18 March, 1988. West Belfast. A funeral of three IRA members killed in Gibraltar by SAS officers is attacked with grenades by a Loyalist paramilitary. The next day, at the funeral of an IRA volunteer murdered in the attack, two British soldiers, mistaken for Loyalists wanting to repeat Stone’s attack, are beaten and shot dead by a mob of funeral-goers. The ‘Funeral Murders’ were some of the most traumatic episodes of violence in the Troubles. To this day, they exemplify the vicious cycle of violence and anger that characterised the conflict, which tore apart families, communities, and the fabric of a peaceful society.
Like Republican funerals, the border between the North and South of Ireland was a focal point for violence. It also had psychological significance, and for this reason, amongst others, today it is a ‘soft’ or ‘invisible’ border, with very few barriers to movement. Whilst relative stability has endured for the past twenty years, Brexit has the potential to upset the peace established by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Again, attentions have turned towards the border, on account of the fact that a physical border may be reinstated when the United Kingdom leaves the EU. Namely, because when Britain leaves the EU, it will also withdraw from a customs union that regulates frictionless trade between Members, necessitating physical border checks to ensure goods crossing the border comply with EU standards.
The fact that Northern Ireland was the focus of the first phase of negotiations speaks to the gravity of the border issue. The ramifications of irreconcilable disagreement would be disastrous, both for Ireland, the UK, and the Union. George Mitchell, who worked on the Good Friday Agreement outlined how a return to a hard border would undermine the cultural tolerance that freedom of movement encourages. It would also undermine the strides forward both Northern Ireland and the Republic have made in terms of economic development, as the invisible border has allowed small traders to cross and build productive relationships with ease. In broader terms, Brexit has the potential to inflame political tension and has arguably already dealt a devastating blow to the fragile relationship between Ireland and the British state. Notably, the majority of Irish citizens voted to Remain.
To date, the border issue remains unsolved. Several solutions at mitigating the issue have been tabled, all with the aim of maintaining the integrity of the soft border: the use of technology, a radical free trade agreement, or complete regulatory alignment. However, negotiators must reconcile what some believe to be an impossible set of priorities: the UK’s desire to leave the customs union, the EU’s wish to regulate standards of traded goods, and respecting the sovereignty Northern Ireland. Whilst a transition deal has been agreed, any permanent deal could collapse if the issue of the Irish border remains unsolved. A return to violence is certainly not inevitable, but nearly all parties agree that entertaining even the slightest risk of inflaming sectarian tension that filled the Troubles is both reckless and dangerous.
Guinevere Poncia is a campaign volunteer with the Labour Campaign for Human Rights