History Professor Savage Offers New Perspective on Brexit

In a referendum on June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.

Brexit was officially the mandate of the people, and work for history professor Robert J. Savage was suddenly a bit more complicated than before.

One of the main obstacles to the ongoing Brexit talks is the question of the current, mostly invisible Irish border. The border, which has been completely open for travel and trade since 1998, was once delineated by hard, armed checkpoints.

“The border has, in many respects, disappeared,” said Savage, who moves regularly between Queen’s University, Belfast, and Trinity College, Dublin, where he currently is a visiting fellow at the Long Room Hub Humanities Institute.

A seamless border crossing is a weekly ritual for Savage, and only by paying close attention to the road signs can he determine whether he’s in the North or the South. With the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland included, set to leave the EU, the possibility of a hard border on the island of Ireland has come back into focus. In order to understand the former importance of the U.K.-Irish border, first must come an understanding of the nature of the conflict that surrounded it.

The ethno-nationalist conflict that was The Troubles began as a civil rights movement for the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, spearheaded by both Catholics and Protestants in the region. According to Savage, it was meant to ensure that everyone in Northern Ireland, regardless of religious status, had full rights to housing, jobs, healthcare, and education. But that positive energy spiraled into something much, much uglier.

On Aug. 24, 1968 a march organized by the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association was met with force by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Derry, Northern Ireland. Batons and water cannons were used to disperse the crowds and several prominent leaders were among those injured.

Things were never the same in Britain and Ireland. Over the next 30 years, thousands were killed in acts of terror and violence perpetrated by both sides throughout the British Isles, though primarily in Northern Ireland. Many prominent British political figures were assassinated, and the spectre of terrorism haunted the daily lives of everyday people.

“It had to be resolved by political leaders who had the courage to make difficult decisions that were sometimes unpopular, and that finally happened,” said Savage of the peace process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) on April 10, 1998. It was negotiated between multiple government parties in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and widely regarded as the landmark event that brought the conflict to an end. In considering the success of the agreement, Savage points to John Hume as an integral figure. The Northern Irish politician received an honorary degree from Boston College in 1995 and served on the school’s faculty for a number of years. In 1998, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the GFA.

“His message was always the same,” said Savage, who recalled Hume stopping into classes he taught on The Troubles during his time at the university.

“[Hume’s message] was all about spilling sweat and not blood. That people had to come together and that there was no future in violence,” Savage said.

“The hard work of politics. All sides finally figured out that violence wasn’t going to get them anywhere. They had fought to a stalemate for 30 years and left nothing but carnage and hurt and dead, injured and grieving people behind.”

In those 30 years, the blood, sweat, and tears of the Irish and Northern Irish people were poured out to evaporate that border and the ethnic and national division that it symbolized. With Brexit, it becomes a problem again. To Savage, both the United Kingdom and Ireland being in the E.U. diminished the importance of national identity in Northern Ireland, especially for Catholics, who enjoyed being both “Irish” and “European.”

“It softened the whole notion of ‘British-ness’ and ‘Irish-ness’.” Savage said. “They liked the fact that they could travel across the border easily, that there was no hassle. There were no guards or stops or searches or customs or anything like that.”

Savage believes that some will see that the possible reappearance of a hard border in Ireland as a re-partitioning of Ireland, back to the time when the northern six counties were originally torn from the lower 26.

To return to a hard border would be to spiritually return the people of Ireland –on both sides – to a time when each daily commute could be one’s last, and the threat of sectarian violence draped the island like a pall.

“It’s just going the wrong way,” Savage said of diplomacy in the region.

“It’s just tragic if that’s what happens.”

According to Savage, just as the border separating Ireland and Northern Ireland was a popular target for bombings during The Troubles, so could future checkpoints become targets for “fanatical” elements, especially in the fringes of the Republican movement that would see the 32 counties united again—by any means.

This would be a far-cry from the conditions of The Troubles, but. Savage believes the widespread terror and acrimony of the pre-Good Friday Agreement Ireland to be firmly in the past, however, the return of the border could “poison” all of the goodwill that has come of it since.

“Anglo-Irish relations have been great, and this could possibly sour the relationship between London and Dublin,” said Savage. The people of Ireland don’t want a return of the border. They like the fact that The Troubles are over.”

During The Troubles, television was the primary source through which people in Ireland, Britain, and the world learned of the conflict in the British Isles. Savage’s scholarly work has often taken a media-based focus and he considers television, specifically how the BBC presented events to an international audience during The Troubles, to be integral to understanding the politics of the conflict.

“A news report from Belfast might be three minutes, two minutes, and the reporter would have to get in a story very quickly and oftentimes there would be dramatic images and a narrative that would go with it, and I was always fascinated by how that was constructed,” said Savage.

Then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanted to shut off the Irish Republican Army’s “oxygen of publicity,” according to Savage.

“The British government became infuriated when reports from Northern Ireland questioned the [British] security services and their policies,” Savage said. “They didn’t like the fact that they were always being questioned by an aggressive press that was not willing to take at face value statements that were coming from the police or the [British] army.”

BBC reporters would go regularly into Catholic neighborhoods and ask the denizens about official British policy, or even give an international platform for Sinn Féin to voice its discontent.

According to Savage, this repeated coverage lead Thatcher to officially institute censorship in 1988. The supporters of the Irish Republican cause, who Thatcher wanted to portray only as criminals and terrorists without formulated political views, would no longer be aided in their strife against the British government by its own public news service.

“The lesson [from the censorship] is that in any viable democracy it is critical that there be a critical and free independent press that can have the legislative support, the independence it needs to report accurate, if critically, of these events,” Savage said.

Though there is no question of the IRA’s involvement in terrorist activities, Savage argued. The British government failed to recognize the support that both the IRA and Sinn Féin had in Northern Ireland, mostly in working-class, Catholic communities. They were so alienated by the discrimination that they faced in their communities that they would turn to the only groups that would offer them a voice. To Savage, delineating the nuances of a conflict as complex as The Troubles is part-and-parcel of a historian’s work.

“It’s all about trying to get beyond the polarities and trying to provide a more comprehensive understanding that explains why Northern Ireland was a place where Catholics felt marginalized, and how a civil rights campaign that had all the right intentions failed because of the inability of politicians to make important compromises.”

An expert on the history of modern Ireland, Savage published The BBC’s Irish Troubles: Television, Conflict and Northern Ireland in 2015. The groundbreaking work was recently named to the shortlist for the 25th Christopher Ewart-Biggs Literary Prize, named for British diplomat Christopher Ewart-Biggs, who was murdered in Dublin by the IRA in 1976.

According to the organization’s website, the prize is awarded to works that “promote and encourage peace and reconciliation in Ireland” as well as “a greater understanding between the peoples of Britain and Ireland.”

Savage’s book is the first American work to be nominated for the award. Though he might not expect to win, he takes solace in the fact that his work soundly accomplished the work of a historian: it addresses the complexities of the time with consideration and nuance.

“It’s important to understand these conflicts if we’re going to avoid repeating these same mistakes,” Savage said.

Photo Courtesy of BC.edu