last month, journalist Lyra McKee was shot during rioting in the Creggan area of the same city. This is murder.
Although currently in a state of equilibrium, Northern Ireland is still open to vicissitudes that could be catastrophic to the peace process. To prevent this sequence of events is the only motive of the Irish government when they insist a border in any form cannot exist. It is important Cambridge students do not succumb to the much-peddled British dogma of self-pity and realise this is the ‘British Problem’ not the ‘Irish Question’.