The Guardian Weekly
Brexit as a catalyst
The most powerful arguments against Brexit were never about trade and tariffs. They were about peace and war, about life and death. One was a general argument centred on the founding purpose of the European Union: to ensure a continent mired in blood for centuries would not descend into conflict again. The other was more specific, peculiar to the British Isles: that shared membership of the EU had proved to be the key that unlocked peace in Northern Ireland after three decades of pain.
The logic was simple. So long as the UK and Ireland were in the same EU club, the border between them could be blurred, allowing people in the north to identify as British or Irish or both without too much friction. That was the foundation on which the Good Friday agreement, signed on 10 April 1998, was built. Taken together, these were the life-and-death arguments for Britain’s continued membership of the EU, and some tried valiantly to make them. They were barely heard.
Now, in the hurled petrol bombs and burning buses of west Belfast, comes ominous evidence that the warnings were not exaggerated. Of course, violence has many fathers. Some of the areas in flames are among the most deprived in the UK. Loyalist communities have long felt left behind and, since the death of David Ervine, lack heavyweight political representation.
There are more immediate causes too. Last month’s decision not to prosecute Sinn Féin officials who had broken Covid restrictions to turn out for the mass funeral of a senior IRA commander looked like a double standard that favoured republicans. Add that to the Easter weekend, the arrival of longer, lighter evenings, kids bored by lockdown and egged on by loyalist gang leaders and the tinder was dry.
Still, that kindling had been in place in years past. The difference this time is Brexit. From January, British goods arriving into Northern Ireland became subject to EU customs checks. Loyalists regard themselves as British; yet now there is a distinction between them and the country with which they identify.
This is the ineluctable logic of Brexit. Once Britain chose to be outside the single market and customs union while the Irish republic remained inside, there would always have to be a border. The only question was where. One option was a land border on the island of Ireland – which would appal nationalists. The other was a frontier in the Irish Sea, appalling unionists. Boris Johnson swore blind he would never agree to any such thing, only to do exactly that – passing into law the Northern Ireland protocol, which gives that part of the UK a separate status. The result is that loyalists feel that they have lost to the nationalists and been betrayed by London.
Of course, once Johnson had decided to break his solemn pledge, loyalism and unionism were always going to be disaffected. But he has made things so much worse. Incredibly, the prime minister of the UK saw fit to do nothing until 9.33pm on the sixth day of unrest, when he issued a tweet calling for an end to violence. The former civil servant Tom Fletcher, who once had responsibility for Northern Ireland in Downing Street, tweeted that “there were moments when PM had to rip up grid, cancel break, let people down, stay up late, hit phones, spend, flatter, arm twist and do nothing else for week”. This, wrote Fletcher, was just such a moment. Yet Johnson is doing none of those things. What’s worse, if he did decide to get a grip, who among us thinks he would be capable of what is required?
OK, so maybe he could delegate. Except even the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, wasn’t in Northern Ireland until last Thursday, Lewis being the latest holder of the post to embody the government’s disregard for that part of the UK.
The obligation now is to make the protocol work, to minimise the tension it causes, which will demand flexibility from London and Brussels. But it will always be a sisyphean task, because the protocol is an adjunct of Brexit – and Brexit took a wrecking ball to the mechanism that was painstakingly assembled 23 years ago. I don’t believe Johnson and his fellow Brexiters sought the unravelling of peace in Northern Ireland. In a way, it is worse than that. They were literally careless of the grief that had scarred that place. They did not care.
‘The logic was simple. So long as the UK and Ireland were in the EU club, the border between them could be blurred’