Border historian Diarmaid Ferriter: 'Boris Johnson doesn't give one stuff about Northern Ireland'

In advance of his appearance at the Happy Days: Enniskillen International Beckett Festival tomorrow, Noel McAdam speaks to Irish historian and commentator Diarmaid Ferriter about his book The Border: the legacy of a century of Anglo-Irish Relations

Diarmaid Ferriter will discuss his book The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics in Enniskillen tomorrow
Diarmaid Ferriter will discuss his book The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics in Enniskillen tomorrow

AS AN historian and commentator, Diarmaid Ferriter agonises over choosing the contemporary figure from Irish society he most admires. "That really is a struggle," he says. "I think that tells you a lot about the period we are living through."

Naming his most admired person from history also takes a caveat or two also, but he soon settles on James Connolly.

"It's very difficult to single one out, especially when involved in general research rather than the individuals but if I had to name one, it would be Connolly, not only for how he carved out his career as an intellectual from a background of deprivation but his death in 1916 was a huge loss," Ferriter says.

The 46-year-old Professor of Modern Irish History at University College, Dublin will be in Enniskillen tomorrow to open the Happy Days: Enniskillen International Beckett Festival with a talk about his new book The Border: the legacy of a century of Anglo-Irish Relations' (Profile Books) and how the border has come back to haunt British and Irish politics.

Dublin-born Dundrum-based Ferriter (a county Kerry surname that originally came to Ireland, as so much else did, via Normandy) is now among the most popular historians in and of Ireland, with a cluster of books under his belt including Eamon de Valera, The Famine (co-authored with Colm Tóibín) and Sex and Sin in Modern Ireland.

He is currently on something of a tour of festivals, arriving in Fermanagh fresh from the Galway Arts Festival and from Bantry, where he filled the local library at lunchtime.

Appropriately enough, tomorrow's event at Enniskillen Royal Grammar (formerly Portora Royal School, alma mater of Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde) during the Happy Days festival is part of the Arts Over Borders festival trio featuring cultural events spread across the entire north west of the island.

Ferriter's book and talk aim to put the Irish border back in his historic and political context and remind audiences that, when it was first formed in the 1920s, it was only ever intended to be temporary.

The historian's analysis that there was fault on all sides over Partition and its aftermath is not a new one, but he says he has been astounded by the level of ignorance about the border during the Brexit debate – right up to and including the Conservative leadership race over recent weeks.

"Boris Johnson doesn't give one stuff about Northern Ireland but he knows that in the short term he will depend on DUP votes," Ferriter tells me.

"He has made some very dispiriting comments about the Border. Yet in the end he voted for Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement several months after attending the DUP annual conference and telling them that was something he could not countenance."

Yet in his 'parallel life' as a regular Irish Times columnist, Ferriter also recently contended that, almost inadvertently, Boris as the next British Prime Minister could turn out to be a good thing.

He was referring to the fact that politicians often act differently once they are in office and in the column pointed to an Irish Times article penned by Johnson in which he says of the 52 countries he had visited, Ireland "is more closely tied to Britain by history and kinship than just about any other."

Ferriter wrote: "There is no reason to assume he believes any of that but it is possible he will return to this kind of mood music by insisting that as prime minister he cannot afford the luxury of his former positions and that the Northern Ireland issue cannot be allowed to prevent Brexit, meaning a special deal will be required.

"Indulging the DUP may have been useful to Johnson in recent times, but as previously, it might also become convenient for him to dump them."

In Ferriters' view, with echoes of history through David Lloyd George to Harold Wilson, the United Kingdom still regards the north as an "expensive nuisance".

"Of course they do. Why would they not ? Northern Ireland has brought nothing but grief to British politics. The Conservative and Unionist Party put the second part of that name to one side for a long time except when Ulster and Ulster Unionists could be useful to the Tories.

"DUP votes are crucial to the party at the moment but the DUP's time in the spotlight could be short lived. This is why unionists, while they cannot trust Dublin, also cannot trust London."

The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics
The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics

The importance and influence of the border had faded over the last 20 years or so, certainly since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, but Brexit has brought it back with all the baggage of history still fairly intact.

"During the whole pretty toxic Brexit debate, there did not seem to be much awareness of the complicated history and contribution of the border and if you ignore the lessons of history, they can come back to bite you.

"For all the talk of technical solutions and logic it goes much deeper than that, and is about contested identities."

Yet, in the course of our conversation Ferriter agrees that it was the Irish who actually brought in the fiscal tariffs in 1923 and the physical structures which would become the border posts.

"The border was envisaged as only ever being temporary. As time went on the border hardened and became permanent. But the original logic arose from the fact that Northern Ireland needed to be treated differently."

The book describes the process of deciding on the shape of the border as "ridiculous" and outlines how, even in the work of the Boundary Commission at the time, British officials were speaking out of "both sides of their mouths".

"Northern Ireland became a bastion of Protestant sectarianism; independent Ireland washed its hands of its northern counterpart and adopted an insular 'partionist mindset' and Britain turned a blind eye to the misrule of a region," is how one review of the book summed it up.

But Ferriter is already looking towards his next project, the slow release of archival material around the Civil War centenary including the personal applications for pensions, with a target date of 2022/23.

He says he would also like to travel more and that a year spent on sabbatical in Boston counts among the best times of his life.

"I would like to do the great American road trip.Although I have had many short breaks and trips it has been hard to get a long stretch to explore areas properly," he says – and then a major confession:

"For example, I have never been to Rome."

:: Diarmaid Ferriter: Talk on The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics, July 25, Enniskillen Royal Grammar, 7.30pm. Tickets and full festival programme information via Artsoverborders.com