By JAMES BALDWIN
As the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland approaches, the unionists should have been coming to terms with their almighty success of remaining a part of the United Kingdom. But instead came the resignation of Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. The nation is once again gripping with violence and tension, seething with riots across the country, and asking itself where its future lies. Brexit has played no small part.
Whilst the overarching Brexit deal, which came into force on January 1st, is notably complex – conveniently brushed over in the referendum campaign – the general gist from the 63-page Northern Ireland protocol is that a border is created in the Irish Sea, and thus within the United Kingdom. While goods travelling into the island of Great Britain do not yet suffer the frustrations of checks, those travelling into Northern Ireland do; with civil servants carrying these out at Northern Irish ports and airports. Northern Ireland faces a unique, potentially beneficial, status where it is essentially in both the British and European internal markets. But this does mean that goods coming into Northern Ireland from the UK are treated as though they are from a different country.
This is hugely damaging to the unionists. Following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the border between the Republic and North vanished, removing army outposts between the two states. This soft line between the two states helped quell tensions on both sides, although peace has never been a given; after all, nationalists have not achieved what they wanted. But Brexit gives them a chance to dream once again. A compromise within the process of the UK leaving the EU could have been achieved. Indeed, Theresa May’s Brexit deal set out to keep the UK in the EU customs union. This would have ensured no checks on goods in the Irish Sea, nor on the Irish border. But it failed to pass Parliament three times.
Then, Boris Johnson came along. Although the Prime Minister promised no such border checks on goods, this is exactly what has happened. There is a chance, perhaps based more on hope than anything, that it is merely early teething problems. But there isn’t a resolution on how checks are going to be conducted in the future, unless hard Brexiteers compromise. That seems unlikely – a poll conducted last year showed that most Conservative members would sacrifice Northern Ireland, and with it the UK, in order to leave the EU.
The unionists of Northern Ireland have not helped themselves. Indeed, they have somehow helped the rival cause more, providing more to Sinn Fein than nationalists could have dreamed. Ms. Foster’s tenure as leader of the DUP has been nothing short of a disaster. Between 2017 and 2019, she had a historic chance to help the government with a Brexit deal which would minimise disruption, being part of a confidence-and-supply agreement after the Conservatives fell short of an overall majority in the election that year. It was power that a Northern Irish party had never managed to achieve, and may never again. But it was fumbled; the DUP helped vote Mrs. May’s deal down, putting their faith in Mr. Johnson’s harder Brexit instead. They have now found themselves in a predicament far worse than anyone could have expected four years ago. The party once again sits on the sidelines of British politics, and support for reunification earlier this year reached new highs at 42%.
Northern Irish peace has always been fragile, ever since it was born out of Irish independence in 1921. It only ever takes something small to set the nation off, with historically rooted, often religious, lines dividing the two sides. The Good Friday Agreement helped end the Troubles, a time of horrific violence. Tension to that level will probably never return. The DUP and Sinn Fein are still committed to peace, and no main party wants to see a return to the violence which caused so much hurt to the country. But violence will no doubt be fought between the paramilitaries of the two sides, as frustration mounts.
The UK and EU must be fully committed to protecting the integrity of the nation. The Westminster government, especially, must pursue a course of action in the future which listens to the residents of Northern Ireland, not ignores them, and treats them as part of the Kingdom, not as a colony. Even then, the future does not look altogether bright.
The United Kingdom is more divided now than it has been in recent memory. Support for Scottish independence has risen so that a referendum would be very tightly fought between both sides. If Scotland manages to breakaway – an indicator that could be seen no later than the elections to Holyrood on 6th May – then Northern Ireland may follow suit not long after. For the Conservative and Unionist Party, maintaining the union should be integral to their very motives; but whilst they ‘talk the talk’, they frequently fail to ‘walk the walk’. As Northern Ireland becomes a centenarian, it is time for them to start doing that.
Image: Unsplash (Jaime Casap)