THE DEATH of the Duke of Edinburgh meant things were much quieter over the weekend in Northern Ireland, after a turbulent Easter week. There were a few violent incidents in Coleraine and Belfast, but, for the most part, loyalist youths stayed at home and more organised protests against the Northern Ireland Protocol were cancelled.
That’s not to say things will remain calm for long.
By now, you’ve probably read some articles that try to explain the trouble in Ulster. Many make good, valid points, while others try to fit the facts into some pre-existing prejudice against unionism or Brexit.
The violence erupted after prosecutors decided not to prosecute Sinn Fein representatives for flagrant breaches of Covid regulations at the funeral of an IRA terrorist, Bobby Storey. This scandal, along with the destabilising influence of drug-dealing gangs in some loyalist areas and frustration at the strictest lockdown rules in the UK, made for a combustible situation.
The underlying cause, though, is the protocol, which separated Northern Ireland economically and politically from the rest of the UK, and created an Irish Sea border. For months, anger about this arrangement has simmered, adding to a feeling that unionists’ concerns were ignored during the Brexit negotiations.
While that saga was ongoing, the Dublin government, Irish nationalists and pro-EU fanatics used the threat of republican violence without shame, to insist that no new paperwork or infrastructure could take place at the Irish land frontier. There was no concern, seemingly, that taking a cleaver to the United Kingdom could potentially inflame unionist anger or cause loyalist unrest.
At an EU summit dinner, the Republic’s then prime minister, Leo Varadkar, held up a copy of a newspaper report about the IRA attacking a border post in 1972, as a way of implying that similar incidents may happen if customs checks were imposed. The head of the southern Irish parliament’s Brexit committee, Neale Richmond, claimed, “any customs checks on the Irish border and related infrastructure would lead to a return to violence.”
It is to Boris Johnson’s shame that he capitulated to these people’s threats and tantrums, rather than putting them firmly back in their box, then jumping up and down on the lid.
Theresa May had already started the process of appeasement, by accepting the ridiculous idea that no new checks, no matter how unobtrusive, could take place at the existing land border with the Republic. She favoured a close customs and regulatory relationship with the EU for the whole of the UK. But rather than sell her vision honestly to sceptical members of the Conservative Party, she disguised her intentions by portraying them as a means of protecting ‘peace’ in Northern Ireland.
You might hear people claim that unionists in Northern Ireland would have avoided the problems associated with the protocol by accepting May’s Brexit ‘backstop’. They’re either being dishonest, or they didn’t understand that deal properly.
It might have meant fewer immediate differences between Ulster and the mainland, but the whole point of this ‘insurance policy’ was that Great Britain (only) could diverge from the EU’s customs union and single market in the future, leaving Northern Ireland under Brussels’ authority. If Britain wanted to keep the province close, it could forget about free trade deals with the rest of the world or a regulatory divergent economy.
Remember how slender May’s majority was in the House of Commons? Even ‘Captain Retrospect’ wouldn’t have taken a chance on the ‘backstop’ from an Ulster unionist perspective.
This week, the Financial Times reports that the EU and the UK are ‘making progress’ in talks aimed at reaching an agreement on implementing the protocol. The paper claims “it could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.” If the negotiations are focussed on sweeping abrogations that allow the overwhelming majority of goods to enter Northern Ireland unchecked and without paperwork, then maybe there is hope.
Past experience of Brussels’ intransigence doesn’t, however, make that seem likely. Grace periods or minor changes aren’t going to help. And the glaring, inescapable fact is the UK now needs the EU’s cooperation to deal with unrest in an integral part of its own country. That should be a deafening warning bell for all those in government, like Michael Gove, who talk down the constitutional impact of the protocol.
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Photo by Whiteabbey – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=103320821