There has been a lot of talk about borders in Ireland lately. Hard, soft, invisible, frictionless, technological, in fact, the only kind of North-South border no one seems to discuss is herbaceous. This is probably because, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the longest herbaceous border in the world is just over 200 metres in length. So, although a herbaceous border between North and South would be very attractive and eye-catching it might not stretch all the way from the east coast up to Lough Foyle.
There is a preconception in what is now the Republic of Ireland that it was partition, brought about by the creation of a Dublin and Belfast Parliament in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, that caused the creation of the border. In fact, it wasn’t. It was us. Or at least our grandfathers, back in 1923. I use the term grandfathers advisedly because in 1923 our grandmothers didn’t so much as get a look in. Maybe if they had there wouldn’t have been a border.
It happened thus. After Stormont was established, the parallel 26 county state which had also been created by the UK government, stubbornly refused to come into existence and indulged itself in the minor matter of a three-year war of independence, followed by a civil war. When the latter ended many down south suddenly had the time and the inclination to turn their attention northwards again, towards the ‘separated brethren’ or the ‘fourth green field’.
The Free State government, now led by W.T.Cosgrave after the deaths of Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, had a few small problems. First off, it was stony broke. In 1923 it was heading towards a soaring budget deficit of … £4m. Yes, I know, isn’t that so sweet?
Secondly, in order to defeat the anti-Treaty Republican forces, the Free State had acquired a standing army of 55,000 men. Even though the Civil War was almost over they expected to get paid and they were none too keen on the prospect of being demobilised just yet because there were no alternative jobs for them to go to. Someone in Cosgrave’s government got the bright idea for an inspired ‘twofer’. Since the end of the Anglo-Irish war the Free State government had been sharing in the various customs and excise revenues being diligently collected by His Majesty’s Government (said Majesty at the time being a ‘him’ – King George V). What about, MacIavelli suggested, if we impose our own tariffs on goods coming from Northern Ireland, build border posts to enforce the new duties, and avoid a military coup by sending a third of the members of our grumpy army to man those posts?
This same bright spark also suggested that the resulting stress on the economy of Northern Ireland would probably bring down the Stormont government and end partition, so we wouldn’t even have to wait for the report of the Boundary Commission which would bring it tumbling down anyway! Voila! Job done! So, where’s my Christmas bonus?
And that’s what they did. They declared all but seventeen of the five million major and minor roads crisscrossing the border counties, to be ‘unapproved’. They stuck customs posts on the rest and began to supplement the income of the Irish Free State by levying duties on goods incoming. Shock, horror – this even included a tariff on rosary beads. That was when the Law of Unintended Consequences inevitably popped up from its hiding place and started making mischief.
To give just one example. Suddenly the Great Northern Railway became a sort of scaled-down Orient express. It traversed no less than seventeen international boundaries. Or at least it crossed the border between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland seventeen times.
And guess what, there were political consequences as well. Sir James Craig, the Northern Prime Minister, couldn’t believe his luck. The Free Staters had just copper-fastened partition. Voila! Job done!
So how did it all work out—other than for the membership of the Loyal Order of Smugglers who were even more pleased than Sir James? Not that well actually. Declaring hundreds of cross border roads to be ‘unapproved’ was rather like Moses ordering the parting of the Red Sea, except that Moses was a lot more successful. Most border county residents were perfectly happy to weather the ‘disapproval’ of the Free State and come and go as they pleased, on any road they pleased. This, however, did not please Free State customs officers. They spoiled the party by closing many of the roads. That’s when you started to hear the word ‘hinterland’ coming into play. As in ‘we’ve been completely cut off from our hinterland’.
To make matters worse the new customs regime began, well obviously, on 1 April.
So, did the UK government erect customs posts along the Irish border and establish a network of ‘unapproved’ roads? No, they didn’t. We did. That’s fake history.