Why a Hard Irish Border Won't Work

The issue is at the heart of why Brexit negotiations crumbled yesterday.
Photo: Stephen Barnes / Transport / Alamy Stock Photo 

For many people in Ireland, watching Brexit unfold is like watching your neighbour suddenly set fire to the grand family estate. While some shake their heads in disbelief, others cheer gleefully from the sidelines, hollering for more petrol to be added to the fire.

Yesterday’s breakdown in talks was no different, with our Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, stating he was "surprised and disappointed" after Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) threw a hand grenade at what appeared to be progress between Britain and Ireland on how we would solve the contentious issue of the Northern Ireland border.


The border line that separates Ireland is just under 500km long and passes through villages, rivers, farms and even individual homes. It spawned decades of violent conflict, not just by the IRA, but also by paramilitaries supported by British soldiers and paid for by the UK government. The border is a troubling vein throbbing away in an island slowly healing.

But for Brexiteers, that silly line was just another trivial detail in their grand plan. Of course, they weren't just wrong, but unabashedly displaying their ignorance.

When the Sun told our "naive young prime minister" to "shut [his] gob and grow up" after Varadkar suggested that Brexiteers might not have "thought this all through", we took to Twitter shocked and amused at how – after nearly a century of independence – some echelons of British society think they can still boss the Paddies about. The elderly woman who told a news crew that the Irish were "just making trouble because they lost" left us in hysterics.

But national pride aside, the border is – fairly obviously – a much bigger issue than the Brexiteers are making out. As Irish security expert Declan Power told me, "A hard border doesn’t work. There are hundreds of crossings and even more that only locals know. It will be impossible to police. If we physically go back to having military posts or customs posts, they will symbolically create tensions."

Unfortunately, these potential tensions mean nothing to the sorts of people who thought the famously Irish city of Galway was in Britain when Channel 4 News asked them to draw the border on a map. And despite Northern Ireland voting 56 percent in favour of remain, it's those exact people whose decision at the ballots last June will decide what's in store for the country.


For the Irish generation who grew up without a border, Brexit could challenge friendships. Joshua Molloy is a former British infantry soldier who served as part of the Royal Irish Regiment, despite being a Catholic from the Republic. He says he feels being "Irish" is no longer the reserve of Republicans.

"Some of the lads in our regiment were from the Republic, and some were from notorious loyalist strongholds in Belfast like Sandy Row and Shankill Road," he told me. "For the most part, everyone just slagged each other off a bit; the only ones stuck in the past were people who commented on articles online. Even though I'd put up with blaring shit pipe music on the 12th of July [the "Glorious Twelfth", an Ulster Protestant celebration], I never felt we were two separate communities. We were all Irish – even if it didn’t fit in with everyone's idea of what that is. I think that’s down to the peace process and having no border."

Despite the pendulum of emotions oscillating between hilarity, outrage and despair over Brexit negotiations, overhanging any discussion about a hard border, or a push to unite the island, are the memories of the 30-year war we strangely diminish as "the troubles".

That war caused 50,000 casualties, left a generation traumatised and splintered communities down sectarian lines. Ireland’s resistance to a hard border is not the country "being difficult" – it's the expression of a natural aversion to trauma and violence.