The country’s in a delicate state.
The backdrop is bad enough. The number of recorded hate crimes has more than doubled in the last five years. Reporting has improved, contributing somewhat to the figures, but perception matters: normalisation of rising hate crime and expressions of public prejudice embolden perpetrators.
The organisation I work for, Protection Approaches, carried out research in March that indicated prejudice against minorities has become mainstream. And the standard of public discourse has slipped precipitously in the last few months.
But a no-deal Brexit could lead to a further increase in identity-based violence, and a long-term breakdown in community cohesion, not least in Northern Ireland.
We’re not alone in our concerns: Freedom of Information requests have shown that roughly two-thirds of councils are making preparations for civil unrest and increased community tensions in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
A police watchdog has warned of a Brexit hate crime spike; Britain’s counter-terrorism chief has said he fears the far right exploiting Brexit tensions. The Risk Advisory Group, a political risk consultancy, has sounded the alarm about not just hate crime, but “higher impact planned acts of violence”.
Polling shows 60 per cent of Leave voters believe a no-deal Brexit would allow the country to finally focus on other matters. Many have high expectations of the positive impact Brexit will have on their lives. If unmet, disappointment and disaffection will find an outlet – we agree with anti-extremism group HOPE not Hate’s assessment that it will provide fertile ground for far right recruitment.
If the country crashes out on 31 October, the UK will inevitably still need to secure some kind of deal with Europe and very likely bring a period – however short-lived – of acute uncertainty.
The government’s own Yellowhammer document, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast the immediate economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit will be severe. Those consequences will be felt most by the poorest in society, in the first instance in fuel and food price increases.
Yellowhammer indicates other troubling outcomes in the government’s base case assumptions for a no-deal Brexit. Not only will protests and counter-protests occupy a lot of police attention, creating a paradise for criminals to prey on the most vulnerable in society, but we could see food and medicine shortages.
MI5’s maxim that the country is only ever four meals away from anarchy could be put to the test. Food shortages – and the fear of food shortages – are a major threat to a community’s cohesion wherever you are in the world. Why would it be different here?
Social divisions have grown from the grassroots, out of communities ravaged by years of cuts. These divisions have been exacerbated by No 10 – reportedly polling “culture war” issues – and are set to be accelerated by a potential fall in the pound and shortages in food and medicine.
The blame game, cranked into high gear by the rhetoric regularly used by politicians, has the potential to spill over into violent attacks on those deemed responsible for the crisis the country will fall into. That could include EU migrants, ethnic minorities, politicians, and voters and activists on both sides.
The risk to community cohesion – but also to the very peace deal that has helped transform the island of Ireland – is very real. Previously low-level dissident republican violence has increased sharply.
The 20-year-old peace forged by the Good Friday Agreement is under strain, tested by four attempted bomb attacks – in Creggan, Strabane, Fermanagh and Armagh – in the past four months, and the murder of Lyra McKee by the New IRA. A Stormont executive that has not sat for nearly 1,000 days, and a new Brexit proposal that doesn’t protect the GFA, are compounding factors.
A hard border under WTO rules would stoke these tensions. A porous border (or no border at all) between two differing customs regimes would propel smuggling, linked to paramilitary gangs.
A new generation is being drawn into the violence of the past: many of those involved in Saoradh (rumoured to be the political wing of the New IRA) are in their twenties. The risk of violence crosses the divide, with Unionist former paramilitaries also sounding the alarm.
The economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit are debated and discussed at length; so are its consequences for Ireland and the border. But the probable impact on our communities is catastrophic.
High (and unfulfillable) expectations, the near-certainty of economic chaos, and food and medicine shortages in a context of widespread distrust of parliament, politics, and supporters of the opposite viewpoint are a toxic and potent mixture.
Broken communities are not easily brought back together. Brexit has already divided our country, and years of cuts have pushed them to breaking point. A no-deal Brexit could destroy them.
Hugo Lucas is senior policy officer at Protection Approaches, a charity that works to fight identity-based violence.