Today
Sun 25 July 2021

By dismissing all the warnings about the threat to peace in Northern Ireland posed by Brexit, Boris Johnson has put lives in danger in the name of power and ideology, says Otto English

The roots of the violence that flared up over the past week on the streets of Belfast are like everything else in Northern Irish politics – complicated.

On 30 June last year, in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, leading Sinn Féin and Republican officials turned out for the funeral of Bobby Storey, a former major figure in the IRA.

That event, attended by some 2,000 people – including the Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and former Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams – sparked fury in Unionist circles. Footage showed that few of the mourners were wearing face coverings and it looked like social distancing measures weren’t being adhered to. But, more than that, the scale of the event was clearly out of keeping with COVID-19 guidelines and, when it emerged that O’Neill had met the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable prior to the event, fury mounted. 

For many, the funeral was proof of the long-running narrative in loyalist communities that Republicans receive preferential treatment and that, since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, it had been ‘one rule for us and another for them’.  

The decision, announced by Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service last week, that there would be no attempt to prosecute anyone attending the funeral was undoubtedly the spark that lit the riots of the past week.

But that was not the only factor at play.

Two weeks ago, four members of the South East Antrim UDA (Ulster Defence Association) were charged with conspiring to supply class A drugs during an ongoing investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the National Crime Agency. Many Northern Ireland commentators have suggested that the outfit has ‘piggy-backed’ on broader Unionist anger and that the violence was stoked by them in response to those arrests.

Matters have not been helped by the ongoing tensions around COVID-19 restrictions which have deepened social deprivation in the region, under-investment in poorer areas and led to rising unemployment.

But, as that red double-decker bus burned on the Shankill Road on Wednesday night, few were in doubt that the metaphors were writing themselves: for at the bitter heart of the current discontent lies Brexit.


The Blunt Tool

There is little doubt that leaving the EU is proving to be an unmitigated disaster for Northern Ireland.

While the peace process that was forged in the 1990s was not itself predicated on membership of the EU, it was the shared membership of it by the UK and the Republic of Ireland that enabled it to work. Open borders, the Customs Union and the Single Market allowed freedom of access and movement back and forth across Ireland and, with it, the facilitation of peace.

Brexit resurrected real and imagined barriers and the botched solution that is the Northern Ireland Protocol has only made things worse. That undertaking, which essentially places a border in the Irish Sea while keeping Northern Ireland in the Single Market, has created another nightmare altogether. For quite apart from businesses in Northern Ireland now having to fill in a mountain of paperwork, it has plunged many Unionists into an existential crisis. 

To many loyalists and unionists, the Northern Ireland Protocol is a betrayal which undermines their place in the United Kingdom and leaves them out in the EU cold.

It would all be depressing enough if it had not been so widely predicted.

On 9 June 2016, as the EU Referendum neared its endgame, former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major joined forces to highlight the threat. Both men had been instrumental in the peace process two decades earlier and both calculated that leaving the EU would signal a return to the bad old days. During their visit to Northern Ireland, John Major claimed that Brexit would “destabilise the complicated and multi-layered constitutional settlement that underpins (peace) in the region”.

Their warnings were met with a mixture of anger and mockery in the Brexit camp. Vote Leave’s Theresa Villiers, then Northern Ireland Secretary, hit back dismissively at the former Prime Ministers. It was all just scaremongering, she told the BBC adding: “Whatever the result of the referendum, Northern Ireland is not going back to the troubles of its past and to suggest otherwise (is) highly irresponsible.”

The Brexit-backing Daily Express branded Blair and Major’s intervention as “another aspect of the Project Fear campaign”. Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), said it was “simply scaremongering and irresponsible”. The Northern Irish Brexiter and then Labour MP Kate Hoey dubbed Blair and Major “yesterday’s men” who didn’t know what they were talking about.

Thousands of harrumphing voices lit up social media denouncing the former premiers and scoffing at the very notion that peace in Northern Ireland would be undermined by leaving the EU. After all, several months earlier, in February 2016, no less a figure than Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, had visited the Wrightbus* bus factory in Antrim, Northern Ireland, donned a high-vis jacket and reassured workers and the assembled press that the region had “absolutely nothing to be concerned about, indeed everything to gain” from departing Europe.

As he smashed a huge piece of bullet-proof glass with a hammer, he brushed off then Prime Minister David Cameron’s Brexit fears as “baloney” and branded all qualms about leaving the EU as “project fear”.

Yes, good old Project Fear – the weapon of choice for Leavers. A means by which anyone could shut down debate and bludgeon the Remain campaign into silence. It was blunt, it was stupid and it was highly effective – because you didn’t need to understand our membership of the EU to use it. Anything the Brexiters didn’t like or didn’t comprehend could simply be dismissed as Project Fear.


Reality Hits

And yet, unsurprisingly and predictably, it’s all coming true. Even the seemingly more extreme stuff.

When, in May 2016, Cameron gave a speech asking “can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt?”, his words were spun by Leave-friendly players into headlines like ‘David Cameron Predicts World War Three if Britain Leaves the EU’.

In fact, he was pointing out that security could not be taken for granted and he has been proved right. Coronavirus and the looming instability in Northern Ireland have upended the certainties of decades and the ridiculous tit-for-tat with our former EU partners over vaccines and Brexit suggests that close friends can very swiftly become bitter rivals. 

Then there is the status of British citizens living in Europe. The Leave camp repeatedly claimed that nothing would change – that life would carry on as before – with Arron Banks’ official Leave.EU Twitter account branding suggestions that some UK ‘expats’ in Spain would be affected by Brexit as Project Fear as recently as January 2019. That assertion has come unstuck in recent weeks and it now seems likely that thousands of Britons will have their retirement in the sun curtailed.

Despite the promise of boom times, the fishing industry, so critical to the Leave narrative, has been decimated by Brexit and many fishermen feel angry and betrayed. That too was predicted, and that too was dismissed as Project Fear.

Brexit was supposed to be a ‘bonfire of red tape’ but the only fires in evidence are on the streets of Northern Ireland. Far from reducing bureaucracy, leaving the EU has instead generated whole new layers of form-filling. Exporters and hauliers have seen their businesses hit even as lorry parks have sprung-up like spring daffodils in the Kentish countryside.

Of course, none of this will unduly bother Boris Johnson or his key Brexit allies. They have got what they wanted and what they were always after – power. Voters have short memories and, with the pandemic serving as a useful distraction and Northern Ireland very far away in the minds of most English people, the Prime Minister and his coterie can bluff forward and probably get away with it – for the moment.

No sane person would wish to be proved right on the worst-case scenarios of Brexit, but the horrendous violence in Northern Ireland suggests that, unless something is done swiftly to resolve the brewing crisis, the worst might be yet to come. 

*In 2019 Wrightbus went into receivership due, in no small part, to Brexit and had to be rescued by the heir to the JCB fortune

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