‘I don’t think my visiting the Border is really going to give me a fundamental insight into the Border beyond what one can get by studying it,’ said Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North-East Somerset.
This comes from footage of a public meeting where Rees-Mogg euphemistically stated that the British government could ‘keep an eye on’ the border, and suggested that there should be a return to the sort of inspections at border-crossings that existed during the Troubles.
Historians may be reminded of Arthur Balfour and Mo Mowlam, when the former was Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887 and the latter Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 1997. The first decision of each upon their appointment was to visit the jurisdiction which they had just accepted responsibility for, in hopes of obtaining a better understanding of it.
One may also remember the words of Ronan Fanning, the later Professor of Modern History at UCD, who suggested that the First World War gave Herbert Asquith the excuse to do what ‘he had always wanted about Ireland: nothing.’
One wonders what Rees-Mogg meant when he suggested that he had ‘studied’ the border. Such a thought conjures up images of him pouring over maps in the British Library by candlelight. However, this is not the first time that his knowledge on the subject of Northern Ireland, and most specifically the border, has been called into question.
In an interview in May, with Mark Carruthers on the BBC’s The View, the Conservative MP stated that ‘walking through a few fields’ would not provide him with a drastically enlightened view. He affirmed that he could acquire all the information he needed on Northern affairs happily via conversations with his colleagues in the House of Commons who represent Northern Irish constituencies.
The last comment reveals not only Rees-Mogg’s own ignorance but also his utter lack of interest in the subject on which he speaks with confidence. Presumably, Rees-Mogg was referring to the eleven NI MPs who take their seats in the chamber, all of whom are from the unionist tradition, ten of whom are from the same party (the Democratic Unionist Party), and only one of whom represents a seat which actually sits on the border.
The extent to which this is a satisfactory resource is strained when one considers that Westminster tends to a be a pasture of Northern Irish politics. One will not find the best and brightest but rather those who are causing more trouble for their parties at home, or are generally political outliers.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, via Twitter, expressed his disbelief that a ‘It’s hard to believe that a senior politician is so ill informed about Ireland + the politics of the Brexit Irish border issue that he could make comments like these. We have left “the troubles” behind us, through the sincere efforts of many, + we intend on keeping it that way.’
This raises the noteworthy point that the Good Friday Agreement is not just a recognition by republicans of Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. The Agreement is also a recognition by the Unionist Party that Northern Ireland is an intrinsic part of the Irish nation. As Bertie Ahern said at Arbour Hill in 1998, ‘Antrim and Down are, and will remain, as much a part of Ireland as any southern county.’
This is where we get into the real heart of the issue, one which is often missed by many. The aversion to a hard border on the island of Ireland is not so much economic as it is cultural.
Rees-Mogg’s party colleague, Boris Johnson, has compared the Irish border to the boundaries of London’s congestion charge zone. He said there was ‘no border between Islington or Camden and Westminster’, yet traffic fees were collected.
However, not only did he fail to mention how foot-traffic is monitored along the latter, but he failed to realise that South Armagh has more in common with Monaghan, in a spiritual sense, than Camden does with Westminster.
Obviously there are economic concerns from businesses which operate on a cross-border basis, such as funeral directors, which have been discussed in various sections of the media and also form the main plot of Spike Milligan’s Puckoon. Yet, there is not enough heed paid to the cultural indignity which will be done by attempting to impose a border where one does not naturally sit.