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How Brexit created ‘endless tensions’ and deadlock in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland celebrates its 100th anniversary on Monday, in a climate of tension never seen since the signing of the 1998 peace agreement. At issue: Brexit, which established control of goods circulating between the province and the island of Great Britain.

Whenever instability in Northern Ireland is in the news, British political columnists like to quote a speech by Winston Churchill in 1922: “The entire map of Europe has been reshaped (…) but while the deluge ebbs and the waters recede, we again see the dreary spiers of the counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone “, two northern Irish counties.

Since the Republic of Ireland freed itself from British rule on May 3, 1921, the existence of Northern Ireland, created at the same time and attached to Great Britain, has been central to a sometimes bloody standoff between the two countries.

And now that the Brexit storm has subsided and as Northern Ireland celebrates its centenary on Monday 3 May, the map of the United Kingdom has been changed. Since January 1, a control of goods circulating between Northern Ireland and Great Britain has been established, arousing the fears of Unionists of seeing their country abandoned by the British crown.

>> To read: Under tension after Brexit, Northern Ireland celebrates its centenary

In fact, the Northern Irish protocol contained in the Brexit agreement replaced the prospect of a problem at the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland with a very real problem of a border between Ireland. of the North and Great Britain.

This protocol keeps Northern Ireland aligned with a number of European Union (EU) rules while Britain can opt out. This entails checks and controls on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and imposes customs duties in the event that these goods subsequently enter the single European market via the Republic of Ireland.

When the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, finally reached an agreement with the EU on the terms of the divorce between London and Brussels in October 2019, the pro-Brexits celebrated with relief the end of three long years of interminable negotiations, in particular on the question of the Northern Irish border. But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) quickly expressed its outrage over the establishment of a customs border in the Irish Sea. “Brexit does not apply to the whole of the United Kingdom”, then lamented the vice-president of the DUP, Nigel Dodds.

Resignation of the Northern Irish Prime Minister

Few of the British political class have anticipated that the agreement signed by Boris Johnson would represent a threat in the eyes of Northern Irish unionists. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff and architect of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Jonathan Powell, was one of them. “The border in the Irish Sea is a real problem for them”, he wrote then in the Irish Times shortly after the agreement obtained by Boris Johnson. “And this issue will grow as the UK moves away from European regulations and introduces new tariffs,” said Jonathan Powell. “This border will threaten their British identity.”

The facts proved him right. The entry into force of the Brexit-related provisions on January 1, 2021, caused major disruption in the supermarket supply chain and the delivery of online orders. Then graffiti opposing customs controls were painted at the beginning of February in Unionist districts, while the authorities decided to temporarily suspend customs controls in certain ports in Northern Ireland in the face of “threatening behavior” by certain loyalist militants.

Fearing that these customs controls represent too deep a separation between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), which brings together loyalist paramilitary organizations, withdrew from the Good Friday agreement, while asserting that any opposition to the Northern Irish protocol must be “peaceful and democratic”.

>> To read: Violence in Northern Ireland: “Brexit has destabilized an already fragile peace”

But violent riots in Unionist neighborhoods broke out in early April. The LCC claimed not to be responsible, calling for calm, but nonetheless stressed that there had been “a spectacular collective failure to fully appreciate the level and nature of the anger of unionists and loyalists. “with respect to the protocol.

Finally, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, was forced to resign on April 28 by members of her party who criticized her for not being firm enough on tariffs .

The situation now seems to be deadlocked and risks putting the DUP in the face of its impotence. “It can only generate endless tensions, see even imminent chaos”, judge Tim Bale, professor of political science at Queen Mary University in London.

Error of assessment of the DUP

The DUP is however partly responsible for the Northern Irish protocol. The Unionist Party was indeed in favor of Brexit at the time of the 2016 referendum. “It did not reflect on the consequences of the United Kingdom leaving the EU, in particular concerning the Irish border”, recalls Jon Tonge, political scholar in Northern Ireland and professor at the University of Liverpool. “The DUP expected a narrow victory from the pro-EU and had no idea what to do when the pro-Brexit won,” he adds.

The 2017 general election, however, gave the DUP more influence and it was the vote of its ten MPs that allowed Theresa May to stay in power after she lost the support of the Tories. But the Unionist Party refused to support Theresa May’s exit plan on the pretext that it would have forced the UK to continue to accept EU regulations for an indefinite period.

“The DUP clearly misjudged the ins and outs of Theresa May’s plan which, with her Irish ‘backstop’, allowed Northern Ireland to be treated the same as the rest of the UK in matters customs specialist Tim Bale. Who knows what magic solution they were hoping for with an alternative plan? But trusting Boris Johnson to keep his word and find one defies reason. “

During the DUP congress in 2018, Boris Johnson had indeed affirmed that “no British conservative government could or should sign an agreement” establishing customs controls in the Irish Sea. This is exactly what he did a year later.

Towards a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland

Worse yet, Brexit appears to have dented the popularity of the DUP. Polls show unionism is still ahead of nationalism in Northern Ireland, but the gap has narrowed since the 2016 referendum.

Demographics, too, have favored Catholic nationalists for two decades. However, religion is no longer as political as it used to be. The 2011 British census showed that 45% of North Irish people said they came from a Catholic family, but only 25% said they were exclusively Irish.

In this context, until Brexit, unionism seemed able to resist in the face of demographic curves. Especially since after the Good Friday agreement of 1998, a “growing proportion” of the Catholic population felt “good” within the United Kingdom, explains Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University in Belfast .

A lot of these people “like some aspect of the UK like the health care system,” adds Jon Tonge. Although they “will never vote for Unionist parties”, many of these Northern Irish Catholics have “very slowly started to think of themselves as Unionists with a little u” [le terme ‘unioniste’ en anglais s’écrit avec un u majuscule, NDLR], he continues.

While 56% of Northern Ireland voted in favor of staying in the European Union, Brexit has reshuffled the cards, to the point that the idea of ​​a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland is now in the air. all minds.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for the holding of a referendum if, “at any time whatsoever, it appears likely that a majority of voters expresses the wish that Northern Ireland cease to be an integral part of the Union. United Kingdom and be attached to the Republic “. “The question now is not whether this referendum will take place, but when,” said Jon Tonge.

This article was adapted from English by Romain Brunet. The original article can be found here.


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