Borders are big news! On one side of the Atlantic, it is about closing one down, on the other, keeping one open.
I was one of the lucky ones growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Apart from a fire-bomb that destroyed our fleapit of a cinema in the late 70s, I saw very little of the violence that plagued other parts of the country. Only on shopping visits to Belfast did I encounter the reality of troops on the street and heavily armed police checkpoints. But I do remember occasional visits ‘down South’, crossing the border into Louth or Monaghan and encountering a lone British soldier on a country road, flagging down approaching traffic. Of course, they weren’t alone - a keen eye would spot the snipers in the hedgerows aiming their rifles at your head as their colleague struggled to spell your Irish surname. For those who lived and farmed on the border, they lived with the daily reality of death-threats and blocked roads, villages divided by checkpoints and barbed wire, and the deafening sound of chinnocks and Westland helicopters ferrying soldiers and police from barracks to barracks.
The changes brought by the Peace Process have been, quite frankly, breathtaking for someone like me who was advised to leave in the early 90s because ‘nothing would ever change’. The trip from Dublin port to Belfast these days is a doddle, now that the border checks and foot patrols have been swept away. Of course, this year, the crossing is more poignant because of the looming threat of Brexit. Is this the last time that our trip from the ferry terminal to the North will be uninterrupted?
A century after the border was created on the island of Ireland, it is no less contentious. Yet the argument has shifted dramatically from insisting on its reality to dismissing the impediment it causes. Unionists who have long defended this as much more than a line on a map now insist it is no more than a line on a map. It is baffling to those outside the situation to understand why politicians would insist on a position that does economic damage to their own supporters. But this is about something much deeper than economics - it is about identity.
For some in this debate, the alteration of the maps in the early 1920s simply made a reality, a distinction that had existed for centuries. The ‘Ulster exceptionalism’ argument is a strong one among those who want to suggest that the North-East of Ireland has always been set apart from the rest. It masks the colonial project of evictions and settlements that changed the demography in favour of the imperial power and set up rivalries that would become toxic. It is not a new story but one that has been played out across the world from the Caribbean to the Pacific. But the fact that it involved close neighbours had served to hide the power dynamics.
But borders have never been about the recognition of realities - they are projections of power that seek to create realities. They are lines drawn by the powerful often at the expense of the powerless. Pakistan (and Bangladesh) were carved out of British India in order to separate Muslim from Hindu at the cost of millions of lives and displaced people. Yet today, more Muslims live in India than in Pakistan. When the border was created in Ireland in the early 1920s, after thousands of years, kinsfolk became foreigners overnight.
Lines on a map are the visible scars left by decades of coercive and disruptive power. Deeper, yet invisible, are the past traumas, humiliations and betrayals that kept one people subjugated to another because of race or religion. Borders are what we create when we can’t think of anything more creative to do with our unresolved animosities. They are ultimately a sign of the failure to live with difference, an admission to the world that our own identity is too fragile to cope with the presence of others not quite the same as us. So we draw a line and make them foreign.
In a world becoming defined by the rapid movement of people, raw materials, goods and capital, borders make less and less sense. Even nations resistant to multiculturalism are nevertheless hosting increasingly diverse populations. The percentage of the US population who are Spanish-speaking has doubled in the last 25 years, and no wall will stop that increase.
It is time to admit that the idea of the nation state is no longer adequate, by itself, to meet the challenges facing the world’s population. Solidarity must replace sovereignty. The major threats to humanity are not the fear of invasion by another power, or mass migration. Climate change, cyberwarfare and the destabilisation caused by poverty and inequality are problems too immense for one nation to tackle. Nor will they be solved using the current systems of competing national interests.
Only collective action based on common interest and shared sacrifice will rescue the planet’s population from its own destruction. It’s why faith communities remain important to humanity and why their transnational character must be employed for the common good. We need a counternarrative to the toxic nationalisms sweeping across the world and the rapacious greed of global capitalism. As part of global civil society, religious people must preach, act and live out a new politics that values people above borders, sacrifice above greed and compassion above comfort. Our future depends on it.