Boris Johnson, the buffoon who wants to be Britain’s next prime minister, believes there is no possibility of a hard border across Ireland after Brexit.
“Nobody wants a hard border,” he told the Westminster parliament. “You couldn’t construct one if you tried.”
Unfortunately, like many of Mr Johnson’s utterances, this is simply not true. In my lifetime there have been two lengthy periods in which a hard border operated. It was very undesirable and caused a lot of trouble but constructing it was no great problem.
The most recent of these periods was during the troubles, from the mid 1970s until the late 1990s. That hard border was enforced by the British army. It blew up unapproved crossings and patrolled the approved ones with the assistance of security cameras. It turned some of the border posts into fortresses, protected by barbed wire, reinforced cement walls and bullet-proof screens.
I’m not for a minute suggesting that this hardest of hard borders will return because of Brexit, simply pointing out that there was no difficulty constructing it once the will was there.
‘Some of stories might lead you to conclude that the border barely existed. Believe me, it did.’
The other hard border was in place when I was born and lasted throughout my childhood and well into my teenage years.
It was an economic border, enforced by the old, 100 per cent unionist, regime at Stormont but also maintained and regulated on the southern side.
If you wanted to cross this border in a car you had to stop at a customs post, show your insurance and driving licence and receive a triangular sticker called a triptyque, which had to be displayed on your windscreen throughout your stay in ‘foreign’ territory. You also had to declare any goods you intended to bring into the ‘foreign’country. You might be asked to pay duty on some items.
You would be asked to make a similar declaration by customs officers who would board trains and buses between Dublin and Belfast or at checkpoints established in the main railway stations.
All this was offensive and a great nuisance but, for private travel, it was hardly the end of the world. For commercial vehicles it was a different matter. They had their own checkpoints where you would see tailbacks of trucks that sometimes stretched for miles as their drivers presented documents for approval.
This border leaked like a sieve. Smugglers knew and used the unapproved roads and their deeds became the stuff of legends.
Some of these stories might lead you to conclude that the border barely existed. Believe me, it did. For every smuggler driving down a hillside boreen there were a thousand ordinary drivers fuming as they waited for approval at the twenty or so official crossings between Derry and Newry. For every lorry winding its way around an illegal route there were a hundred trucks wasting time and money in queues at customs posts and weigh stations.
A free-trade agreement reduced this aggravation in 1966 and it ended entirely in 1973 when Ireland and the UK joined what is now the EU. Traffic, both private and commercial, has increased vastly in the intervening years and what was then a major nuisance would now be a disaster.
We are heading for that disaster and no-one is shouting stop. Only Boris has been foolish enough to say a hard border could not be constructed. But many politicians, from Leo Varadkar to Theresa May, from Arlene Foster to Michel Barnier, have told us that such a thing simply will not happen.
That’s good to know. But I would feel a lot happier if they would explain how it is to be avoided.