Lessons from history on temporary arrangements for the Irish border

Lessons from history on temporary arrangements for the Irish border

To see what a temporary arrangement for the Northern Irish border might look like, one need look no further than the boundaries of the border itself, established 97 years ago as an initial temporary measure – and still going strong today.

The partition of Ireland in 1921 created an initial provisional boundary between North and South which followed existing intercounty lines, even as these cut through private homes and farms, and settlements such as Belleek. An inter-governmental commission was convened three years later – the Boundary Commission – to agree the boundaries of a permanent border.

The other major sticking point as Southern Ireland separated from the UK was money, in the form of Ireland’s share of the Imperial debt. The sum due by the Irish Free State was estimated at anywhere from £5 million to £19 million a year, at a time when the Irish Free State’s budget was about £25 million per annum.

The Boundary Commission drew up recommendations regarding land transfers between the two jurisdictions, which were leaked to the press in November of 1925. This led to protests from both unionists and nationalists regarding the extent of the transfers, being too much for the former and insufficient for the latter. The governments decided to bury the Boundary Commission’s report, the Irish government agreeing that the boundary would remain on intercounty lines, while the UK in return would not demand payment for the Irish share of Imperial debt.

As a result of this decision, residents of the town of Belleek found themselves in one or other jurisdiction, depending on what end of the street they were on. Ulster Unionists in the wedge of North County Monaghan between Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone found themselves permanently on the wrong side of the line. The situation of Belleek and other border settlements inspired a Spike Milligan novel Puckoon, while the ability to establish a fuel oil import and export operation within the privacy of one own’s farmland inspired specific petroleum production regulations for Northern Ireland and various other measures. As intercounty boundaries end where the land meets the sea, the precise maritime boundaries between the two jurisdictions were never formally agreed and remain a matter of technical dispute to this day.

The land border will mark its one hundredth birthday in 2021. As to whether the temporary customs backstop that is to be applied to it will be looking forward to its own telegram from the Queen a hundred years from now, only time will tell…