Latest border plan: A bad idea from the bad old days

Today's Independent carries some very worrying reporting about the British Government's latest Brexit plan for the Irish border:

People crossing the Irish border would have to register in advance to avoid checks and delays after Brexit under a hugely controversial plan being considered by No 10.

Anyone without “fast-track movement” clearance would have to use approved crossing points or would be “considered to have entered the state irregularly”, the study suggests.

As the Irish Government told the Independent, it's hard to see how this proposal squares with the agreement on Ireland reached in December.

I came across some very similar ideas last week, when I took a spare moment at the National Archives to look some old Northern Ireland Office files on border crossings.

During 1979, Security Policy Meetings chaired by Sir Maurice Oldfield considered introducing a specific offence of bypassing a road-block in conjunction with a programme of border road closures.

Selective closures were seen as an alternative to controlling the full length of the border by an 'impractical' physical barrier or by 'massive reinforcement far beyond the Army's capacity.' They also offered 'the political advantage of being seen to take positive, constructive action.'

 The proposal was strongly supported by the Commander Land Forces, General James Glover, who believed that crossing closures were pointless without legal support. In August 1979, he wrote:

Reaction will probably be very disparate coming from three elements of the community, namely:

(1) Vociferous condemnation from those Republicans who resent the terrorist's wings being clipped and from smugglers who see a threat to their traditional livelihood.

(2) Widespread support from the Loyalists, and possibly the more moderate Catholics, who welcome a positive step in the fight against terrorism.

(3) Objections from a mixed bag of local farmers and traders who would be put to some inconvenience by the closures.

Glover's superior, Lt General Timothy Creasy, also favoured the proposals, even though he told the Northern Ireland Office:

A further problem we must face up to is that any really effective control of cross border traffic to eliminate terrorist movement and resupply would bring cross border traffic and trade to a virtual halt. I doubt if this would be acceptable politically and I believe the terrorists would redirect their supply system into the ship-borne container traffic, and this would present us with yet another major problem.

In February 1980, I. M. Burns of the Northern Ireland Office noted 'this offence would of course be impossible to enforce completely in dangerous border areas' and that 'enforcement of this law on residents of the Irish Republic would be difficult.' He nevertheless recommended going ahead with the law if it could be quietly included within a larger bill.

The law would have required ancillary offences such as 'permitting one's land to be used for illegal border crossings' and constructing 'alternative crossing points with the intention of their being used to facilitate illegal crossings'.

At the same time, and rather in tension with this, exemptions would have been required for 'those who own land straddling the border' and 'people working on such land.'

Echoing more recent comments by the PSNI, the RUC were rather less sanguine than the Army about the benefits of border closures. A police assessment stated: areas where the population is totally RC closures tend to be regarded as a form of collective punishment and/or imposed politics which should be resisted.

Our past experience of obstructing Border roads indicated that the efficacy of the security purpose was considerably eroded and discredited. The 'blowing up' operations set off a chain of determined emotional protest along many points of the Border. Most of it, but not all, was orchestrated. There were numerous in-situ defiance demonstrations, including the use of heavy machinery to remove obstacles or fill in craters. Many impassables were quickly circumvented or rendered passable again. While this was happening the Security Forces were faced with protesters milling round both sides of the Border, giving the incidents a delicate international dimension. Resolute preventive action in the face of such determined confrontation had obvious ingredients of counter-productivity. In addition there was the danger of exposure to sniper fire.

A remark by A.E. Huckle in July 1979 suggested that the reaction of moderate nationalists was not necessarily the one anticipated by General Glover:

The SDLP and others can hardly attack us with justification on the principle of making their illegal traffic more difficult, but they can do so on the method.

Clearly, conditions today are very different from the height of the Troubles. That might, however, actually make imposing a hard border in some ways more difficult.

It is clear from the above, that much resistance to the border during the Troubles took the form of non-violent direct action, from simply crossing illegally to building routes and removing obstacles, and it wasn't only republicans involved in it. A more peaceful environment might actually facilitate such activity, and attempting to criminalise it would risk a major backward step in the relationship between the PSNI and border communities.

When they have acknowledged these realities, British Ministers have tended to advocate either toleration of small scale smuggling, or what amounts to the same thing, a customs exemption for small businesses.

This is arguably an attempt to bat the problem back to the EU, which will not want to accept an unpoliced customs frontier for the single market, not least because selective enforcement might actually advantage organised smugglers.

The practicalities may yet bring the debate back to a sea border. In that context, it is worth noting that the Brexiteers who have set their face against a customs frontier between Britain and Northern Ireland, don't necessarily feel the same way about one between Ireland and the rest of the EU.

That may be their next gambit, although there is no sign so far of any crack in EU solidarity that would facilitate it.



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