If one were searching for a perfect metaphor to illustrate the impossibility of the United Kingdom reimposing any type of “hard border” around its colonial holdout in Ireland, it can be found in yesterday’s unannounced visit to the formerly militarised frontier by the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Davis. The senior government minister and a bevvy of flunkies flew into Belfast International Airport on Monday morning, their convoy of vehicles speeding south to the village of Middletown and a cordoned off stretch of the Armagh-Monaghan border that afternoon. While there the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union visited a local autism charity and a food processing plant, glad-handing with local representatives, while an influx of heavily armed paramilitary police monitored the area. With no publicity, and no press informed of the excursion, the Conservative Party MP was in and out of the vicinity within two hours, leaving a bemused general public to discover the news of his hasty tour through a solitary tweet on his official Twitter account.
The reasons for the secrecy and speed around Davis’ visit to County Armagh are quite obvious, even after twenty years of relative peace in the disputed region. It was not just a matter of avoiding awkward questions by Irish journalists or any attempt by concerned local residents along the border to stage a symbolic anti-Brexit protest. The fact remains that despite the end of the previous conflict, the thirty years of the so-called Troubles, Britain’s partition-frontier in Ireland is still a relatively unsafe place for British ministers to visit. Let alone linger at.
Indeed, David Davis’ visit reminds one of the infamous political and military expedition to the border in 1987 by the United Kingdom’s then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Tom King. Accompanied by advisers and a television camera crew, the embattled Tory minister flew by helicopter gunship into the border region to disprove the claims of his unionist critics and their sympathisers in Britain that a “no mans land” had come into existence along the supposedly secure frontier. This claim was summed up in typically caustic fashion by the Reverend Ian Paisley, the leader of the militant Democratic Unionist Party, who described such areas as no-go zones for the British Army and “all-go” zones for the Irish Republican Army.
Unfortunately for Tom King, who at that moment was in the middle of secret communications with Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin, the impact of his defiant visit was somewhat diluted by the clearly anxious look on his face throughout the venture, as well as the presence of some 300 extra security personnel to boost the hundreds of soldiers and counterinsurgency police already stationed in the locality. As reporters noted, it was somewhat hard to take the minster’s boasts of imminent victory seriously when they were being drowned out by the noise of a squadron of hovering helicopters.
Apparently, only the number of helicopters and security personnel has changed in the last three decades.