The echo chamber of Brexit: customs union or no union, single market or no single market, and deal or no deal. It is something which can bore most of us as simply insignificant trivialities best left to the pontificating and postulating politicians riding the maelstrom. For many, however, the risks that these issues pose could be greater than expected. It goes without saying, Northern Ireland has long been at the forefront of British and Irish politics. ‘The Troubles’ may seem a distant memory for a large part of the UK population, most particularly younger generations that have spent most of their lives in a time of relative peace. But they are no less significant for it.
Enter the IRA
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) rose in the sectarian clashes in 1969 when Catholic neighbourhoods were under siege from Protestant extremists. Northern Irish volunteers took up arms against British rule, using the destabilisation as pretext for their ambitions. Marxist leanings of the Dublin IRA leadership favoured a class conflict ‘Revolution’ over unification of Ireland.
The IRA eventually split into a northern contingent opposed to this ideological armchair Marxism, forming the Northern-Irish Provisional IRA. In so doing, most of the organisation’s weapons and members were absorbed under its influence, leaving the Dublin Official IRA largely irrelevant thereafter. Urban guerrilla terrorist insurgencies were enacted against the British state, falling into eye-for-an-eye sectarian murders with loyalist paramilitaries.
The Troubles lasted from 1969-1998, leaving thousands of dead in its wake. The Good Friday Agreement with the British and Irish governments and loyalist foes in 1998 was signed by the Provisional IRA. Yet it took until 2005 for the insurgency to finally end, where international supervision decommissioned the weapons, leaving an executive army council, and deactivating its guerrilla army.
Splinter groups sustained terrorist plots to this day. The Real IRA ceaselessly continued its transgressions throughout the 1994 temporary ceasefire and peace talks; with the worst bombing in their history the Omagh Bombing of 1998, killing 30 protestants and catholics. Loyalist cells, like the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force did not decommission their weapons, and remained subversive to the Good Friday agreements.
The Irish border question has been a focal topic of recent Brexit negotiations between the UK government and Brussels because of the freedom of movement between the UK and Republic of Ireland (ROI) under the EU common travel area. The ROI opted out of Schengen to remain within the common travel area and prevent a hard border; albeit a decision undertaken unilaterally by the UK in 1997.
Brexit deliberations have disrupted this arrangement because the agreements are not legally binding, and the EU cannot have free movement of goods and people with a country outside the union. NI goods entering the Union would be able to freely circulate in any member country, therefore a hard border needs to be implemented, or the UK remain within the free movement zone itself.
‘The Troubles’ may seem a distant memory for a large part of the UK population, most particularly younger generations that have spent most of their lives in a time of relative peace.
Alternatively, NI secedes formally from the UK and the border is then the Irish sea. NI becomes de facto part of ROI under said arrangement, bringing into question why a united Ireland is not present. The ROI are likely to demand a hard border, which would lead to clashes and economic turmoil, whence a referendum will annex NI under ROI.
The negotiating table
In the negotiations, physical controls will need to be discussed regarding the Irish border. Those who voted leave in the Brexit referendum will be disappointed with any outcome that sees Belfast ferries continuing to send Eastern Europeans to the UK in the absence of tighter border controls in Ireland.
In terms of free trade, EU tariffs are levied on imports to the EEA, while common market members produce must meet EU standard regulations. A low regulation, tariff arrangement demanded by the UK will not be conceded by the EU demanding a sufficiently robust Irish border for fear of US chlorine washed chicken, to faulty Chinese electricals or dangerous children’s toys. The awkward moment arises when trading partners of the UK demand she controls her borders.
Practicality is also a significant concern. Many border crossings exist, all of which are freely open, and certain roads cross the border multiple times. A hard border would require duty-free allowances, passport checks and deployment of dozens if not hundreds of customs officers and military personnel. This would not only be inconvenient and unpopular along the border, but raise old tensions in terms of the peace process. Generally, Catholic and border regions of NI voted remain and Protestant areas further from the border voted leave.
A separated Ireland is hardly conducive to lasting peace processes. Theresa May spoke in Florence on her ideal Brexit outcomes: ‘protecting the Belfast Agreement and the Common Travel Area and, looking ahead, we have both stated explicitly that we will not accept any physical infrastructure at the border’.
While much work has been done to leave enduring peaceful relations between Catholic and Protestant communities, the legacy of the conflict that drove a wedge between them lives on. ‘Peace walls’ in cities such as Belfast and Derry still stand and the contentious annual ‘Orange walk’ marches still draw out conflict and violence. Modern sectarianism (that being the excessive attachment to a particular sect or religious denomination) is not just solely assigned to Northern Ireland. In Glasgow, July 2017, footage shows ‘Orange Order’ marchers singing the anti-Irish "Famine Song" – accompanied by a fully orchestrated band. Such displays highlight the longstanding tensions that are yet to wholly dissipate from the UK psyche.
The result of the Brexit referendum showed Northern Ireland overall supported remaining in the European Union, with republican Sinn Fein being the largest regional proponent for remain. The unionist DUP contrastingly campaigned for the leave vote.
This political divide on Brexit which coincides with the fact that there is no sitting assembly in Stormont leaves the needs and wishes of the people of Northern Ireland neglected in Brexit talks. Much has been placed on the issue of whether there will be a hard or soft border between the North and the Republic of Ireland. This remains a vital issue for many businesses and families that rely on the common travel area for trade, labour, and even leisure.
But when contextualised in line with the uncertainty of Brexit, the looming question of whether the UK is even going to stay in the Customs Union and Single Market, and the Conservative Party’s tendency to appease the right’s “take back control” brigade; any assurances should be taken with a pinch of salt.
If a hard border is implemented, the cultural memory of the past border checks may well stir greater animosity. During ‘the Troubles’ the British Army attempted to transform the border into a militarised checkpoint to monitor and restrict movement of fighters crossing to and from the Republic.
To do this they relied on a combination of blocking off ‘unapproved’ roads which could not be monitored effectively and vehicle/personnel checks on approved routes over the border, a central element to this was an emphasis on vehicle and identification checks. Not only did this cause an inconvenient obstacle to the lives of the civilian population but it made the border a focal point of violence with areas along the border experiencing the greatest number of bombings, deaths and injuries outside of Belfast.
Seeing soldiers patrolling lanes, fields and communities was an intimidating experience for many. Some parts of the border in counties such as West Fermanagh and West Tyrone, young Catholic men and teenagers suspected to be involved in republican organisations were subject to repeated intimidation and harassment by security forces.
The shooting of civilians by soldiers at checkpoints also contributed to loss of life in the borderlands causing anger and resentment about the heavy military presence which lives on in the memories of the communities affected. This makes it even more vital an issue that Brexit does not curtail the now peaceful border, or else the likelihood of a sizeable British military deployment to patrol the border may become necessary. It is inconceivable to think of the Irish border like the 38th Korean Parallel, and the build-up of checks and restrictions of movement will not be taken lightly by the people affected.
If a hard border is implemented, the cultural memory of the past border checks may well stir greater animosity.
What about the economy?
The possibly dire economic prospects for the UK outside the EU were well publicised by the Remain campaign in the build up to the referendum. Whether accurate or not, there can be no doubt that there has been and will continue to be some associated harmful impacts on aspects of the wider economy.
With the International Monetary Fund lowering its forecast for economic growth in Britain this year and Oxford Economics suggesting that in eight out of nine scenarios post Brexit negotiations the UK economy will be harmed, ranging from a decrease of 0.1 per cent to 3.9 per cent decrease in GDP, it’s now widely accepted that there will be tremors caused by the UK’s EU exit that shake the British economy.
This, combined with years of austerity which have affected the poorest communities, and continue to do so across Britain, may hit the Northern Irish economy in a fashion that may prove too much. As always it is the most vulnerable groups of society which suffer most in times of economic decline.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation discovered the public sector in Northern Ireland accounts for 27.7 per cent of all employment, the highest in the UK. Understandably then, fears about rising unemployment are not misplaced.
The former Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, who had a significant role in the peace talks to quell the Provisional Irish Republic Armies’ (IRA) transgressions, warned of ‘enormous’ job losses under a ‘no deal’ Brexit would be devastating for the fragile peace in Northern Ireland. The loss of employers in the region coupled with the desperation felt by many already due to austerity may draw youth back to militant republicanism. Isolated within a society that feels abandoned by the establishment they depend upon, what would they have to lose?
The Continuity IRA (CIRA), the new IRA and Óglaigh na hÉireann (ONH) still operate in the region and are gaining momentum. Albeit the support is lower than their previous provisional forefathers emerging from the 1969 sectarian violence between Protestant and Catholic that rocked the nation.
In May 2016, the Guardian reported that the security services had raised the official threat level from moderate to substantial - meaning an attack is a strong possibility. Brexiteers may wave off any such claim of a paramilitary resurgence as “scare mongering” from some remoaners, but the people who will be trying to stop a nail bomb through Rees-Moggs’ letterbox may think differently.
George Santayana once said that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In the case of hard-border implementation, let us hope that those pulling the strings have learnt a thing or two from history’s mistakes and prevent an unravelling of the collective strive for lasting peace. TMM