How a ‘Mind-Blowing’ Blunder Created a Dangerous Brexit Standoff
A U.K. national flag flies beside European Union flags in Brussels. (Photographer: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg)

How a ‘Mind-Blowing’ Blunder Created a Dangerous Brexit Standoff

Thirty years ago, during Northern Ireland’s long-running sectarian conflict, gunmen botched an attempt to assassinate a young academic in Belfast.

Adrian Guelke survived, still lives in the city and, last week, watched with astonishment as the European Union stirred up the tensions which almost cost him his life by threatening the part of the Brexit agreement that aims to protect the fragile peace in the region.

Now emeritus professor of politics at Queen’s University Belfast, Guelke described the bloc’s threat to control the flow of coronavirus vaccines into Northern Ireland as a “mind-blowing” blunder.

“Pandora’s box was opened,” he said in a telephone interview.

The EU may have retreated, but it has inadvertently allowed Northern Ireland’s unionists, who want to remain part of the U.K., to revive a separate and far bigger controversy that Brexit was supposed to have settled for good: the status of the border with mainland Britain.

The row threatens not only to sour the EU’s fragile post-Brexit relationship with the U.K., but also to turn into a flashpoint for the simmering discontent among unionists about the deal Boris Johnson signed despite their opposition.

Biden Warning

While there are few signs that the crisis will immediately reignite the full-blown conflict between Northern Ireland’s protestant Unionists, the minority Catholic Nationalists, who want it to be united with the Republic of Ireland, and British troops, history shows how events in the province can quickly spiral out of control.

How Johnson, the EU, and Northern Ireland’s unionists respond in the coming days and months could tip the balance. U.S. President Joe Biden has already warned that the peace process in Northern Ireland has to be protected.

“There are unquestionably people running around seeing an opportunity to get some paramilitary activity going again,” said Reg Empey, a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. “It only takes one lunatic.”

Unlike the rest of the U.K., Northern Ireland effectively remained in the EU’s customs union and single market after Brexit -- a crucial concession Johnson made to the bloc in order to secure Britain’s orderly departure.

By keeping the land border with Ireland free of checkpoints, both sides hoped to prevent a return to the era of the Troubles. But it came at a price: Goods arriving from the rest of the U.K. would be subject to checks and extra paperwork as they crossed the Irish Sea from mainland Britain.

Border Delays

The Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s biggest political party, was opposed to the so-called Protocol because it treats the province differently from the rest of the U.K. But it has had to deal with the consequences: delays and disruption at the border, which are proving unpopular with voters.

Retailers such as John Lewis have halted sales to the region. Marks & Spencer Group Plc withdrew about 300 of its products from its Northern Irish stores, and images of empty food shelves have flooded social media.

Under mounting pressure from even more hard-line loyalists, the DUP had already been pushing the British prime minister to scrap the Protocol. Initially, Johnson brushed off the DUP, dismissing the delays and shortages as teething problems.

Blindsided

That all changed late on Jan. 29, when Northern Ireland was caught up in the EU’s vaccine crisis. Suddenly, the bloc raised -- however faintly -- the prospect of controls returning to the 310-mile (500-kilometer) frontier running from near Derry in the north to Dundalk in the south.

“They pulled the rug out from under the Protocol’s defenders,” said Guelke, who was shot by loyalist paramilitaries who mistakenly believed he had links to the Irish republican movement.

Officials in London were blindsided. A person with knowledge of the situation said they were horrified that the EU hadn’t appreciated the sensitivities surrounding the Protocol and the peace it was designed to protect.

The following day, ministers including the Cabinet Office’s Michael Gove and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis held crisis talks with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney. During the video call, they agreed they needed an emergency meeting with the EU to ram home the dangers of the Commission’s actions. In the meantime, ministers played down the gravity of the situation in public.

Johnson Threat

On Wednesday, Johnson was confronted in Parliament by a member of the DUP who demanded he prove his commitment to the United Kingdom. The premier threatened to suspend parts of the Brexit deal in the same way as the EU had done, if that’s what it would take to end checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.

That evening, Gove, Lewis, and the leaders of the DUP, as well as their political opponents Sinn Fein, put their cases directly to Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic.

The conversation, on another Zoom call, was described as direct by one person familiar with the matter. Gove demanded the EU delay implementing full checks on food, medicines and parcels until 2023 to help ease delays at the border -- but Sefcovic demurred.

Based on that meeting, British officials say they doubt whether the Commission really understands the extent to which it is playing with fire in Northern Ireland.

‘Dangerous Place’

Privately, EU officials, who freely concede the bloc blundered badly, suspect Johnson is using the vaccine crisis as an opportunity to win concessions on the operation of the Protocol. Few expect him to try and drop the deal outright.

There are tensions, too, on the British side. While unionists want the entire protocol to be scrapped, Johnson and his team have given the EU no deadline to comply with the U.K.’s demands. They simply want the bloc to take seriously the need to address the problems with the protocol and hope the row over vaccines will serve as a wake-up call to Brussels. That may disappoint the DUP.

“We are in a dangerous place right now,” said Edward Burke, assistant professor of International Relations at Nottingham University, who is researching the effect of Brexit on the British-Irish security relationship.

“Unionists and loyalists don’t feel as if London or Dublin are listening to their concerns,” he said. “And the template in Northern Ireland in recent decades is, sadly, that violence or the threat of violence wins attention and money from both governments.”

‘Menacing Behavior’

Days after the EU’s misstep, local and European authorities withdrew their inspectors from Larne and Belfast ports after what the local municipality said was “an upsurge in sinister and menacing behavior.”

Police, however, stress there is no evidence that organized loyalist paramilitary groups are behind those threats, and they remain unconvinced about how seriously to take them.

The risk is events in Northern Ireland have a habit of escalating. In 2013, for example, a decision by Belfast city hall to stop flying the British flag fueled unrest that was then amplified by the annual marches of Protestant groups. That in turned triggered the worst sectarian violence since the 1990s, paralyzing Belfast for much of that summer.

“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I think we’d be seeing major demonstrations here,” Empey said. “The move by Brussels last week -- I couldn’t tell you how bad a mistake that was.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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