IT HAS HARDLY gone unnoticed that the centenary of the Irish revolutionary period has coincided with another major constitutional crisis within the United Kingdom.
The commencement of the Brexit process and demands for a Scottish independence referendum have left many wondering what the ramifications will be for the British and Irish States as we know them.
It may be that an old idea offers an opportunity to ease some problems likely to emerge in the years ahead; namely, a boundary commission. In other words, if there is to be a “hard border” between Ireland and Northern Ireland, perhaps questions should be asked about where that border should lie.
Government of Ireland Act
The border as we know it today was created by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, when six Ulster counties were given a parliament of their own.
But from the beginning, the line of partition was arbitrary. Most of the county lines in Ulster were drawn up in the early 1600s. Using county borders to form the basis of the boundary meant that several nationalist and unionist communities got left on the “wrong side” of the line.
During the political crisis of the previous decade, there had been calls for the individual counties of Ulster to decide whether to opt in or out of the Home Rule state. Fermanagh and Tyrone both elected anti-partitionist local councils in June 1920 and 57% of voters in these counties supported nationalist candidates in the Stormont elections of 1921.
Had the people of Tyrone and Fermanagh been allowed to decide, there is a very strong chance they would have chosen the Free State over Northern Ireland.
However, people who felt that they had been unjustly placed in the “wrong” State believed that the boundary commission promised by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 would address their concern.
Only scattered discussion has taken place since the 1920s about whether the border actually makes sense. Simply by existing, it appears to have gained a logic and legitimacy in its own right.
At the height of the Troubles in 1972, the British government considered transferring territory west of the Bann to the Irish Republic. Meanwhile in 1984, Margaret Thatcher had raised the possibility of redrawing the Irish border with Garrett Fitzgerald.
In the 1990s, and contemplating a possible British withdrawal from Ulster, the UDA issued a document that called for repartition and essentially the ethnic cleansing of Catholics from a reduced Northern Ireland. The UDA claimed that this option had once been evaluated by Margaret Thatcher’s government.
If the line of partition were to be redrawn, the best solution would be to identify regions along the border where the majority of residents would likely vote in favour of switching States. A vote could then be held in each area to confirm whether locals supported such a move.
Of course, to suggest this is not to disregard how complicated such an undertaking would be, or to ignore that it might escalate tensions in Northern Ireland.
But given the possibility that Brexit will make the divide between the two parts of this island greater than it has ever been, allowing people a democratic say on their future looks the lesser of two evils.
It is worth reflecting on what reactions different groups with a stake in Northern Ireland might have to such a move.
We might assume that nationalists from south and west Ulster would welcome the opportunity, although they may be reluctant to “sell out” their compatriots in east Ulster, as many northern nationalists feel their southern counterparts did in 1921.
Nationalists in areas that are predominantly unionist would naturally be against redrawing the border, fearing future discrimination as a result of being part of a significantly reduced minority.
People who support a thirty-two-county united Ireland would oppose repartition. If large sections of the nationalist population were transferred to the republic, then the likelihood that the remainder of Northern Ireland would ever vote to unite politically with the rest of the island would diminish greatly.
The unionist community
For similar reasons, it is easy to imagine a significant element of the unionist community supporting the idea. For all the talk of “no surrender” and “not an inch,” there is a growing awareness among unionists that they might find themselves outvoted on the issue of unification in the future, and re-partition would ease such concerns.
Although opinions in the twenty-six counties have been a bit mixed on the question of unification, most people would probably welcome a redrawn border that leaves the unionist masses, and most of the financial burden, on the “other” side.
Given the posturing that has taken place over Gibraltar recently, elements of the British government would likely be unwilling to “surrender” any territorial concessions. However, a land transfer would allow the British government to trim some of the administrative fat that comes with subsidising Northern Ireland.
Indeed, a significant reduction in the size of the Northern Irish State might make direct rule from Westminster the most logical option going forward, creating further savings.
The rapidly changing dynamic within and between Britain and Ireland calls for bold and brave choices in our immediate future. Re-partition may not ultimately be one of them, but all options, radical or otherwise, need to be weighed up.
Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.