A border too far

A border too far EAIE Forum

Our final instalment of Forum Week takes us to Ireland, where for many the threat of a hard border is reminiscent of troubled times. Aisling Tiernan offers a personal perspective on the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit and the hard work of building communities.

For me Brexit symbolises mainly one thing: division.

It represents division on many levels – historical divisions as well as the breaking-up of our modern-day societies. It gets deep and personal, for British citizens abroad as well as Europeans who wish to travel, study, work, trade or even reside on either side of this divide. Not only does Brexit create a sense of division between us, including between politicians and parliament, but it also goes against the grain: it ploughs carelessly over the seeds of progress on topics like European integration. And even more pressing, in my view, it threatens the fruits of a fragile peace in Northern Ireland. As professionals working to internationalise higher education – through the anchor and expertise of the EAIE, where together we strive to share best practices, to connect people, to build communities between students, staff, locally and internationally – Brexit in essence, goes against this very spirit.

It was a more than a Good Friday

On a personal level, Brexit and the primary focus on the Northern Ireland border brings back vivid symbolism from my youth – images of soldiers with machine guns, of military towers, of car bombs, of a terrified people, of entering a violent modern-day warzone. My father was always glued to the news, so growing up at home in Ireland, I remember the many headlines during those years: the images of bloodshed, the constant news of civilian and military deaths, with Bono’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ ringing in our ears.

A mystical, mythical island frightened, filled and fuelled by fear. Tides of tears shed, lives lost, and blood on hands, with society at its most divided throughout The Troubles: three decades of unspeakable atrocities carried out by both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups, with 3739 deaths recorded. Brexit reawakens these divisions and haunts us with ghosts of the recent past; the thought of a hard border sends a shudder. It’s a reminder that borders don’t work and peace has a price.

But out of darkness and even delayed deals, there comes light, rebirth and hope. As a result of extraordinary political movement, skilful negotiations, through collaboration, and dialogue between the people and the politicians, the Good Friday Agreement was born, a milestone of merit in the history of Irish-British relations. Although I was only an airy teenager at the time, I remember it well. It was big news, and while I didn’t understand the details, I do remember understanding the effort and a strong sense of the impact of what was being determined and agreed – a chance at peace; it was about giving peace a chance where violence had so clearly failed to achieve its objectives.

And while a fascinating process to read about in the details, its greatest achievement, I believe, is the creation of a system of power-sharing that was supported overwhelmingly by majorities of ‘the people’ on the island of Ireland, North and South, Catholic and Protestant. The Good Friday Agreement was delivered as a social structure from which to sew and grow peace and rebuild broken communities, bringing an end to the suffering. And while negotiations for this deal took decades, mounted in murders, it is simply unimaginable to even think about posing any kind of threat to this beacon of hope. Let us not forget.

Build communities, not borders

And so steady social structures and organised systems are needed for communities to grow and to thrive, moving away from divisions, walls and borders. And this is what the EU has tried to build for us, through the single market and through the four fundamental freedoms – free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. I enjoy and value such freedoms, as do the majority of voters in Northern Ireland who voted to remain in the EU after all. This is why as an Irish citizen, I could study in Germany and work in the Netherlands, all fairly seamlessly.

And while I do not say that the Good Friday Agreement or the EU are by any means flawless, I believe they offer guiding principles from which we can engage, cooperate and live prosperous lives in peace. And when in doubt, we just have to take a moment to remember what preceded these structures, and it should strike a chord. Ultimately, it is from these frameworks that communities can grow – because of the possibility for cross-border movement and cultural exchange, from international trade and the free flow of goods and services, to the rule of law and the protection of our rights. And it is because of these freedoms that we can interact, that understanding can flourish, that ideas can flow, that we can learn from and about each other and that compassion can conquer divisions or dividers like Brexit.

While Brexit imposes itself upon us (even upon some regretful Brexiteers), it comes in to our lives and our communities – it’s at home, at work, on our travels and on our screens. Yet one thing is clear: we must continue to work together and not let it divide us. The EAIE is a great example of an organisation that advocates for internationalisation, that strives to connect people and fosters global dialogue; bringing us together in a true borderless community.

Who knows what will happen on the Brexit front? Hopefully the value of the community and the innate need for us to defend peace and progress will prevail and, ideally, maybe Britain will even remain in the EU after all. Could Brexit be seen for what it is, like the famous bridge of the failed Operation Market Garden in 1944 – a border too far?

Whatever the outcome, we should strive to continue building communities, not building walls or reintroducing borders. We owe it to the next generation.

Summer Forum is here!

Ireland’s complicated position between the UK and the EU, what’s at stake for higher education in the UK, new partnerships and more – download Summer Forum for more on how practitioners across Europe are bracing for Brexit.

Aisling Tiernan
Maastricht University, the NetherlandsAisling Tiernan is an advisor on internationalisation and has worked in this capacity as a Senior Policy Advisor for three years at Maastricht University.