Britain and Borders — a Bloody History

This post first appeared on my own website back in November 2018. Recent events in Kashmir have given it an added significance.

Those who lead the clamour for Britain to leave the EU sometimes utter the strangest of remarks, betraying their complete lack of knowledge or understanding of their own nation’s history. One such came from Lord Lilley in an interview on BBC Television in November 2018. When expressing his incomprehension at the length of time taken to negotiate the terms of the withdrawal agreement he opined that “it didn’t take that long to negotiate Indian independence.” The remark set me thinking about Britain’s complicity in drawing up borders that have either been the cause of, or have failed to end, a great deal of bloodshed, Indian independence being a case in point.

The movement for independence in India spanned 90 years, so hardy happened overnight as Lord Lilley seemed to be suggesting. Britain’s response, in 1905, was to establish a border separating Bengal from the rest of the sub-continent, a move that served to increase the clamour for independence for all India. Despite this, India and its people played a vital role in support of Britain during World War I and were rewarded by the Government of India Act in 1919, but it would be almost 30 years before India finally gained independence.

It is true that the final settlement was achieved in a couple of months in the summer of 1947 between drafting of a Bill and the implementation of independence. But it came at the end of a long period during which numerous options were tried without success and was accompanied by another arbitrary drawing of borders that created a Pakistan that consisted of two areas separated by almost 1,000 miles of Indian territory. Violent clashes between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs followed, with up to 2 million deaths attributable to them. Parts of the border, notably the portion that defines Kashmir, remain in dispute to this day, 70 years after Indian and Pakistani independence. In the meantime East Pakistan saw a bloody civil war that ended with the creation of Bangladesh. Famine, widespread poverty and a series of military coups followed.

I could continue with a litany of similar examples, such as in the Middle East, where wars over borders drawn by the victorious allies of both World Wars, of which Britain was a leading member, continue to this day, or in parts of Africa and in Cyprus. But the one that matters in the context of Brexit is that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Established in 1921 by the United Kingdom to create an enclave for the minority of Irish people who had no wish to leave the UK, in no sense is this “the Irish border”.

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An armoured car in Sligo during the Irish Civil war. Image from https://i0.wp.com/www.theirishstory.com

Irish independence came at the end of a century and more of campaigning which began the moment Ireland was annexed to the UK in 1800. The final years of that campaign were a bloody war of independence. The creation of the border as a condition of independence for the rest of the island led to a mercifully short, but bloody, civil war in Ireland and to years of unofficial conflict involving paramilitary organisations on both sides. But the fact is that from the outset there was freedom of trade and travel between Ireland and the UK, across the Irish Sea as well as the land border, except during the years of greatest paramilitary activity and occupation by the British army in Northern Ireland.

Despite claims that there is no intention on the part of the UK to see a “hard border” on the island of Ireland, the fact is that the primary rationale of Brexit is to “take back control of our borders”. Not only does the phraseology imply there will be a hard border at points of entry on mainland Britain, the airports and seaports, it is hard to see how this can not include the only land border between the UK and the EU.

Unless, that is, it is accepted that a different regulatory regime pertains in Northern Ireland to that in the rest of the UK. In truth, there is nothing strange about such a concept. The province has always had greater autonomy than any other part of the UK, as, indeed, did the whole of Ireland before 1922. Northern Ireland, for example, remains the only part of the UK where same sex marriage is forbidden. It is the only part of the UK where politics is defined by religious extremism.

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Frank is a retired Engineer from England now living in Ireland. He is trying to learn and share the lessons of history.

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