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Arlene Foster criticised over assertion that 'we never had a hard border'

Foster insisted it was “a bit of a nonsense, frankly, to talk about a hard border”.

DUP leader Arlene Foster at the 'A Better Deal' event at the British Academy, London, today.
DUP leader Arlene Foster at the 'A Better Deal' event at the British Academy, London, today.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

DUP LEADER ARLENE Foster has been expanding on her earlier comments that there was never a hard border on the island of Ireland during the Troubles. 

Speaking at an event in London earlier, Foster reiterated that her party believed there was no need for a backstop provision to form part of the UK’s deal to exit the EU. 

“As someone who lived through the Troubles we never had a hard border. There were 20,000 soldiers in Northern Ireland and they couldn’t hermetically seal the border in Northern Ireland so it is a bit of a nonsense, frankly, to talk about a hard border,” Foster said. 

BBC Northern Ireland’s political editor Mark Devenport, speaking to her afterwards, put it to the DUP leader that many people would remember having a much harder border during the period of the conflict. 

“Yes but it was for completely different reasons,” Foster said. 

I think you’ll accept it was for reasons of security and even then terrorists were able to come and go at their pleasure across the border. So even in those circumstances we weren’t able to stop … of course at that time it was to stop Semtex and terrorism now we’re talking about powdered milk and matters like that.

Both the Taoiseach and UK Prime Minister Theresa May have repeatedly said there can be no return to the borders of the past in the wake of Brexit. 

The backstop provision, which is included in the Withdrawal Agreement struck between May’s government and the EU, is an insurance policy designed to avoid border infrastructure in Ireland “unless and until” another solution is agreed. 

The Troubles 

Many routes between the Republic and the North were closed at the height of the Troubles, with smaller roads either blocked, spiked or blown up by the British Army. Full-scale military checkpoints were erected on many of the main routes that remained. 

Routes along the length of the border began reopening from the 1990s – with the last few roads and bridges being repaired and reopened around a decade ago. 275 land border crossings now exist between the North and the Republic – more than along the whole of EU’s eastern border.

The debate around how to define a hard border was discussed recently by the UK Parliament’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which observed:  

The terminology is important because a hard border has been associated with the prospect of new border infrastructure, which could be reminiscent of the security installations erected during the Troubles.
Following the referendum result, the Prime Minister gave assurance that there would be no return to ‘the borders of the past’.This commitment has since evolved into a guarantee that there will be ‘no physical infrastructure at the border’.
Robin Walker, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union, described a hard border as one “where people are stopped and where there is physical infrastructure that gets in the way of everyday lives”. The EU has also stated the aim of avoiding “physical border infrastructure”.

Reaction 

SDLP Assembly Member for Newry and Armagh Justin McNulty has branded the comments as “grossly inaccurate”.

“The DUP Leader has unashamedly not let the facts get in the way of a good soundbite,” he said.

Long before the Troubles broke out, there was a customs border. A border existed since partition and it existed primarily as a Customs Border. It sought to prevent the carrying of goods across the border without paying excise duty. It was only in the 1970s the militarised border appeared and this lasted for over thirty years.

Alliance and Sinn Féin representatives also criticised her comments. 

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