Border skirmishes

No actor has done more to endanger the future of Northern Ireland than the European Commission


This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Up until the Brexit vote, the European Union operated an office on Belfast’s Dublin Road. After the UK voted to leave in 2016, the premises closed down, although Brussels and their Irish allies kept pressing to establish a new mission. In 2020, the British Government rebuffed those demands, which is just as well given the original location of the EU’s Belfast outpost. No player has done more to recklessly, but indifferently, endanger the political health of Northern Ireland than the European Commission.

They see it as taking them down another Dublin Road

The old EU building sat between the Donegall Pass, a redoubt of the Ulster Volunteer Force, and, Sandy Row, an Ulster Defence Association stronghold. The EU’s behaviour since Brexit would not have earned them much popularity if they were still there. Whatever local Europhiles such as the Alliance Party might claim, all shades of unionism are firmly opposed to the protocol. They regard it as de-coupling Northern Ireland economically from the rest of the UK. They see it as taking them down another Dublin Road, only this time in the terminal direction of a 32-county Irish Republic.

At the Ulster Unionists’ annual conference in Belfast last month, their new leader Doug Beattie struck an insistently liberal pose. Party members were treated to traditional Irish dancing and an LGBT group, Cara Friend, had a stall on the Conference fringe of the gathering. A very conscious effort was being made, in short. Yet when it came to the protocol, Beattie’s opposition to the Irish Sea border was as vehement as his harder-line unionist rivals.

He warned delegates that the protocol would produce perpetual political instability within Northern Ireland unless it is radically altered. Rather than protect the 1998 peace deal, which effectively ended the Troubles, Beattie contended that the protocol was now damaging it. “The protocol must be replaced with a treaty that works for all the people of this island. This means no trading borders North-South or East-West. There cannot be a border in the Irish Sea,” he said.

Some in the London media have attempted to characterise the protocol as a “sausage war” between London and Brussels, characterised by arguments about checks on cold meats arriving at the ports of Larne and Belfast. The real war though, over the protocol, is far more serious than that.

Beattie’s party colleague Robin Swann, the local Health Minister, noted that almost all of the medicines used by the NHS in NI have to be shipped in from the mainland UK. These medicines are, in theory, subject to EU checks at Northern Irish ports and thus serious delays, he argued. Ulster’s health minister pointed out:

We have long relied upon the free movement of supplies from Great Britain, with around 98 per cent of our entire medicines coming across the Irish Sea. But under the Northern Ireland Protocol, such medicines will be handled as though they are entering the EU from a third country, and will be subject to all sorts of new checks and bureaucracy.

These port checks were agreed to in order to avoid any installation of a “hard border” on the land frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Or, to be more precise, a harder border. As, of course, there remains one between the UK and the Irish Republic, and it’s an economic one even with the protocol, just as it was during the period of common British-Irish EU membership. Some readers will recall that much, often Provo-benefiting, smuggling went on over that border. Which really ought to remind more people than it does that there was and is a border.

Effectively, sometime Friend of the Union Michael Gove’s December 2020 Northern Ireland protocol left Ulster inside the European Single Market while the rest of the UK fully departed the EU.

The sparks that lit the conflagration came from within

In the years following the Leave campaign victory, a host of Irish nationalist political luminaries queued up to warn that a Brexit with a “hard border” along that 300-mile plus frontier would somehow precipitate violence and lead Northern Ireland back to war. These threats of pro-EU violence, by mysteriously unspecified Republican terrorists, were and are inexplicably taken as being just-so by all the right-thinking people in politics, the press and academia.

No one believes they’d have the same attitude to threats of violence made in the opposite direction to opposite ends. Those, one suspects, would turn out to be very obviously wrong things, which should be resisted, and which were genuinely contrary to the letter and spirit of the “peace process”.

Leo Varadkar, then the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), even pointed to pictures of an IRA-destroyed Customs Post from the 1970s — when the Republic refused to extradite terrorists who escaped across the border back to the UK, deeming their crimes to be “political” — as a warning that any additional infrastructure designed to check the movement of goods and services across the border would somehow bring back the Troubles. A “hard border” was also against the core principle of the Belfast Agreement, Varadkar, his Foreign Minister Simon Coveney and Sinn Fein all contended.

There are three major flaws in this argument although no one in Brussels, Dublin and even London seemed to pay attention to them.

First, it takes about 30 minutes to slowly read the text of the Belfast Agreement. Nowhere does it mention the “Border”, either in hard or soft form. The claims that any sort of additional border infrastructure — which could only have arisen because the EU decided to put the claims of its Single Market above those of the supposed needs of “peace” — would have broken the agreement rest upon its “invisible annex”, which only nationalists and EU supporters have read.

The Belfast Agreement’s actual foundation stone was and is the principle of consent: that nationalist Ireland, almost three quarters of a century after today’s republic left the UK, finally accepted that Northern Ireland was fully part of the UK, and that it would be her voters who would peacefully decide on their place in it, free from violent coercion. The imposed protocol flies in the face of that actual agreement in word and spirit.

The second weakness in the logic of Varadkar et al is their contention that the border was the major casus belli of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Any credible historian of the violence there between 1969 and 1997 will tell you that the sparks that lit the conflagration came from within the state of Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein stopped short of recreating the human bombs

Unionism’s failure to meet the moderate demands for equality in housing and voting by the peaceful Civil Rights Movement and the devolved state’s decision to forcefully suppress demonstrations for these goals provoked violence on the streets of Londonderry and Belfast. The national Government’s ham-fisted response to this security emergency in 1969 was a second major factor in the creation of the nascent Provisional IRA, whose goals were explicitly violent, sectarian nationalism. Unionist discrimination and British state repression, by this reading, drove thousands into PIRA’s arms, not the border.

Finally, the old border of the Troubles wasn’t as “hard” as it has been made out to be in the street theatrics of Sinn Fein, who set up mock border posts and checks during the post-Brexit campaign (though they stopped short of recreating any of the human bombs who were forced to drive into them). Yes, there were parts of the frontier which were highly militarised with army watch towers, frequent vehicle searches by armed police and troops, military helicopters hovering overhead.

However, in other areas, this frontier was highly porous and provided numerous escape routes for IRA units carrying out attacks in the north. In South East Fermanagh, for instance, there were more than 100 IRA killings of border Protestants — many of whom served as part-time policemen and soldiers — coming from a community which believed this carnage was designed to ethnically cleanse the unionist presence there.

Around 95 per cent of those 102 murders have never been solved and in all likelihood are never going to be. The historical reality is that most of the time the IRA had relatively free passage between the border counties of the Republic and their targets sometimes often just a few fields away up in Northern Ireland. The Republic, all too literally, was able to watch murder happen.

The EU (and elements in Theresa May’s government) wholeheartedly bought into the “hard border equals the return of the Troubles” thesis, with a view to weaponising the border in their struggle to keep the whole UK economically aligned with the EU it had voted to leave.

Contrary to the blather surrounding Brexit and the European Union securing peace in Northern Ireland, Brussels played no part in the 1998 negotiations. Nor was the EU a key actor involved in persuading and cajoling all the main paramilitary factions to call their ceasefires four years earlier.

What can be directly compared is the carelessness

EU money (unionists would point to the net UK contribution here) paid for bridges, roads, and, rather more dubiously, assorted “community organisations”. Yet the most important thing to recall about the EU vis-à-vis Northern Ireland, even during the darkest years of the Troubles, was that it remained neutral in the constitutional/existential struggle between unionism and nationalism. Naturally the EU did not poke its nose into such business concerning two fellow member states. It only started crudely doing that after Brexit, with all the partisan consequences we are now seeing.

In Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century, the great and clear-eyed historian examined the origins of Europe’s most catastrophic post-1945 conflict, the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia. Among the origins of the Balkans slaughter, Conquest identified a pivotal diplomatic move that became one of the early factors in fanning the flames.

That move came unilaterally from recently reunited Germany and its pragmatic foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher — to recognise the right of Croatia and also Slovenia to secede from Yugoslavia in 1991. This was against the then general EEC line on holding together the federation until there was a widespread comprehensive agreement with all the Balkan nations, but especially the Serbs.

In his chapter on “The Europe Idea”, Conquest quotes a British EEC official who had excoriated the Europeans for their reaction to the wars in the Balkans.

The German proposal to recognise the republics of Croatia and Slovenia might have acted as a disincentive to the Serbian army if it had been adopted sooner. But it was rejected, largely as a result of British and French opposition, and Germany rendered its own plan unworkable by advocating a peace-keeping force without being willing to take part in it. German insistence on recognition eventually prevailed, but at a time when it was likely to make matters worse by simultaneously disrupting the proposed UN peace-keeping force and infuriating the Serbian army without, however, providing Croatia and Slovenia with any practical guarantee of security.

On one level it is absurd to draw direct parallels between the five to six-year conflicts of the former Yugoslavia in which an estimated 140,000 people died and Northern Ireland where, over a period of 27 years of conflict, the death toll was just under 4,000. Ultimately the carnage is incomparable. What can, however, be directly compared is the carelessness, irresponsibility and distant indifference.

Dublin will pay the highest price if this goes wrong

Because unless a compromise deal on the protocol is reached, the EU is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the Germans back when Yugoslavia was imploding. The European Union will be perceived as being back to taking sides, which it plainly has. The loyalist militants have taken note of this and according to long-standing sources within that underworld are re-arming. By the logic the EU, the Irish Republic and many of Theresa May’s ministers used, if they threaten violence, we should immediately defer to their demands. That, after all, was explicitly the reasoning that justified the Agreement-violating protocol in the first place.

The Rev Chris Hudson acts as a long-term envoy between the Irish Government and the UVF. Back in the early 1990s, at great personal risk to himself, he established a secret link between Dublin and the loyalist terror group. The constitutional assurances that Dublin wanted compromise not conquest that Hudson passed on from the Irish Government to the UVF at the time helped create the conditions for the loyalist ceasefire in the autumn of 1994.
Hudson, who is still networked deeply into working class loyalist communities, says he is alarmed at the growing bellicosity towards Brussels and Dublin.

“The EU,” the protestant minister says, “was seen as neutral and positive back in the Troubles but today it’s commonplace to hear loyalists — especially young loyalists — say that Europe is hostile to them and on the side of Irish nationalism. That’s a dangerous place to be in and I would urge the Irish Government to in turn urge the EU to pull back, agree to some substantial compromises and try to take the poison out of the protocol.”

The EU played no meaningful role in the paramilitary ceasefires or the negotiations resulting in the Belfast Agreement. The paradox of the protocol is that if Brussels refuses to make any genuine concessions, to convince the unionists they’re not being forced out of the UK by means of an Irish Sea border inside their own country, the one the agreement guaranteed their place in after decades of sectarian terrorist slaughter, then the EU’s lasting legacy will be to mortally destabilise peace.

A high price indeed for their Single Market and its theological claims for a territory which doesn’t have a land border with the rest of the EU, but does with the UK. Dublin will pay the highest price if this goes wrong, so should choose carefully now while there’s still time.

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