Today
Thu 6 May 2021

The trouble with borders is that once you’ve taken back control of them they come into existence, writes Jonathan Lis

On Friday night, more disturbances took place in Northern Ireland, bringing the total number of injured police officers to almost 90. After a quieter weekend, on Monday night a car was set alight on a railway line.

Imagine any other part of the UK engaged in such unrest and passing almost without comment. If the past five years showed that Northern Ireland was treated differently from the UK, the past two weeks have proved to what extent.

On Monday, MPs spent longer paying tribute Prince Philip than they did scrutinising the Brexit bill. One aspect of that bill, in particular, was not simply glossed over but actively lied about: its effects on Northern Ireland.

Remainers and Leavers alike often view all trouble involving Britain, Northern Ireland and the EU through the lens of Brexit. There is, of course, more to it. The current discord on the streets of Belfast and Derry did not begin with Brexit or the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The short-term trigger was partly the decision not to prosecute anyone after the Bobby Storey investigation, in which Sinn Féin leaders were alleged to have broken COVID-19 regulations at the former IRA operative’s funeral.

Longer-term factors include poverty and unemployment in the loyalist community.

The most fundamental origins can be found in 300 years of Irish history. Much of the unrest has been stoked by paramilitaries accused of grooming and radicalising children.

The point is this: it is possible to debate the role of Brexit in lighting the spark, but not to deny it altogether.


A Question of Symbols Not Trade

Some people have been warning about the consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland since an EU referendum was first proposed.

If the UK was going to leave the EU, it would require either continued full economic integration with Brussels or an economic frontier with the Republic of Ireland. That would have to be placed either on the island itself, separating Northern Ireland from the Republic, or in the sea, separating it from Britain.

The trouble with borders is that once you’ve taken back control of them they come into existence.

At heart, this was never about trade but symbols. A border is the modern world’s mark of division between two discrete entities, and border infrastructure its materialisation. In Northern Ireland, that division bred a civil war which killed more than 3,000 people over 30 years.

Since 1998, it has been obscured by a compromise which enabled both principal communities to express their political and civic affinity. In this sense, Brexit is not just an issue of regulations and tariffs, but a fundamental challenge to identity and belonging. The Protocol added new weights to Northern Ireland’s equilibrium and, in consequence, unbalanced it.

Why, then, did the UK Government negotiate it?

Ministers and officials have sought to exculpate themselves from the start. Last Friday, Theresa May’s former chief of staff Gavin Barwell told me on Twitter that May’s deal would have avoided the current problems and that, from the moment he took his post in June 2017, “everyone was very clear about the potential implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland”.

Even disregarding the incoherence of the first argument – the Democratic Unionists were as angry about May’s deal as they are about the current Protocol – the second is telling enough. If everyone in Downing Street was “very clear” about the potential implications, why did they press on with a policy that even remotely jeopardised stability?

From 2016, the UK Government not only privileged ending free movement above the economy and the economic integrity of the Union, but above peace in Northern Ireland. For more than a year, Dublin and Brussels cared more about Northern Ireland than its own national government did. The first time May dedicated any attention to Northern Ireland at all was when she needed to bribe 10 of its Westminster MPs to keep her in power.

For almost 18 months after the EU Referendum, and despite increasingly loud warnings by Irish politicians and diplomats, the Government not only refused to address the problem but refused even to acknowledge it. The alternative possibility, that the Government privately accepted the dangers but continued regardless, if anything, makes it worse. Everyone understood how delicate the balance was. Ministers and officials knew they risked destabilising Northern Ireland and didn’t care.

These days, the Democratic Unionists frequently discuss ‘consent’, meaning the lack of unionist community approval for the Protocol. Less frequently considered has been the entire issue of consent since 2016.

The Good Friday Agreement granted Ireland a formal role in Northern Ireland’s governance and constitution. Subsequently, Northern Ireland was pulled out of the EU without the consent of either the Good Friday Agreement’s co-guarantor, the Irish Government, or the Northern Irish people. It is irrelevant that the Agreement made no provision for Brexit or divergent membership of EU instruments. One co-guarantor’s wishes trumped the other’s.

The UK Government’s pursuit and strategy of Brexit made a mockery of the Agreement’s founding principle.


Exceptionalism and the Union

If Brexit revealed the British establishment’s contempt for Northern Ireland, the unrest has displayed it in action.

The Prime Minister has made almost no intervention, while most of the mainstream media has treated it as news from far away. From the outside looking in, it might have seemed strange that Parliament was recalled from recess to pay tribute to the monarch’s consort but not to discuss a series of sectarian riots.

Of course, this disdain is embedded in the figure of Boris Johnson. It is not that he has stopped caring about Northern Ireland – he never started. In the years after Brexit, he dismissed every concern as fearmongering and, as Foreign Secretary, famously compared the border of Irish partition to the boundary between Camden and Islington.

After he became Prime Minister and signed the Protocol, Johnson denied what it meant at every opportunity, famously telling Northern Irish businesses to put necessary customs forms in the bin. Even now, he denies the existence of a border only too visible to Northern Ireland’s unionists. It is a special kind of gaslighting that denies a crisis which everyone can see unfolding.

And yet, Johnson is merely the most extreme embodiment of a long approach. To Britain, Northern Ireland has always either been a pawn or an inconvenience, unloved or ignored. Unionists’ devotion to their country is for the most part unrequited.

In truth, the British establishment has only cared about Northern Ireland when its problems have crossed the Irish Sea. For decades, the UK Government disregarded the tensions in Northern Ireland and for much of The Troubles refused to alleviate them.

The majority of Northern Ireland’s people may consider themselves to be ‘British’, but British politicians and media have always considered them ‘other’. Britain could exploit its politicians in the pursuit of votes and its voters in the name of nationalism, and the rest of the time comfortably discard both.

Such disengagement has never cost anything politically. The British public knows little about Northern Ireland and pays it little attention. According to a 2019 poll, even Conservative members – some of the most ostentatious patriots in the land – cared more about delivering Brexit than keeping Northern Ireland (or Scotland) in the Union.

The English exceptionalism inherent in the Conservatives’ approach is not ethical but is also not electorally foolish. England’s lack of concern for Northern Ireland now amply explains the Tories’ lack of concern before.

Ultimately, Northern Ireland represents a charged and dangerous microcosm of the Government’s entire approach to the Union: namely, it exists to serve England’s interests. When the other constituent peoples express a view, they are overlooked. And when they interrupt Westminster’s agenda, they are overruled.

It is not that the Government wants war in Northern Ireland, it is simply that other things are more important. Whereas Theresa May wished to deny rights to foreigners, Boris Johnson has prized the symbolic flag of sovereignty. The Government’s complacency reconfigured Brexit as a blood-free iteration of The Troubles: Northern Ireland didn’t matter until it got in the way. It is no longer blood-free.

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