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Critics said Brexit would threaten peace in Northern Ireland, now streets are on fire

  • Published at 09:03 pm April 22nd, 2021
Northern Ireland Protest
Loyalists block a road with burning debris on Lanark Way in West Belfast on April 19, 2021 AFP

On Tuesday, a bomb was placed under the car of a policewoman in County Derry

In June 2016, just before Britain voted to leave the European Union, there was a final debate at the vast Wembley Arena in London. There, Boris Johnson, then leader of the "Leave" campaign, now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was asked about the impact Brexit would have on Northern Ireland and its fragile peace process. In reply, he spoke instead, irrelevantly, about the Balkans. He said nothing about Northern Ireland.

His evasion was eloquent. Johnson's triumph in 2016, and his subsequent rise to power, were based on the provision of easy answers to hard questions. The one thing even the most insouciant British politician knows about Northern Ireland is that there are none of those. So the Brexiteers, rather ironically, adopted the strategy that the poet Seamus Heaney ascribed to Northern Ireland's own people during the Troubles: "Whatever you say, say nothing."

On Tuesday, a bomb was placed under the car of a policewoman in County Derry. In the first two weeks of April, dozens of police officers were injured in riots, mostly in Protestant working-class districts. The fears expressed by those in Britain and Ireland who had predicted that Brexit would be profoundly destabilizing for Britain's most fractious region are acquiring a dark substance.

A sense of proportion remains important. No one has been killed in this latest outbreak of violence. The attempted bombing of the policewoman was almost certainly the work of a small faction of die-hard Republican dissidents who never accepted the Irish Republican Army's decision to lay down its arms. These organizations have little support, but will continue, regardless of any political developments, to try to reignite conflict through opportunistic attacks on the police and other official targets.

Equally, the rioters in Protestant districts have not been profoundly engaged with the technicalities of Brexit. Most of them have been young - some mere children. The boredom and frustration of long pandemic-related lockdowns have to be factored in. So does the anomie of economic marginalization, as well as the activities of Loyalist paramilitary gangs more concerned with protecting their drug dealing patches than with high politics.

Thus Northern Ireland is not - or at least not yet - slipping back into the anarchy of the Troubles. It is, however, in a state of very high anxiety. The relative calm that settled on the place for nearly 20 years after the signing of the peace agreement of 1998 has been replaced by real fear for the future. In divided societies, such fears can be self-fulfilling. If people expect violence, they become pessimistic about all the things that might prevent it: engagement, reconciliation, consensus.

For years now, Johnson has been deeply mendacious about what Brexit means for Northern Ireland, practicing both deceit and denial. The deceit concerns the details of the withdrawal agreement he himself made with the European Union, setting the conditions for Britain's relations with its former partners. The Irish government and the EU insisted the regulatory border between the two entities could not be on the island of Ireland: The only solution was for Northern Ireland to remain for trading purposes within the EU's single market. But this means the trading frontier has to be one between Britain and Northern Ireland - the so-called border in the Irish Sea.

This has practical implications: Goods moving into Northern Ireland from Britain now have to have extensive paperwork. But the symbolism is also stark - it makes the province obviously different from the rest of the country it is supposed to belong to. Johnson swore he would never agree to this: "There will be no border down the Irish Sea - over my dead body." But in fact, that is what the Brexit agreement always entailed. Having indeed agreed to create such a barrier, he has repeatedly tried to deny that he did so. Just this week, he claimed that "ludicrous trade barriers" to internal trade had been erected by the EU - as if this had nothing to do with him.

The denial has to do with the more fundamental issue that Brexit raises for Northern Ireland. After all, Brexit is essentially an English nationalist project, one that has weakened Britain as a political unit. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against it. As a result, alienation from Britain has risen in both places. 

Unionists in Northern Ireland have to face an existential question: What does unionism mean if the United Kingdom breaks up? Johnson's answer is to wave the Union flag and insist all is well. The dishonesty is dangerous. It adds to the angst of a Protestant community that does not know where its future lies. Any responsible democratic leader would know that reassurance begins with the acknowledgment of reality. Johnson's forte, alas, is avoiding it.

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