The cross : In 1921, the Republic of Ireland was proclaimed and six counties remained under British rule to form Northern Ireland. Under what circumstances was this partition made?
Diarmaid Ferriter: At the time, Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom, and its inhabitants are firing on the fate of this island. In fact, three quarters are in favor of a Republic of Ireland when others are fighting to stay in the United Kingdom. Faced with this dilemma, Westminster decided to draw a line between the future Republic of Ireland and the six counties that make up Northern Ireland.
Angry border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland
However, the demarcation was carried out in a rough way, because the United Kingdom was content to take again the lines delimiting the counties dating XVIe or XVIIe century. Thus, the partition created two minority problems on the island in 1921. In the province of Northern Ireland, a third of the population wants to join the South, while opposite, the Protestant minority feels uncomfortable in an Irish Republic that has become very Catholic.
Nearly a hundred years after this partition, the Irish border became the stumbling block of the Brexit negotiations. How do you explain it?
D.F .: By erecting this boundary, Westminster wanted to be pragmatic. The aim was to get rid of the Irish question that was poisoning British policy. But a century later, the Emerald Isle has never disturbed the United Kingdom as much. It is quite ironic because the current problem of the Irish border had been totally ignored in the Brexit debate before the referendum. Each time, the British turn a blind eye to the Irish issue until they reach a point where they can no longer ignore the problem that has become a crisis. Today, it is this crisis that we are trying to manage.
Brexit, alternative to backstop clashes with Ireland
In your opinion, could a possible re-establishment of customs controls on or near the border threaten the peace of Northern Ireland?
D.F .: Yes of course ! The demarcation has become almost invisible over the last twenty years, after the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998. Thanks to this, the exchanges between the two Ireland have become more fluid. But beyond the technical question, the Irish border poses an emotional problem. Indeed, the demarcation symbolizes contested communities and territories. The border has always attracted violence in Ireland, and these tensions arise again with Brexit. We are witnessing the return of mistrust and bad faith, the kind of behavior that we thought we had overcome. In Northern Ireland, there is more anger and suspicion.
Could the idea of a border in the Irish Sea be a solution?
D.F .: Probably. Today, we are beginning to accept the fact that Northern Ireland must be treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland has always had a special status despite what the Northern Ireland Unionist Party (the DUP) says. I think that a border in the Irish Sea would be perceived as the recognition of the particularity of Northern Ireland. Most people understand this compromise, except DUP.
Brexit: Dublin openly evokes "unified Ireland" in the absence of agreement
The debate on Brexit has put back on the table the idea of a unified Ireland, is it seriously conceivable?
D.F .: Lessons must be learned from history, and the reunification of Ireland can only come from a dialogue. One must not make the same mistakes as a hundred years ago by forcing minorities to integrate a state against their will. What form will a unified Ireland take? Why not that of a federal state with special representation for the northern province. But a possible reunification also poses many economic problems since the British give about 10 billion pounds (11.6 billion euros) to Northern Ireland. It would be very costly for the Republic of Ireland to keep its neighbor afloat.
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