Brexit: Northern Ireland’s Death Warrant?

by Tárlach Russell

Mural in Bogside, Northern Ireland. Keith Ruffles

“I tell you this; early this morning, I signed my death warrant.”

These haunting and ultimately prophetic words were uttered on 6th December 1921 by leading Irish nationalist, Michael Collins, in the aftermath of signing the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The treaty was to give the twenty-six counties of southern Ireland their first political independence from the British Empire as the Irish Free State, while the six north-eastern most counties of Ulster were to become Northern Ireland and remain a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. A bloody civil war ensued that would end up costing Collins his life. Indeed, the partition of Ireland remains a dark shadow over Anglo-Irish relations to this day.

“The Troubles” of 1969-98 was to be the bloodiest episode of sustained political violence on the island of Ireland, with over 3,000 lives lost. Tentative peace emerged in the period after the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 and was solidified with the final decommissioning of weapons held by the Provisional IRA in 2005, who were the majority movement that arose from the IRA split in 1969 and were the most active paramilitary group throughout the period. One of the key tenets of the “peace process” has been the physical removal of the appearance of the partition of Ireland, with an invisible border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. Once and for all, this was intended to “take the gun out of Irish politics.” This was possible thanks to the European freedom of movement principle, which both Britain and Ireland joined at the same time on 1st January 1973.

This open border has been put under threat due to the Brexit referendum in 2016. The line of negotiations evolved from Theresa May to Boris Johnson, with differing arrangements for Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK to share a land border with an EU member state. With the physical reimposition of such a border—and thus partition—being a genuine possibility, the danger of resurrecting the dark scars of the Troubles looms. In this context, an alarming yet significant evaluation is required: could the British pursuit of a Brexit that excludes the concerns of Irish nationalists and pro-Europeans bring about a return to violence—or even the unification of Ireland?

Brexit, the Border, and the Troubles

May’s original Brexit “deal” voted down three times by the House of Commons, had made provisions for Northern Ireland based on having “no infrastructure at the Irish border or new checks on goods moving between Ireland and Northern Ireland,” nor trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This was described as “putting the border in the Irish Sea.” Such a position was seen as threatening to Unionists and “toxic to those of us living in Northern Ireland,” according to the DUP First Minister, Arlene Foster.

Boris Johnson’s new Withdrawal Agreement, which has passed into law, has created different provisions for Northern Ireland. This includes a four-year transition period where Northern Ireland would remain under some EU customs rules, so some checks would be required on goods travelling from the British mainland to Northern Ireland, although it is anticipated that all sides in Northern Ireland will want to make this as seamless as possible.

The partition of Ireland was not the primary short-term catalyst for the outbreak of the Troubles relative to the violent altercations at civil rights marches. However, partition and the physical separation of the island was a key tenet in the Troubles evolving to an armed struggle aimed at removing the British presence from Ireland. Consequences of such checks on the Irish border must be considered, especially if, after the transition period, Northern Ireland becomes gradually withdrawn further from European rules. Under such circumstances, a physical border in Ireland would again be necessary for the British to enforce their new customs rules.

The imposition of a hard border between Britain and Ireland would, according to Sinn Féin and the Irish government, undermine the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to goods and travel. Both governments have committed to maintaining the Common Travel Area, which has been in operation since 1926. However, the aftermath of Brexit will be the first instance of regulatory dealignment between the British and Irish states since Collins signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, as both states became subject to European rules on the same date in 1973.

The New IRA

In the event of a physical reimposition of partition, paramilitary groups could trigger a return to violence that afflicted Ireland throughout the Troubles. Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation has undertaken significant research on the so-called “New IRA.” The New IRA were formed in 2012 as a merger of republican paramilitary groups that opposed the Good Friday Agreement and the ensuing transition of mainstream republicanism to the political process. The predominant fear is that such customs posts would symbolise the illegal British partition of Ireland and serve as a popular target for terrorist attacks.”

The group has shown that they are capable of carrying out violent actions. In April 2019, the New IRA took responsibility for the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry during rioting linked to police raids on alleged weapons stores. The murder was unequivocally condemned across Northern Ireland by all mainstream political parties. The group’s membership rose after the fringe splinter group Óglaigh na hÉireann announced that they were unilaterally decommissioning their weapons in 2018. This was supported in official circles by Sinn Féin and the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade in Ireland. The main consequence was the disbandment of a largely dormant paramilitary group and the resulting consolidation of the monopolisation of dissident republican agitation in the New IRA, which has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation in the UK.

Such radical agitation can be ruled out from mainstream republican parties. Sinn Féin, which is the majoritarian Irish nationalist and left-wing party in Ireland, have distanced themselves entirely from the rhetoric and actions of radical splinter groups and actively condemn their activity, with senior party members Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Kelly recently being targets of planned attacks. Kelly, a former Provisional IRA member and prisoner, currently serves on the Northern Ireland Policing Board. This week, the Sinn Féin Minister for Finance, Conor Murphy, another former Provisional IRA member and prisoner, said that he would accept British Army assistance in Northern Ireland to help battle the COVID-19 pandemic. Such signs of reconciliation make the stance of dissident republicans seem like a minority one.

This therefore leads to the question of whether there is, in fact, any political appetite in Northern Ireland for sustaining possible armed action against the British state in the event of Brexit. One possible vehicle of such political support is from the party Saoradh, who label themselves “The Irish Revolutionary Republican Socialist Party.” The party commits to a course of action that will make Ireland “free from foreign interference and impediment” and “effect an end to Britain’s illegal occupation of the six counties”. This involves campaigning for “an end to the partitionist institutions of Stormont and Leinster House,” the legislative bodies of Northern and the Republic of Ireland respectively. The party does not recognise the legitimacy of state institutions in the North or Republic of Ireland, including the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The party hints at armed action at some point in the future, calling for “a successful revolution.” The old Irish republican adage of “England’s difficulty would be Ireland’s opportunity” could be exploited in the tumultuous political climate of Brexit.

Saoradh and New IRA leadership overlap and have described the continuation of violence in Northern Ireland as “inevitable.” The party has faced calls to disband as a result of their links to the paramilitary group but have no intention of doing so. Both Saoradh and the New IRA seek legitimacy in their actions from the 1916 Easter Rising, an Irish republican rebellion aspiring to create an independent Irish republic. The aftermath of the Rising was to increase Irish republican sentiment in Ireland and, as a result, the earliest version of what is now considered a multifaceted organisation, the IRA, was born.

The Old IRA

Contemporarily referred to as the “Old IRA,” the organisation was to fight the Irish War of Independence against the British state. As a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the majority of the Old IRA went on to form the Irish Defence Forces, who retain the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in the Irish state. The defence forces spared no effort in demonstrating this throughout the ensuing Irish Civil War of 1922-23, when atrocities were committed against the minority of Old IRA members who continued to fight against the state, seeing the partition of Ireland as counter to the aspirations of the 1916 rebels.

And so began the fragmentation of Irish republicanism into a host of splinter groups, with contention over the real inheritors of the revolution of 1916. Sinn Féin believe the revolution is now a peaceful one because the pathway to a united Ireland has been made available via the political process, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement’s provisions for a border poll. The New IRA and Saoradh claim the same lineage via the “Provisional IRA,” which split between those still committed to the armed struggle and those prepared to follow Sinn Féin’s peaceful transition. The complexity and emotion of these schisms were reflected by the threats upon O’Neill and Kelly by republican paramilitaries.

A Return to Violence?

The threat of violence is only credible in a situation where there is sufficient capability and will to carry it out over a sustained period. The New IRA’s will has been demonstrated, while their capability for waging a longer term campaign is demonstrated by their enormous wealth: in 2017, Forbes Magazine estimated their annual turnover as $50 million. This is a result of extensive illegal activity fuelled by cross-border trade, ironically in the IRA’s case, which takes advantage of separate tax laws in the two jurisdictions in Ireland. Other funds flow from Irish-American republican groups which remain opposed to the Good Friday Agreement. However, no one expects the New IRA to have the same conventional capability as the Provisional IRA; nevertheless, the “New IRA has the ability to lash out in the most violent manner.” They insist that “any infrastructure would be a legitimate target for attack” as well as “the people who are manning them.”

Given the British government’s position on intending to withdraw Northern Ireland alongside the rest of the UK, one would expect such a border to take shape eventually. Westminster will not react impulsively to the threat of violence from such groups. On the contrary, they will presumably act in line with the consent provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, which stipulate that constitutional change cannot occur without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. While mandating a four-year transition period, where Northern Ireland remains subject to some EU laws, these would be enforced by the British state. A short-term transition period does not, in the long run, account for the fact that 56% of the people of Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU.

In the aftermath of the referendum, Sinn Féin set out on a mission of “Securing designated Special Status for the north within the EU.” Such a policy response could involve a reversal of the Greenland model, where Greenland left the EEC in 1986, while the Kingdom of Denmark remained a member. In such an instance, parts of the UK which voted to remain in the EU could indeed stay, while those in favour of Brexit could leave. It would be a best of both worlds scenario, fulfilling the wishes of the British people while upholding devolution and respecting the position of Northern Ireland and Scotland as sister constituents of the UK instead of subservient ones.

The DUP is in favour of the latter subservient Kingdom concept, which would see the whole of the UK leave the EU on the same terms, since the majority across all four countries voted as such. This type of agreement could actually be acceptable to the entire community in Northern Ireland—where nationalists voted in a huge majority to Remain in the EU—if meaningful goodwill gestures were extended. Yet, the UK has rejected EU requests to open an office in Belfast to oversee the Withdrawal Agreements provisions for Northern Ireland. This move was condemned by Sinn Féin, the SDLP, and the Alliance and Green parties, representing cross-community opposition.

The Future of Northern Ireland

The issue of a united Ireland now extends far beyond a matter of simply “orange versus green,” as Brexit has given rise to the complex question of EU membership for Northern Ireland. For Northern Ireland to remain in the EU, it appears there are only two scenarios left. Only one of them would allow membership immediately: the unification of Ireland. The EU has hinted that a united Ireland would allow Northern Ireland to automatically rejoin the EU as part of the Irish state. The longer term alternative would involve a British political party successfully campaigning to once again become a member of the European Union.

Ulster unionists—those most committed to Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom—thus face a dilemma. In the event of a hard Brexit and the reimposition of a physical border on the island of Ireland, there is the chance of a return to paramilitary violence that could cost lives and again drag Ireland into a period of conflict. Such a hardline stance would of course not only anger such republican hardline factions, but also the moderates in electoral politics. A softer border, on the other hand, could leave Northern Ireland isolated from British customs rules. While ruled out by the current government, this could become the most viable strategy to save the Union. Such important questions need to be considered by both Ulster unionists and the British government in order to stop the DUP, in their stance of supporting Brexit for Northern Ireland, from signing their own political death warrant.

Tárlach Russell is a recent graduate of the MSc History of International Relations program at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research interests focus on Irish history and foreign affairs.

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