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22 December 2017updated 20 Aug 2021 9:18am

How Brexit threatens both peace and identity in Northern Ireland

Theresa May is risking everything in her search for a “good” Brexit deal

I was only four years old on 8 November 1987, the day that an IRA bomb ripped the heart out of my hometown of Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. Timed to detonate just as local people were gathering for the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the town’s Cenotaph, it was one of the most notorious atrocities of Northern Ireland’s so-called ‘Troubles’ – a painfully inadequate term to describe the carnage visited upon the town that terrible day. Of the eleven people killed by the blast, three were married couples, five were women, and six were pensioners. Sixty-three others were injured, including thirteen children, and a twelfth victim died in 2000 after spending thirteen years in a coma from which he never recovered. All but one of the victims were civilians, there simply to honour the Enniskillen men – Catholic and Protestant alike – who had fought and died in the two world wars. Thirty years on, the families they left behind that day are still waiting for justice.

The world may have largely forgotten the Troubles, but the people of Enniskillen have not. Like many parts of Northern Ireland, this small border community still bears scars from those dark days, and at last month’s ceremony to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Enniskillen bombing it was clear that the pain remains very real for many. I may not remember the events of 8 November 1987, but like anyone over the age of thirty I do remember how the Troubles shaped the world in which I grew up. I remember the gaping hole near the Cenotaph where the building that housed the Poppy Day bomb once stood. I remember the distinctive sound of RAF Chinooks flying over my house while I played in our back garden, the stern looks on the faces of the British soldiers patrolling through the streets of Enniskillen during the day, and the daunting sight of army checkpoints erected to stop vehicles entering the high street at night. I remember the nightly news stories of bombings, shootings and kneecappings across the province – reports that were so frequent they could hardly be considered ‘news’.

More than anything, I remember the tortuous years of the peace process – the deadlines that came and went, the ceasefires that were triumphantly declared only to collapse a few months later, the negotiations that were on one day and off the next, and the seemingly endless discussions over decommissioning, civil rights, prisoner releases and other complex issues I only vaguely understood at the time. Through it all I remember the growing clamour from the people of Northern Ireland for a peace deal that would not only put an end to the violence but also give both sides of the community a say in how they would be governed in the future. When a chance for such a deal finally arrived with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, an overwhelming majority grabbed it with both hands. Although too young to vote in favour of the agreement myself, I remember the overriding sense of hope across the province that the Troubles were finally coming to an end.

I am part of a relatively small generation of people from Northern Ireland who are old enough to remember the Troubles but young enough not to have experienced the worst of them. I understand why the forces of unionism and nationalism remain strong in the province, and yet feel comfortable with the emergence of a uniquely Northern Irish identity that has enabled younger people from both sides of the community to throw off the sectarian shackles of the past. I do not remember the darkest days of the 1970s and 80s, and yet am glad that people ten years younger than me did not experience what I did growing up. I am not defined by those experiences, and yet the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was the defining geopolitical moment of my life. This explains why I feel so alienated by today’s politics of extremes, and so perplexed by the growing appeal of populists who argue that there are simple solutions to difficult problems. It is why I suspect there would never have been peace in Northern Ireland had those involved at the time stuck to their ideological principles as doggedly as some of today’s political leaders, or refused so stubbornly to see the other side of the argument when competing national interests are at stake.

Nowhere has this been more evident in recent months than in the Brexit negotiations, where Northern Ireland has become a pawn in a game of political chess between London, Dublin and Brussels. When I last wrote about this issue back in April (before the snap general election was called), I was already concerned that Theresa May’s myopic focus on Brexit was undermining the delicately balanced political settlement that delivered peace in Northern Ireland. I cited the increasingly partisan approach that the Tories had adopted towards the province since 2010 as evidence of their inability to understand the damage that perceptions of favouritism in London could do to that fragile peace. I also warned that relying upon unionist votes to deliver a hard Brexit would make it impossible for the British government to act as an honest broker in Northern Ireland in the future. Eight months later, my concern that Theresa May did not appreciate the fragility of the peace process has turned to alarm that she seems willing to destroy it simply to secure a ‘good’ Brexit deal.

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Writing back in early April, I could not have imagined quite how quickly the political situation in Northern Ireland would deteriorate. The collapse of the devolved institutions back in January was worrying enough, but in the ensuing months it has become increasingly difficult to see a clear path back to power-sharing. Much of the responsibility for this dangerous situation must lie in London, specifically with the Prime Minister who gambled away her slim majority and then struck a confidence and supply deal with Northern Ireland’s staunchest unionists, the Democratic Unionist Party, to save her own skin. There was justifiable anger in the rest of the UK that an extra £1bn was suddenly found for infrastructure, health and education spending in Northern Ireland, but little focus on how the Tory-DUP deal also disenfranchised the half a million people in the province who did not vote for the DUP at the general election in June.

While extra money for public services and investment is always welcome, the fact is that the views of a majority of voters in Northern Ireland were not represented when the Tories and the DUP decided how that money would be spent. How could they be, when the collapse of the Stormont institutions and the absence of any other Northern Irish party from the House of Commons left them without a voice in government for the first time in years? A responsible Prime Minister would have been sensitive to the dangers of entering into a formal agreement with the DUP under such unusual circumstances, but Theresa May rushed head-long into a deal without considering what most voters in Northern Ireland actually voted for. For this blinkered Prime Minister, securing the votes necessary to implement Brexit was more important than protecting the principle of self-determination enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.

The long-term damage that the Tory-DUP pact will do to the peace process should not be underestimated. After all, what motivation does DUP leader Arlene Foster now have to restore devolved government at Stormont when her ten MPs in Westminster already hold the whip hand over policymaking in Northern Ireland? Equally, why would Sinn Fein seek a return to power-sharing when the case for a united Ireland is made daily by the fact that a pro-Brexit Tory administration propped up by hardline unionists is now making decisions on behalf of every one of their voters? ‘Take back control’ was a highly effective slogan employed by the DUP and other Brexiteers during the referendum campaign, but it may prove equally seductive to those nationalist communities who have now lost their voice, if not their trust, in the political process in Northern Ireland. Indeed, if Brexit was really about taking back control, then every voter in the province is entitled to ask why their interests have been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency by a Prime Minister who appears to believe that securing a deal – any deal – is more important than protecting the peace process.

I say every voter because it has become clear over the last couple of weeks that Theresa May and her Brexit team have no more respect or understanding for the DUP’s brand of unionism than they do for any other political ideology in Northern Ireland. These ideologies are certainly complicated and distinct to those in the rest of the UK, but the ignorance that permeates through the corridors of power in Whitehall on matters of such fundamental importance to Northern Ireland is little short of astonishing given how much political capital successive Conservative and Labour governments have invested there over the last few decades. Nonetheless, the dramatic events leading up to the conclusion of phase one of the Brexit talks demonstrated unequivocally that the Prime Minister does not even understand the guiding principles that underpin the DUP – her partners in government – let alone those on the other side of Northern Ireland’s political divide.

After eighteen months of wilful deception and wishful thinking over the future of the Irish border, May’s initial attempt to bounce the DUP into signing off a draft agreement that referred to “regulatory alignment” or “no regulatory divergence” between Northern Ireland and the EU demonstrated what happens when the irresistible force of Brexit meets the unmoveable object of Ulster unionism. That it did so because May failed to understand the consequences of decoupling Northern Ireland economically, politically and constitutionally from the rest of the UK was a dereliction of her duty as leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, to say nothing of her responsibility as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Some have dismissed the events of two weeks ago as typical of the type of melodrama that has so often characterised the Brexit negotiations. Yet the forced smiles and ashen faces of the DUP MPs as Arlene Foster read out a prepared statement in Stormont setting out the party’s opposition to the draft agreement betrayed their shock at the wording that May was initially ready to sign in Brussels. Despite a warning in late November from DUP MP Sammy Wilson that any attempt to “placate Dublin and the EU” could put the Tory-DUP deal at Westminster in jeopardy, this most tin-eared of Prime Ministers thought she could get away with blindsiding a party upon which her very survival depends with a proposal to undermine the territorial integrity of a union that her own party has pledged to defend.

By doing so she forced Foster to take the nuclear option and torpedo the deal – a decision that attracted condemnation at the time by those who did not seem to understand that it was the only way to avoid what would have been an historic defeat for Ulster unionism, and therefore the DUP itself. Instead of pointing fingers at a political party that acted in the interests of its voters, it would have been more constructive for Brexiteers to consider why  May believed that any unionist party in Northern Ireland, not least the DUP, could ever accept regulatory divergence between the province and the rest of the UK. Despite the agreement that she brandished in front of the world’s press a few days later this remains a very important question, since the fundamental contradiction of her negotiating position on the border issue remains unchanged.

Put simply, it is impossible for May to fulfil her promise to leave the single market and customs union while simultaneously avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland. At the same time, it is now abundantly clear that the creation of any form of border between Northern Ireland and the rest of UK is anathema not only to the hardliners in the DUP upon whose votes she relies, but also to most moderate unionists, including the former Ulster Unionist First Minister David Trimble and the Independent MP for North Down, Lady Sylvia Hermon. For any avowed unionist, the maintenance of the political union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK trumps all other considerations.

In other words, the DUP was not playing political games two weeks ago, and no amount of money from Whitehall would ever convince them to back down on what is a fundamental matter of principle. The argument that the DUP will never pull the plug on the Tories for fear of allowing Jeremy Corbyn into government falls down on similar grounds. If bringing down the Tory government was necessary to avoid an economic or political border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK the DUP would not hesitate, Corbyn or no Corbyn. As long as May remains reliant on DUP votes in the House of Commons, therefore, she will have to ensure that “no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom”.

That phrase forms part of the political fudge that the British government concocted at the eleventh hour to secure DUP support for the final agreement on phase one of the Brexit negotiations. Unfortunately, this much-trumpeted compromise will actually make the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland even more difficult. Setting aside for a moment the fact that the two preceding paragraphs in the text (48 & 49) still fail to square the circle of how the UK will leave the customs union and single market while avoiding a hard border, paragraph 50 also states that, in the absence of a future UK-EU trade deal that achieves this objective, no new regulatory barriers will be allowed to develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, “unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland”.

On the face of it this clause appears to bolster the union by empowering the Assembly to take the ultimate decision on whether future regulatory divergence should take place between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Until recently the prospect of such a vote would have seemed very unlikely, as the parliament at Stormont has been historically dominated by unionist parties ever since the partition of Ireland in 1921. However, that unionist majority was wiped out for the first time at the last Assembly elections back in March, when Sinn Fein closed the gap with the DUP to just one seat on the back of the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. Given the ongoing uncertainty about the terms of a future UK-EU trade deal, it would be highly risky and strategically unwise for the DUP to return to power-sharing any time soon. This would not only weaken the disproportionate influence the party currently has over the Brexit negotiations in Westminster, but also open the possibility of a future Assembly vote on regulatory divergence should the UK-EU trade deal fail to materialise on the terms envisaged in the divorce agreement.

The DUP will surely be alive to this potential threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. After all, Sinn Fein have made no secret of their desire for designated special status for Northern Ireland within the EU, and the wording of paragraph 50 now provides an avenue for their MLAs to legislate for it in the future. Given that the SDLP, Alliance Party and Green Party are also in favour of securing EU Special Status for Northern Ireland, it would be impossible for the DUP and the Ulster Unionist MLAs to defeat such a proposal under the current configuration of Assembly seats. It therefore seems highly unlikely that the DUP will agree to reconstitute the devolved institutions unless and until new elections are held – a condition that Sinn Fein would have no good reason to accept. The result is surely deadlock, at least until the Brexit negotiations are complete, and it’s all thanks to Theresa May’s so-called triumph in Brussels last week.

To anyone who understands Northern Irish politics this will all seem blindingly obvious, yet the fact this it still needs to be spelled out to the British Prime Minister is a damning indictment of her inability to take off the Brexit blinkers when it comes to Northern Ireland. Despite their contrasting political allegiances, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown understood the importance of working on a cross-party basis to hold the peace process together, as well as the need to treat all sides involved with equanimity and respect. The rot set in under David Cameron, whose wilful neglect of Northern Ireland did as much damage to the peace process as his reckless decision to call an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Nonetheless, Theresa May must take ultimate responsibility for the way in which the political situation in the province has deteriorated over the last eighteen months. In my previous article, I discussed how the Good Friday Agreement had created the conditions for the emergence of a new ‘Northern Irish’ national identity that was no longer defined by the political and religious labels of the past. Unfortunately, the cold realities of what May’s version of Brexit will mean for the future constitutional settlement of Northern Ireland risks reviving all the old divisions between Irish nationalism and Ulster unionism. She may have inherited a poisoned chalice from her predecessor, but the responsibility if that happens will be hers alone.

Amidst all the sound and fury over Brexit, it’s easy to forget just how dangerous a place Northern Ireland was until very recently. One evening back in January 1998, just four months before the Good Friday Agreement was signed, I was at the cinema in Enniskillen with some friends. About twenty minutes into the film a member of staff walked into the theatre and asked if anyone owned a car matching the registration number she read out. A few minutes later the sound cut out and we were asked politely to leave. As we emerged outside, soldiers and police officers screamed at us to walk into the town centre and not stop until we got there. About an hour or so later, the car bomb that the dissident ‘Continuity’ IRA had planted outside the building exploded. Fortunately no one was hurt, but the theatre I had been sitting in collapsed. My friends and I were lucky on that occasion that the terrorists had called in a warning, but I will never forget the feeling that day when I realised that, despite all the progress towards peace that had been made, some people still wanted a return to bloodshed.

Everyone of a certain age who grew up in Northern Ireland will have a story like this. My older brother’s primary school was closed for days after a bomb detonated outside a police station on the opposite side of the road. My younger sister was shopping in Omagh just thirty minutes before a Real IRA car bomb killed 29 on 15 August 1998, including a mother who was pregnant with twins. Compared to countless others – not least several prominent politicians in Northern Ireland today – our experiences were relatively tame, and we were certainly fortunate that no one in our family was ever directly caught up in the carnage of those years. Nonetheless, the Troubles still shaped all our lives in ways that are hard to imagine now. For the people of Northern Ireland, the peace process is no political abstraction or bargaining chip to fritter away at the negotiating table, but a matter of life and death. Any politician with responsibility for preserving such a hard-won peace would do well to remember that.

Scott Gilfillan is parliamentary assistant to Bridget Phillipson MP and holds a PhD in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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