Brexit and the border in Northern Ireland- will there be a return to the ‘Troubles’?
Brexit has started a hare running over the consequences for the integrity of the UK. In a series of articles the Socialist explores how Brexit will impact Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as far as the ‘national question’ is concerned. In the following article Niall Mulholland of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI – the socialist international organisation which the Socialist Party is affiliated to) examines Brexit and the border in Northern Ireland.
The Brexit crisis finds its most acute expression over the so-called ‘Irish backstop’, The 300-odd mile border running across Ireland represents the only land border between the UK and the European Union (EU). If a ‘hard Brexit’ happens, Northern Ireland would end up with different rules and standards to the Republic of Ireland.
The EU insists that if the UK leaves the customs union and single market there must be border checks somewhere to protect its trade interests.
Former prime minister Theresa May negotiated the backstop with the EU to avoid border checks in Ireland. But this entailed potentially keeping the UK in an EU customs union, until a trade deal permanently avoiding the need for checks is agreed.
This was intolerable to many right-wing Tory MPs and was one of the factors that eventually led to Theresa May’s resignation as prime minister.
In Northern Ireland, a majority voted to remain in the June 2016 EU referendum.
The vote was largely cast along sectarian lines, with most Protestants voting leave and a majority of Catholics opting for remain.
However there are also class divisions. Most middle-class Unionists are more likely to be pro-EU, while working class Protestants and ‘traditional unionists’ are more pro-Leave.
Middle-class nationalists are strongly pro-EU but parts of the most deprived working-class Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry had some of the lowest turnouts for the 2016 referendum.
Most working-class Catholics voted to remain not due to any big illusions in the EU bosses’ club, but fearing that being cut off from the EU would remove a buffer to outright British rule.
This was exacerbated when the Brexit-supporting Democratic Unioist Party (DUP) and Tories agreed a deal that saw the DUP keep the weak Tory government in power.
Following its shock at the EU referendum result, Brussels used alarm over Northern Ireland slipping back to conflict for negotiating leverage; to attempt to stop the UK leaving or fully departing the EU, and to show any other member states considering leaving what sort of a mess they too can end up in.
Yet real fears around the economic and political consequences of a ‘hard border’ have increased on the ground in Ireland.
Trade disruption – Northern Ireland exported almost £3 billion of goods to the Republic of Ireland in 2017 – puts tens of thousands of jobs and families’ livelihoods in border counties at stake.
Boris Johnson infuriated many people in Ireland by stating that the border was no different from counties bordering London. Yet many people in Ireland remember the border during the Troubles as heavily militarised zones, with long traffic delays at army checkpoints.
In the 1950s, the IRA waged a ‘border campaign’, often targeting customs posts and police barracks. ‘Operation Harvest’ was a military failure and lacked popular support. But today’s Republican advocates of ‘armed struggle’ believe they have the wind in their sails given the widespread uncertainly and fears around Brexit and the possibility of a hard border.
For them, any physical manifestations of a border vindicate their argument that Northern Ireland and the Republic are ‘illegitimate partitionist states’, and border infrastructure would become potential targets. Police and British army personnel stationed to protect border checks would themselves become targets, widening conflict.
As a foretaste of what could come, the Continuity IRA, purportedly, recently carried out a bombing in the border county of Fermanagh.
But it is not just a question of what the small armed Republican groups may do. Any hardening of the North-South border is regarded by many Catholics as a threat to their national aspirations.
Local communities in border counties warn that they will meet the imposition of new border checks with fierce resistance, including physically tearing down infrastructure.
In the context of the Brexit crisis, Sinn Fein campaigns for a ‘border poll’. This refers to the provisions in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that allows a poll, held North and South, under certain circumstances, to decide the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland. This is already ratcheting up sectarian tensions.
Boris Johnson said a revised Brexit deal must include “the abolition of the backstop”. He proposes “alternative customs arrangements” to be put in place in the two years of EU withdrawal ‘transition’. So far, Johnson has not come up with any new ideas. He rehashes so-called technical solutions which are dismissed by the EU and many experts.
Previously the EU proposal of checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea was strongly opposed by the DUP. This so-called East-West border is regarded by most Protestants as a threat to the union between N Ireland and Britain.
It remains to be seen if any workable fudge can be agreed between Brussels and London.
But what the Brexit crisis unambiguously underlines is that on the basis of capitalism there is no permanent or even medium-term solution to sectarianism and the ‘border issue’, despite the hype that surrounded the Good Friday Agreement. The Stormont power-sharing executive has collapsed since January 2017.
Only a united working class movement in Ireland, North and South, with a bold socialist programme, and allied with the organised working class in Britain, can successfully contest the Tories of all stripes and overcome the divisions in society.