Belfast Petrol Bombs Are a Brussels Problem, Too
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A disturbing sight has returned to the Northern Ireland cities of Belfast and Derry, reminding mainland Brits of the three decades from 1969 when riots and bouts of terrorism marked the sectarian strife of “the Troubles.” Almost every night since March 30, cars and coaches have been set alight, and youths — directed by loyalist paramilitary godfathers-turned-gangsters — have hurled petrol bombs. Close to 90 police officers have been injured.
The clashes followed a decision by Northern Ireland’s justice authorities not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein politicians who last year attended a funeral for an IRA man, in defiance of Covid restrictions. Protestants loyal to the Union with Britain complained of an egregious example of “two-tier” policing favoring Catholic nationalists, while a crackdown on drug-dealing gangs associated with the loyalist paramilitaries has heightened tensions.
Some intractable political problems are resolved by benign neglect, a favored tactic of Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he can get away with it. But this formula seldom works in Northern Ireland. Conflicts that are allowed to fester there have a way of erupting into violence.
Post-Covid, Johnson has two major challenges. First he has to smooth post-Brexit trade arrangements, and second he needs to settle the uneasy Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Scottish independence appears the more immediate threat but he neglects Northern Ireland at his peril. The prime minister is in natural sympathy with many British mainlanders who are bored by the province’s religious and nationalist quarrels and hope they will somehow go away. But they won’t.
A hundred years ago this May, Northern Ireland was created to accommodate Protestant unionists who resisted joining a majority Catholic state when Ireland won its independence from the British Empire. Nobody had wanted this solution, not even the Protestants. The province was then left to its own devices by politicians in London until anti-Catholic discrimination incubated the terrorist outrages of the Troubles 50 years later. Only a sustained effort by politicians in the U.K., Ireland and the U.S. halted a conflict that cost 3,500 lives.
The imperfect but hard fought Good Friday Agreement of 1998 got the gunmen on both sides to put down their weapons. Ireland gave up its constitutional claim to the North and the U.K. promised that if the people of the province voted to leave the Union that was their right. Nationalists and unionists would share power. The border with the south would be open. Tony Blair rightly saw the peace deal as one of his greatest achievements, although honors were shared all around. Compromise and grinding attention to detail secured the agreement.
Now a renewed effort to pour oil on troubled waters needs to be made by London and Dublin. U.S. President Joe Biden will give support. But Brussels must be part of the equation, too.
By summer it will be the traditional marching season in Northern Ireland, when annual parades by Protestants often spill over into sectarian violence. Although local gangsterism is largely responsible for the street disturbances so far, anxieties over Brexit are fueling dangerous resentments in the unionist community.
For the question of the Irish border is back. Once the U.K. opted for a hard version of Brexit and left the European single market in goods and services, Brussels required a hard regulatory economic divide. Had customs checks been imposed on the land border with Ireland, that would have invited a resurgence of Irish republican terrorism and infringed the GFA.
To get his “oven ready” deal on Brexit, Johnson agreed a protocol with Brussels in which controls were put on goods moving into Northern Ireland from Britain. This created a line down the Irish Sea. The unionist community and its largest political party, the Democratic Unionists, which had campaigned for Brexit, were outraged. They see this as a step toward unification with the south. Demographics will soon produce a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland, fueling Protestant paranoia.
Johnson hopes he can improve on the protocol by allowing a freer flow of British goods across the Irish Sea but the European Commission, mistrustful of his intentions, is proving inflexible. Brussels has little history in the Northern Ireland peace process but now it’s a real player. It needs to shoulder its responsibilities.
The European Union was created to bury nationalism. Inside and outside the EU’s borders, petty national conflicts and regional autonomy disputes will always flare up. It would be folly now for Brussels to undermine a flagship peace deal which ended one of the continent’s most ancient nationalist quarrels. Its loyal member Ireland would suffer the consequences too.
At times it seems as though the Commission’s sole interest is maintaining the integrity of the single market, with little regard for the wider damage. At one stage during its dispute with the U.K. over supplies of AstraZeneca vaccines, it threatened to introduce checks on the Irish land border. It took outraged protests from Dublin and London to make it see sense.
Everything from English seedlings headed for Northern Ireland garden centers and Welsh sheep for its supermarkets has been checked rigidly for customs irregularities. At times that has resulted in empty shelves. Loyalist paramilitaries have threatened violence against officials making the checks. Because of that the U.K. government decided to suspend the protocol until trading arrangements with the EU can be smoothed. Brussels suspects bad faith and is suing London through international courts. It’s an unholy mess.
Alas, there’s no single neat solution that can resolve these problems. Delicate compromises and diplomacy are required — politicians in London and Brussels have to put aside their Brexit frustrations and return to the grind of negotiation and trade-offs. The onus is on Johnson to lead the way but Commission President Ursula von der Leyen must be more accommodating. Johnson may have to limit any putative trade deal with the U.S. by agreeing to EU rules on agriculture. The EU could then waive inspection on most goods.
After the troubled creation of Northern Ireland, Winston Churchill lamented, “The whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” A hundred years later, the problems are still with us. The anniversary should be marked in peace — and all parties bear responsibility for that.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.
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