The Brainstorm long read: when it comes to answering the Northern Irish question posed by Brexit, we should look to Germany and its experience with partition and borders

"Are you Irish or Northern Irish?". That was the question from a fellow student at Kiel University in the north of West Germany in spring 1986. "Yes," I replied, which only confused her. 

Having been born in Belfast and with dual citizenship but only one (Irish) passport, I explained that I could be both Northern Irish and Irish in the same way that she, born in Kiel, could be both North German and German. Politics had nothing to do with it, I argued, young man that I was.

In autumn 1987 in Rostock, GDR, where I had just started a job as an English language assistant at the university, I asked a student from Schwerin: "tell me, do you consider yourself German?" "Of course I’m German," he responded indignantly, "what else would I be?" The question had insulted him.

A divided country

I hitch-hiked from Lübeck to Bremen, both in West Germany in summer 1988. The driver who gave me a lift looked at me in astonishment when he learned that I was working in East Germany. "We Germans live differently, we see the world differently than they do over there," he said. "But they are Germans too," I countered. "Yeah, sure, sort of," he said, "but not Germans like us!" His Germany had shrunk massively over the years since 1945.

The Germans know what it means to live in a divided country - and that it hurts. What belongs together grows apart instead, and regional differences, present in every country, gain in significance. Different influences come from outside, not all music tastes are shared, each side has its own institutions and literature responds to different impulses.

Before the fall: the Berlin wall in 1989

People don’t think about partition every day, unless they live in close proximity to the border. Life goes on, we make new friends, go to school or work, meet friends and family, marry, have children and bury our parents. Everyday life is similar but different than "over there" in the east or west, or "up there/down there" in the north or south.

The Germans know what it means to live in a divided country - and that it hurts

Over time, linguistic references to the country change. In English, we usually referred to the two German states as West Germany and East Germany, though the latter was sometimes "the GDR". In German, it was different. After 1945 the "Soviet Zone" became the "Zone", then "Middle Germany", then the "DDR" and in the end even the delegitimising inverted commas around DDR disappeared. The Federal Republic over time came to call itself just "Germany", thereby implicitly excluding the east from the term, and it simply ignored East German attempts to brand it with the letters "BRD", or FRG in English. 

To this day, the website of the German Football Association records an incongruous looking result (not just in football terms) from the 1974 World Cup: GDR 1 Germany 0. If we were to take the word of the East German dissident Wolf Biermann, who even after his expulsion from the GDR in 1976 described it as "the better Germany", then perhaps that result should read: Germany 1 FRG 0.

With time, the Irish Free State, formed after the partition of Ireland in 1921, simply became "Ireland" The "Six Counties" in the north-east evolved into "Ulster" or "the North of Ireland" or "Northern Ireland". Thirty years ago, common usage suggested that "Northern Ireland" and the "Republic of Ireland" together made "Ireland", at least in the English language. Nowadays, one refers to "Ireland" and "Northern Ireland" which together make "the island of Ireland", as if Ireland was a glorified Isle of Wight or Isle of Rügen off the British coast, while Great Britain itself, demonstrably an island, is often referred to as "the mainland". 

This is semantic (and geographical) nonsense, but it is also belittling. Language is used here as an instrument of political power, and it is astonishing how even so-called Republican parties have unthinkingly adopted the phrase "the island of Ireland". That the Southern Irish state refers to itself simply as "Ireland" is exclusionary, analogous to old West German habits in respect of the term "Deutschland".

Writing about identity

Writers are extremely important in this context. Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass and Christa Wolf in Germany or Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel and Frank McGuinness in Ireland are people whose writing crosses borders, even as they are received differently in different jurisdictions. 

Günter Grass

Because Danzig lay outside Germany’s post-1945 borders and because Grass was so deeply engaged with Germany’s past, he contributed significantly to the continuation of a common German culture after 1945, despite all the political divisions. Böll, on the other hand, mediated a very Catholic Rhineland conscience to the Protestant East (and not only to the East), while Wolf was a challenging East German conscience to a sceptical West. But they were all successful as creators and mediators of culture, because they were printed, read and understood. Even when Germany was still divided, Böll and Wolf – in spite of their different political environments – were regarded by most simply as "German" writers. Grass was never anything other.

In the internal British Brexit debates, Ireland, North or South, played virtually no role and was hardly mentioned

In Ireland, the Northerner Seamus Heaney mediated the Northern conflict in some of his earlier poetry to a Southern audience that knew little about it, and later went on to engage with Ireland’s entire heritage, whether it had its roots in Irish or Scottish Gaels, Anglo-Saxons, Normans or Vikings. Brian Friel’s play Translations (1980) engages with the colonisation and above all Anglicisation of the Irish-speaking Irish in the 19th century and as such offers insights into the value of their own identity and culture to today’s Irish people in North and South. 

Identity is also a central theme of the play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985) by Frank McGuinness. McGuinness, from a Catholic background close to the border in Donegal, was praised for the sensitive way in which he explored the identity of Ulster Protestant soldiers in World War One, not least because literary, creative representations of Ulster Unionists had rarely been sympathetic to them. Thanks to our writers, the Irish border has even in the bad times seemed less impermeable than it might otherwise have been.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow 2016. Photo: Johann Persson

Germany and Europe

Until October 1990, the GDR was the unofficial thirteenth member of the EEC, a so-called "limping member" in German. Just like trade between West Germany and any member state of the EEC, imports and exports between the GDR and West Germany were tax and duty free. This was because the West German state constitutionally could not regard East Germany as "foreign". A protocol to the Treaty of Rome signed in 1957 about inner-German trade gave West Germany the right to regard such trade as "internal". But it also committed West Germany to ensuring that this did not damage the national economies of other EEC states.

The United Kingdom, France and others looked on this arrangement with suspicion, according to a spring 1989 report in the German weekly paper Die Zeit. The British complained about illegal re-exports of East German goods such as steel and textiles by the West Germans. In addition, West German importers of East German goods enjoyed tax concessions that were intended to promote inner-German trade, but which were seen in other countries as distorting competition. Bonn simply insisted that Germany’s national interest demanded this, and nothing changed.

The Northern Irish question

In the internal British Brexit debates, Ireland, North or South, played virtually no role and was hardly mentioned. Occasionally a Remainer expressed fears for peace in Ireland, but Brexiteers either ignored or dismissed these concerns. In the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland ever since it has become more or less peaceful is regarded as a highly subsidised afterthought. It has its own political system and parties remote from the core of British politics, the current transient arrangement between the Tories and the DUP notwithstanding.

"In the internal British Brexit debates, Ireland, North or South, played virtually no role and was hardly mentioned"

Yet the Northern Irish question is an important one after Brexit, and has been recognised as such by the EU. Since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 between London and Dublin, every Northern Irish person can claim dual citizenship, but doesn’t have to have two passports. My parents in Belfast, and many like them, are dual citizens living in their own country and holding an Irish passport. Among their friends and neighbours are dual citizens living in their own country who hold only a British passport. If a hard EU border is created, how would anyone propose to control entry and exit, given that both those passports are shared with other jurisdictions?

Do we really want the relationships that have been built up here after all the economic and political efforts of the last 25 years to fall victim to a bitter British-European divorce?

Both parts of Ireland have close economic links. 32 percent of Northern Irish non-UK exports go to the Republic, while 27 percent of imports come from there. Apart from Great Britain, the Republic is by far Northern Ireland’s most important trading partner. The North is less important for the Republic than vice-versa, but there has been significant investment in Northern Ireland in recent years. 33 percent of non-UK owned firms in Northern Ireland, for example, are owned by Southern Irish companies, the largest single national share, eclipsing by some distance even the USA. 

The feasibility and practice of all-Ireland co-operation in areas such as health has been enhanced by the open border. Many institutions have remained all-Ireland ones, even almost 100 years after partition. The close economic, social and historical ties between the two jurisdictions mean that all of Ireland would suffer more than any other European country from the consequences of a hard border. Do we really want the relationships that have been built up here after all the economic and political efforts of the last 25 years to fall victim to a bitter British-European divorce?

The fall of the Wall

The wall comes down

I left the GDR after two years on September 18 1989. I felt ill at the border, for I had left behind good friends who, of course, could not travel with me. I was crying by the time the border guard, a small, stern-looking older woman in her grey-green uniform, checked my ID. She looked at the passport with the multiple GDR stamps and then at my face and she asked what was wrong. "I don’t want to leave," I cried. Her face softened as she gently said: "Come back soon." I gave her a kiss.

Not seven weeks later, I danced with joy in Nottingham, where I had started a PhD, when I saw on TV that the Berlin Wall had been torn down, that people were streaming into the West, that they could travel freely, and how they danced on that hateful wall. Those were emotional days for anyone to whom both Germanys meant something. I cried with joy in front of the TV three days later when I saw the images of masses of East Germans at the border queuing to get back home again. On December 18 1989, I just laughed when an East German friend arrived at Nottingham train station to accompany me on the journey home to Ireland for Christmas. It all happened that quickly.

One last recollection from those days. In 1991, when I was lecturing in Maynooth, two of my former students from Rostock came visiting. They of course wanted to go North too. At the border outside Newry, our IDs were checked by heavily armed British soldiers, a completely normal experience for me at that time. However, my travelling companions were shocked when they looked out the window and saw a concrete watchtower no more than perhaps 50 metres from the road. These east Germans could see little or no difference between the towers on the Irish border and the internal German one that they had just put behind them.

"No-one wants a return to those days"

No-one wants a return to those days. Today, living in the West of Ireland, I can visit family and friends in Belfast without any checks whatsoever. Reunification is the most desirable outcome for me, primarily because I believe that that will create the preconditions for finally overcoming the divisions in our people, the wall in the head, whether religious or national. Sectarianism isn’t a consequence of partition, but it was certainly reinforced by it in both Irish jurisdictions. But I’m also clear that neither a United Ireland nor the United Kingdom is worth a drop of anybody’s blood.

For this and many other reasons, the North needs a special arrangement post-Brexit

The current, hopefully interim, political scenario is one that many people can live with, though it wouldn’t necessarily be their first choice. After all, the border has become less and less important over the last twenty years and times have become more peaceful. In Northern Ireland, 56 percent of the people voted to remain in the EU, a larger majority than voted to leave in the UK as a whole. A vote in the Republic on EU membership would be a complete waste of everyone’s time. At the end of the day, we are all Europeans.

But for some people here who reject the current settlement, resurrected border posts would immediately be regarded as a "legitimate" target and violence could easily beget conflict and violence. For this and many other reasons, the North needs a special arrangement post-Brexit. In light of their own history, Germans should be able to grasp better than most that Brexit will have more serious consequences for Ireland than for any other country in Europe.

This article is based on the author’s German-language piece, "Der Brexit, Irland und Deutschland", published in Merkur. Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken, in April 2017


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ