Northern Ireland and the toxic legacy of Brexit

By Michael Carberry




The aftermath of an IRA bomb attack in Belfast, 1971

Abbas-Magnum Photos

The resignation of Boris Johnsons’ Brexit Minister, Lord Frost before Christmas and his replacement by the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, has once again thrown the spotlight on the perennial problem of Northern Ireland. Although the ostensible reason for the resignation was Frost’s unhappiness about the Government’s “direction of travel”, there is little doubt that his abysmal failure to make any headway in the discussions with the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol was a major factor. The Protocol has become a poisoned chalice and Frost had no wish to preside over an inevitable failure. The Protocol, intended to prevent customs checks or controls along the border between the North and the Republic in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 but instead creating a de-facto border down the Irish Sea, was always going to be unacceptable to unionists. It was pushed through by Frost and Johnson so that they could claim to have “got Brexit done” since when they have been trying to unpick it on the grounds that it is “unworkable”.

But there is far more at stake here than a mere squabble over a few customs checks or border posts. As someone with long-standing family connections and friendships in Ireland I have watched developments there with great interest for many years. As a student in Liverpool in the 1960s I had many friends from Northern Ireland some of whom were involved in the Civil Rights movement and were viciously beaten by the notorious B Special Constables. I remember vividly when British troops were sent into the North – initially to protect the Catholic population from Protestant violence - and I remember the shock and dismay when I first heard that someone had been shot dead on the streets of Belfast. That kind of political violence did not happen in Britain. Or so I naïvely thought.

Over the next few years, I watched the province spiral downwards into a nightmare of violence and bloodshed. The horror of the 1974 Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings gave people on the mainland some inkling of the almost daily carnage experienced by people in Belfast or Derry. Working in a government department in London, we had bomb-blast curtains fitted to our office, and at least two bombs went off in my hearing, including one across the street when I was in a cinema. But it was immeasurably worse across the water. To give just one example, the father of a colleague and friend, a Northern Irish Protestant, was murdered in his own sitting room in front of his young daughter in a sectarian killing. He was a banker with no political connections. So I do have some personal understanding of what people in Northern Ireland went through.

Nevertheless, I believed that, following the Good Friday agreement, no one would ever want to go back to that cycle of violence; that demographic change would mean that ultimately there would be a majority for re-unification and the province would be peacefully re-integrated with the rest of Ireland. However, the centenary of the establishment of Northern Ireland as a separate entity produced a flurry of television programmes and comment which have shown that idea to be naïve.

The history of the partition shows how the sectarianism which had existed in Northern Ireland since the 16th century was re-ignited by the politics. The debate over partition re-awakened communal feelings so that people who had co-existed peacefully and often in friendship now found themselves at each other’s throats. Immediately following the implementation of partition in 1922 Catholic workers were driven out of Harland and Wolf shipyard which became effectively reserved for Protestants. People from both communities were forced out of their homes in what we would now call ethnic cleansing. The same happened again in the 1960s when the ‘Troubles’ resumed and walls were built to separate the communities. If your house was on the wrong side of the wall you had to move. This pattern is not of course peculiar to Ireland. It occurred even more catastrophically with the partition of India in 1947, causing the death of up to 2 million people; and one can draw parallels with other situations such as Palestine or Cyprus.

Secondly, it shows how political decisions taken on the basis of short-term expediency can have profound and lasting consequences which were never envisaged by the policy-makers. The 1921 treaty which created the partition did not envisage anything like the current situation. What was envisaged was ‘Home Rule’; an all-Ireland ‘Free State’ with dominion status retaining allegiance to the British Crown like Canada or Australia. But as a concession to the hard-line Protestant Unionists, it was agreed to divide the country into two regions in a quasi-federal structure with a Council of all Ireland to help promote the ultimate re-unification of the country. Having first ensured that the northern region was limited to only six counties to ensure a permanent Protestant majority, the Unionist government in the province immediately rejected dominion status in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom.

At the time a majority of Irish people, north and south, still felt attachment to the British monarchy. The partition treaty provoked a bitter civil war from 1922-23 between pro and anti-treaty factions. But it was only in 1932 that the anti-treaty republicans gained a narrow majority in the Free State parliament and started to dismantle the ties with Britain, and not until 1949 that Ireland was declared a republic. Had the North with its solidly Unionist majority remained part of the Free State that would never have happened and the Queen would probably still be head of a united Ireland. It is ironic that it was not the republicans but the hard-line Unionists who lost Ireland for the British crown.

So, far from solving the problem of sectarianism, what partition really did was to create the infrastructure for 100 years of communal strife. The Good Friday Agreement was able to defuse much of the communal tension, not least because common membership of the European Union by both the UK and the Republic meant the de-facto disappearance of the border, one of the most potent symbols of the political and sectarian divide. The tragedy of Brexit for Northern Ireland is that it has effectively put that border back and in so doing has re-awakened political and sectarian hostility. Whether that border is on the land or down the Irish Sea is of little consequence. It will always be unacceptable to one party or the other.

The Good Friday Agreement also succeeded because people were sick and tired of the violence and bloodshed. However, it must be remembered that the young men who fought in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) Border campaign of 1956-62 were a different generation from those who had fought in the Anglo-Irish War which led to the treaty of 1921. In the 1970s those like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were again a different generation and most of the current dissident IRA and Protestant paramilitaries were not even born when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I have been horrified to see the extent to which they are filled with nationalist and sectarian hatred but without the corrective of having lived through the horrors of the Troubles. So, unless there is a political solution acceptable to both parties there will be little to stop the violence and terrorism re-occurring as has happened in the past.

The next Northern Ireland elections are due on 5th May this year. Sinn Fein have been leading in the polls. If they manage to secure the First Minister job, they will certainly call for a border poll as the Good Friday Agreement permits. In the febrile atmosphere of Northern Ireland politics resulting from the row over the Protocol, that is likely to provoke Unionist outrage and a backlash from the Protestant paramilitaries which could well be the trigger for a new cycle of intercommunal violence. That would be a tragedy.

What should the Government do?

The Good Friday Agreement was the greatest achievement in British politics in my lifetime. But that agreement required hard compromises on both sides (especially from people who had lost relatives in the atrocities). It was also because the USA was able to act as honest broker trusted by both sides. In her negotiations with the EU over the Protocol, Liz Truss needs to recognise that the main difficulty will not be striking a deal with the European Union. It will be achieving a compromise between the communities in Northern Ireland. That means that the government’s main task must not be to defend the Unionists, who are now barely 50% of the population, but to persuade them to accept a deal which they are certainly not going to like. Similarly, the EU’s role must be to put pressure on the Dublin government to be as accommodating as possible to the Unionists in order to reach a compromise.

Is there any hope of a deal acceptable to all parties?

There are things which the EU can do and is doing (like reducing the number of spot checks on goods coming in from the UK, a constant bugbear for the Unionists) but they cannot be seen to be giving in to pressure from the UK. And the UK could do more to try and implement the Northern Ireland Protocol, which Boris Johnson and Lord Frost negotiated and signed, rather than trying to find ways around it. With goodwill on both sides, a deal could be struck which they could sell to their respective constituents but that would require close cooperation between London and Brussels. That was never going to be possible under a government led by Boris Johnson with a rabidly anti-EU Conservative Party in the House of Commons and in the country. Frost has now gone and Boris must surely be on his way out. Much will depend on their successors. If Liz Truss keeps talking about suspending parts of the Protocol or Johnson ‘s successor adopts an equally hard-line, anti-EU stance, there will be little prospect of progress. Yet progress there must be. The cost of failure for the people of Northern Ireland does not bear thinking about.

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