‘This is the Night Mail crossing the Border, Bringing the cheque and the postal order’. So begins one of the nation’s best-loved poems, Night Mail, by W.H. Auden. Borders are the places where one becomes the other. Borders, by their very nature, are of significance even if they are not marked or fenced. Often they are deceptive, difficult, dangerous places.
Currently I’m reading ‘Border: A journey to the edge of Europe’ by Kapka Kassabova which explores the complex border history of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey centred on the ancient kingdom of Thracia. During the Cold War the Bulgarian – Turkish border was a favoured escape route for young East Germans wanting to reach the West. To counter this, the authorities in the GDR produced maps that deliberately showed the border in the wrong place, luring the would-be escapees into deadly traps. Some were tried and imprisoned, many were simply shot by border guards, equally young in age, and buried in unmarked graves in the densely forested border zone.
Here in the North East, we live in an old border zone ourselves, once the outer limit of the Roman Empire, still marked spectacularly to this day by Hadrian’s Wall. Rory Stewart has written a book about a walk he took along this border with his elderly Scottish father shadowing him by car. ‘The Marches’ is a curate’s egg of a book, some fascinating historical insights but some irritation too – “the smoke of Tyneside”, what smoke?
‘The Debatable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland and England’ is another recent book about our borderlands by Graham Robb in which he examines this bloodiest of British regions, fought over by Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and James V. After the Union of the Crowns, most of its population was slaughtered or deported and it became the last part of the country to be brought under the control of the state.
One of the greatest achievements of the European Union has been to dissolve the borders between the 28 member states, enabling people and goods to move with speed and relative ease from Scotland to Greece or Spain to Finland and everywhere else in between. Yet, as a direct consequence of Brexit, the UK is about to leave this advantageous state of affairs.
Recently I was told the following story. At a meeting of Chief Executives of UK ports with the Department for Transport, officials were very pleased to report they had devised a new method that meant a lorry would be able to be checked at a port within two minutes. To which the head of the Port of Dover pointed out that even if the check took only 1 minute it would still result in a queue of lorries from Dover to London.
While the consequences and added costs of Brexit for trade are becoming clearer, it is the situation on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that is causing the most concern. The imposition of a hard border between the north and the south would be a major step backwards from a Republican perspective but a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is unacceptable to Unionists. It remains an unresolved conundrum.
A fellow MEP recently visited Northern Ireland and was truly alarmed by what he had found. Stormont, Northern Ireland’s devolved government, simply isn’t functioning so London is running the show and there is worrying talk amongst some of a return to ‘the good old days’, which the rest of us remember as The Troubles.
Many aspects of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU have to date been deftly avoided by the UK government but as one senior EU diplomat put it, “There can be no kicking this into the long grass.” If the issue of the Irish border is not solved at the EU summit in June “then we have a crisis”.
Donald Tusk, the European council president, and Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, both warned last week that without a solution on the Irish border, the UK risked leaving the EU without a deal or any transition arrangements.
The UK government would do well to remember borders are deceptive, difficult, dangerous places.
This article was also published in The Journal on Wednesday 25th of April.