The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, writing in 1939 about his border homeland of Monaghan, said:  

“I have lived in important places, times

When great events were decided: who owned

That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land

Kavanagh’s county Monaghan is the county that neighbours my own, Armagh which lies to the other side of the “no-man’s land” that is the Irish border.

Kavanaghs writing captures the contradiction of the place, the borders importance fades and swells throughout history.  It was created as an attempt to deal with the Irish question that had plagued British politics for generations. The aim was to grant Unionists in the North a continued place in the United Kingdom while the rest of the island became the Irish free state, a precursor to the Irish republic. Yet the partition of the island became a catalyst for the decades of bloodshed that occurred in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the 1990s, known as “The Troubles”.

I was born in 1997 and my first impressions of the border was a quiet part of the Irish countryside. It was hard to understand how a field which looked markedly like its counterpart on the other side of a river was deemed to be a completely different place, representing two sides of an international boundary.

Growing up the most common feeling I felt for the border was a sense of inconvenience and annoyance, it was a product of Irelands complex and often contentious historical narrative. Yet the impact this line on a map had taken on my family and community was obvious. Chilling stories of violence from previous years were ushered in hushed tones, ghostly abandoned custom and military outposts were reminders of a past I had not been privy too. This part of the world had lived through its “important times” which I had thankfully missed.   

Then came 23rd of June 2016, I awoke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the European Union, and all was once again changed utterly.

It was painful to see how long it took for the penny to finally drop in London, concerns had been raised during the referendum campaign about the Irish border, yet these had been readily dismissed.

After the vote when the border question became more pressing, the British government responded  with border ‘safaris’ where high level British  politicians would come to my village and remark at the peaceful open border and candidly extol the virtues of a yet undiscovered technology to solve one of the most complex constitutional problems in living memory.  

The EU never really received and still doesn’t fully receive the credit it deserves for its role of creating such an open peaceful border, it is no coincidence that the finalisation of the single market in 1993  coincided with the gathering of momentum for a truly peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland. The EU created an environment for dialogue, as Dr Katy Hayward of Queens University Belfast states “within the context of European integration, Irish/Northern Ireland cross-border cooperation was depoliticised and normalised”.[1]  

What EU membership did for Northern Ireland was remove the toxicity of competing identity and create an environment where someone born in the North could be a British citizen, an Irish citizen or indeed, both.

After Brexit there was concern that just as the border communities were abandoned by London, Brussels would also do the same. Yet, what we saw was the entire diplomatic weight of the Union being used to protect peace on the island of Ireland.

In Dublin, the Fine Gael Government enacted Irelands full diplomatic force to create an understanding and an appreciation for this problem amongst our friends in Europe. Fine Gael’s membership of the EPP, the largest grouping in Europe, allowed the government to use relationships and connections to fully explain Ireland’s unique concern about Brexit, which was received loud and clear across the Union.

With the signing of the Withdrawal Agreement, we on the border thought that this place was thankfully becoming unimportant, however the news in recent days about Britain’s intention to alter the treaty and in the process break international law has made those on the  border to once more hold their breath.

If there is one message I would send to my fellow young people, it is to never underestimate nor take for granted Europe’s greatest accomplishment, that of achieving peace.  

I still don’t know what’s going to happen to my home once the spectre of a hard border casts its shadow over my community, yet we must remain optimistic and not fall into apathy. As Heaney said, “Hope is not optimism, which expects things to turn out well, but something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for”. There continues to be something good worth working for, but we must defend peace and our European values on this island and across our Union.

[1] Hayward, K., 2018. The pivotal position of the Irish border in the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Space and Polity, 22(2), pp.238-254.