Northern Ireland - calling the Brexit shots?

Spring 2021

Three days after this article was written, on 28 April, Arlene Foster, first minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, resigned. Most of the DUP’s Assembly members, 4 DUP Westminster MPs and one unionist peer signed a letter of no-confidence against her. Evidently she has not been “loyal” enough to her religious fundamentalist, anti-gay, anti-abortion rights, hard Brexiteer base. Her most recent transgression was to abstain when a vote was taken on a bill outlawing gay conversion therapy. Of course, the corruption scandal which caused the suspension of the Assembly for 36 months (it only reconvened in January 2020), is still hanging over her head. However the last straw for her opponents is probably the Irish sea border. That said, the contest for the next leader will no doubt contribute to confining reactionary unionist energies to the “electoral street”. 


Was the rioting by loyalist youth this Easter a sign that Northern Ireland was slipping back into violence? Or just alienated working class youngsters from poor urban ghettoes releasing pent-up energy, after too much lock-down? 

    Whatever the answer to this question, Northern Ireland’s past history and its current role in the Brexit saga means that what happens on its streets cannot be dismissed as a mere storm in a teacup, even if, on this occasion, that is all it may have been. 

    The fear of a return to violence has not gone away, even though 23 years of relative peace have passed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The much-quoted survey by BBC Northern Ireland’s “Spotlight” programme, carried out this April, found that 78% of those who were polled thought that as long as ”NI’s status remains unresolved... there is still a potential for violence in the future”. And in the Southern Republic, as many as 87% thought violence was still on the agenda. 

    For sure, there are several factors coming together right now, which serve as reasons for violent eruptions, if such reasons were needed: it could be said that petrol bombs and barricades are a customary way to express collective anger in Northern Ireland. As one elderly man from Larne put it to RTE Radio, ”you say violence solves nothing, but in my experience it’s the only way to solve anything over here!” 

    This article will look at some of these factors. It is quite a long list. It starts with Sinn Fein’s Bobby Storey funeral which broke Covid rules - a contrived “spark” to light the flames, which Democratic Unionist politicians have milked far beyond its worth, eyes firmly fixed on their shrinking voting gallery. 

    In fact this “shrinking voting gallery” feeds unionist-loyalist “unease”. Demographics are changing and unionism can no longer rely on a guaranteed voting majority. 

    Then there is the context of the “contested” centenary of Ireland’s partition - the original division of Britain’s first colony - where the Northern Irish “trouble” began. Understandably this is seen as cause for celebration by fewer than half of the population... 

    But looming over everything, is Johnson’s ham-fisted Brexit and its consequence, that “border in the Irish Sea”. A bare-faced “betrayal” as far as the Union-Jack-flying loyalists are concerned, for whom this brings the reunification of Ireland far too close for comfort. Brexit, very predictably of course, has stirred the sectarian “pot”, if not the fire. And it affects everybody in a tangible way, because it interferes with the free passage of goods into and out of the province, across the sea to the British mainland. Including food items which disappeared from supermarket shelves in the first weeks after 31 January - Brexit D-Day. 

    The patriotic and “unionist” British bourgeoisie are also up in arms. In “getting Brexit done” in this manner, Johnson has endangered the integrity of the United Kingdom! ”The bonds that hold the United Kingdom together are fraying. The government needs to try to mend them”, writes The Economist editorial of 17 April 2021, entitled “The Untied Kingdom”. It explains that the “union is now weaker than at any point in living memory”. And blames Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader for acting “stupidly”. Apparently, she should not have rejected Theresa May’s “softer” Brexit, as this helped set the scene for Johnson to do his worst with his hard (but watery) border. 

    The Economist apparently thinks that one of the biggest problems would be that the “UK”, if it broke up, would no longer be one of the big players and would lose its seat on the UN Security Council! And thus would not be able to come to the aid of... the people of Hong Kong, for instance. 

    This editorial ends by saying that Johnson’s single most important task is to hold the union together and that if he fails ”he will go down in history not as the man who freed the United Kingdom [from the clutches of the EU!], but as the man who destroyed it”. 

    Harsh words against Johnson. But in fact as regards the “United Kingdom” it is way over the top. A sober assessment of the situation, Union Jacks aside, might well lead any self-respecting bourgeois to recognise that Northern Ireland is a huge and unwelcome drain on the state’s finances, a one- hundred-year-long thorn in the side of Britain, thanks to its ill-judged “Irish solution” back in 1921, and that it would really be best put back where it used to belong - inside a 32-county Ireland - if indeed the Republic would want to take it! 

Still not burying differences

So first, to the funeral spark which lit the rioters’ flames. It began with Arlene Foster’s professed fury - duly conveyed to the rest of the unionist-loyalist “community”, after the Public Prosecutor decided not to charge anyone from Sinn Fein for breaking Covid rules. The funeral of their former intelligence officer, Bobby Storey, had seen 2,000 mourners attending, when there should only have been 10. The DUP also alleged that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had turned a blind eye to this flagrant transgression. 

    And since deputy first minister, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill had also been in attendance, the very much holier-than-thou Arlene Foster (she prayerfully reminds everyone of her reverence whenever she can) then refused to participate in the daily joint Covid briefing, which up until then had been a consensual O’Neill & Foster double-act. 

    In fact this joint briefing was only resumed 74 days later, in September, after O’Neill publicly apologised, allowing Foster to recover from her long sulking fit. 

    “That funeral” and the “bias” of the PSNI towards Sinn Fein (how the world turns on its head and how the shoe changes foot!) was the apparent justification for loyalist youth to lob rocks and petrol bombs at the police, but they also hijacked and burnt several cars and a double-decker bus. Which caused bus drivers to rally in protest at Belfast Town Hall and impose their own curfew up the Shankill Road and on other routes into loyalist areas. 

    However, the rioting did not escalate and neither did it take on a sectarian dimension. In Belfast, it hardly breached the rather flimsy Peace Line between Shankill (“Protestant loyalist”) and the Falls Road (“Catholic nationalist”) along the Cupar Way and Springfield road. It remains to be seen if the isolated attacks against Catholics in Carrickfergus, for instance, will turn into a sectarian wave. But it does not seem to be the case. In fact it now appears that loyalist elders are even finding it difficult to recruit youth for the protests they have been trying to mount outside PSNI offices. 

A border in the Irish sea?

So what about Brexit as a factor in reviving new “Troubles” and threatening “UK integrity”? 

    Boris Johnson has certainly upset the unionists. He told the DUP conference in 2019 that as a “proud unionist” himself (his party is, after all, the Conservative and Unionist Party), there was no way he would put a single customs post between “GB” and “NI”. It would only happen ”over [his] dead body”. 

    And then he promptly agreed to a border in the Irish sea between “GB” and “NI”. The irony is that it was largely unionists who supported Johnson’s Brexit campaign in 2016, although in the end the vote in the province went against Brexit 56% to 44% (on a 62.7% turnout). In the view of unionists - and indeed this view is to some extent justified - the current arrangement, which places NI in a customs union with the Irish Republic within the EU single market, threatens to bring closer the worst of their fears: the end of union with Britain and a re-united Ireland. At least in their minds. 

    The NI Protocol, as the politicians all repeat sanctimoniously, is there to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is not broken. This peace accord in 1998, ending the 30 years of the euphemistically named “Troubles”, opened the then “hard” border between North and South. This was meant to be a permanent arrangement, as a gesture of goodwill to nationalists and with the corollary addressed to the unionists, that as a result, a constitutionally united Ireland would not be needed. 

    Since then, for the past 23 years in fact, the populations of North and South have been passing freely to and fro, as if no border exists. In fact, up to 7,000 goods vehicles a day - 5 per minute - “cross” this virtual border on the A1 dual carriageway, the busiest route between Belfast and Dublin. And “border communities” bridge this border and work across it every day. 

    Nevertheless, Article 16 was inserted into the Protocol of the Brexit Agreement as a safeguarding clause which could reinstate a hard border. Obviously the absence of any controls after Brexit means the open border between North and South is also an open door to the EU single market. And both sides - Britain and the EU - have already threatened to invoke it regardless of Good Friday Agreement concerns... 

    Notoriously, there was the debacle over Covid vaccines at the end of January, when just as quickly as threatening to invoke the notorious Article, the EU Commissioner backtracked and apologised. This was another one of those episodes which was milked (and still is) for more than it was worth, for its nationalist, pro-Brexit and anti-EU potential! 

    But Johnson, time and again, in his remonstrations over the hard Irish sea border which he has instigated, threatens that he can invoke this Article at any moment if the EU does not agree to compromise over the now highly controversial border checks, which Johnson signed up to himself! 

    Despite the fact that Brexit has been 41⁄2 years in the making, the preparations for checks at the borders have turned out to be a very unfunny joke for all concerned. Whether it was the “UK-EU land-bridge” with the Republic of Ireland, the English Channel, or indeed the Larne and Belfast crossings. And of course these turned into a worst case scenario almost immediately Brexit became official on 31 January. 

    Imports from Britain to the Republic of Ireland have fallen by 65%. Truck loads of agricultural goods were held up and their contents rotted. And many items went missing from supermarket shelves - despite the fact that some of the checks required by the protocol are not even in place yet! 

    Back in December, Britain and the EU agreed a three-month grace period for agri-food certificates for supermarkets and their suppliers. Of course this deal has now run out. So Johnson, his right-hand man Michael Gove, and the former Brexit negotiator, now cabinet minister David Frost, took a unilateral decision to extend this grace period until October. This is no doubt what Johnson called ”getting rid of unwanted protuberances... barnacles... sandpapering the thing...” when he was interviewed by the BBC after the riots and asked what he was doing to sort out the border mess! 

    The fact that this is such an inflammatory issue however, seems to have pushed the British-EU Joint Committee, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the protocol, to agree to more time to sort things out. However it does not solve the underlying problem. Either the EU allows Johnson to have his cake and eat it, in order to “save” their Irish Protocol or it risks the end of this protocol, a breach of the Good Friday Agreement and all the consequences which come with that. Which nobody wants. Not even US President Joe Biden, apparently, who has also stuck his oar into the waves! 

    So what is the alternative? In fact it probably falls to the EU to make the concession: it has to be content to preside over a big hole in its single market, through which all manner of items will escape its controls. 

Is it a bang... or a whimper?

It is in Larne, a unionist town and the main seaport to Scotland, where someone has written on a wall ”All border post staff are targets”. Posters which line the streets say: ”Ulster is British, no internal UK border!”, signed, ”Unionists against NI protocol”. There were many warnings about this protocol. And those who claim to be in the know, said that if any visible customs posts came into being, these would become natural targets for the paramilitaries of both sides, depending on their location; dissident Republicans would target a reinstated land border, for instance. 

    On 4 March, the so-called Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) which represents paramilitaries from the (banned!) UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, wrote to Boris Johnson to tell him that it was temporarily withdrawing its backing for the Belfast Agreement ”until our rights under the Agreement are restored and the protocol amended to ensure unfettered access for goods, services and citizens throughout the United Kingdom”. Is this a veiled threat to pick up their guns and bombs again? They say not. They are ”determined that unionist opposition to the protocol should be peaceful and democratic”, but that Johnson should not ”underestimate the strength of feeling on this issue right across the unionist family”... It is worth mentioning, by the way, that the LCC was originally founded in 2015 to represent working class loyalists who felt they were ignored by existing political parties. 

    According to its spokesperson David Campbell, ”we are... holding him [Johnson] to account and through this letter showing him that it is not just rhetoric from our parliamentary spokespersons that he has to be mindful of, but the strong grassroots anger that is palpable throughout the ground in Northern Ireland”. 

    Johnson did not react - not officially anyway - to this letter. And yes, it is true that 4 weeks later the rioting broke out, first starting in the loyalist working class ghettoes of Waterside in Derry. And some say that loyalist paramilitaries were seen egging on youngsters from the sidelines. And that their “monarchist” sentiments also caused the rioting to stop after the death of the Queen’s husband on 9 April. But by Northern Ireland’s standards these were somewhat desultory riots. It seems that these days the loyalist beast isn’t roaring, but weeping - as the song goes. 

Contested, or contest

So what about the contested centenary? It is one hundred years since the partition of the island of Ireland, which cut 6 counties out of the 32, to create the Northern Ireland state, with a built-in unionist majority. Its entire population, just over 1m at the time, was not much larger than the population of Birmingham. And in that respect, not much has changed. Today the population of NI is just 1.8m. 

    It is worth considering how peculiar this really is: this little entity has its own devolved parliament, its own institutions and its own civil service, fully subsidised and paid for in full by Westminster! 

    Unsurprisingly, the centenary has become yet one more bone of contention between the unionists and nationalists. A good half of the population, those who consider themselves more “Irish” than “British”, even if they are not supporters of Sinn Fein, or other nationalist groups which favour the reunification of Ireland, are definitely not in the mood for celebrations - and it has nothing to do with Covid. 

    Sinn Fein’s Michele O’Neill, of course, said she would ”not ever celebrate” partition, because ”the north was built on sectarianism, gerrymandering and an inbuilt unionist majority... We are still dealing with the legacy of partition today in our politics, in our life, in our societies”. That, of course, is true. 

    On the other hand, the DUP’s Arlene Foster, did not go for the happy partying option unconditionally. She said ”It is important that we recognise the reality that Northern Ireland is part of the UK and has been for 100 years...”. However it certainly is her view, that NI should continue into perpetuity, with ”no surrender”, in the words of DUP founder, the late Reverend Ian Paisley. 

    Given this evident contestation, the celebration has been taken out of the hands of both sides and Westminster’s Northern Ireland Office (NIO) under NI Secretary Brandon Lewis will be acting as master of ceremonies, in an attempt to turn it into a non-partisan cultural festival, aimed at young people. But even that is not going too well.

    The moderately nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Fein both boycotted the NIO’s organising panel. And Sinn Fein has blocked the erection of a commemoration stone, shaped like the six counties(!), which unionists wanted to put in the grounds of the Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont castle. This has upset the DUP’s Arlene Foster very much. Worse, the “celebratory” unionist marches this summer have been cancelled. For once the pandemic becomes a “good” excuse! But of course there is no guarantee that some loyalist marching bands will not try to break or bend the rules, perhaps citing the precedent set by Bobby Storey’s funeral... 

Are you Irish, or British, or neither?

Today, the passage of time (among other things, like less emigration) means that unionism is no longer in the same ascendant position it was before. Nor even in the position of political superiority which it clung onto over the past 23 years since the Belfast Agreement. The latest population census - just conducted last month - is likely to show that the ratio of unionists to nationalists, and similarly, the ratio of Protestants to Catholics, is nearer 50:50, or even 49:51. 

    Of course, the old sectarian politics cut far less ice with the younger generation. But the electoral set-up in place since the Belfast Agreement is based on the sectarian divide, which means these “demographic” changes have fewer implications for Northern Ireland Assembly elections (due in 2022) than they otherwise would have. 

    Even so, a poll conducted in January on voting intentions, placed the DUP behind Sinn Féin. And if Protestants, unionists and “British-Northern-Irish” who vote DUP are no longer an outright majority, for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland there could be a Sinn Féin first minister. 

    This could also mean that the provision in the Brexit Agreement, allowing the Northern Ireland Assembly a vote in 4 years time on the Northern Ireland Protocol, will not be the let-out clause which unionist Brexiteers have been banking on. 

    Already the Stormont arithmetic means the unionists are 6 seats short of a majority to vote down the Protocol. So what else can they do except create as much of a fuss as possible? Their election campaign has begun... 

The disunited kingdom

Lastly, it is worth mentioning that the status of Scotland, after “Vote 2021”, impinges on the status of Northern Ireland, as ”an integral part of the union” of the United Kingdom, as The Economist and its bugbear, Boris Johnson, both keep reminding everyone. 

    The Spotlight poll found that 60% of Northern Irelanders thought that Scottish independence would make a united Ireland more likely. However, it is the British government which has the final say on allowing another independence referendum in Scotland - and it has already let it be known that permission will not be granted anytime soon. 

    In the case of Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that a referendum on reunification has to be offered ”if there is likely to be a majority in favour”. The final judge of how “likely” this is however, is the British government. The Agreement also says there should be a “concurrent border poll” in the South, but most conveniently does not go into any details! 

    In fact for the time being a border poll seems very unlikely. The Spotlight poll found that 55% of those asked in the North thought that Northern Ireland would still be part of the “United Kingdom” in 10 years time. Only 32% thought it would have reunited with the 26 counties by then. 

    An even worse result for the nationalists was what the poll found in the South: only 37% thought a border poll should be held within 5 years. And only 51% said they would vote for the North to become part of the Republic if they could vote on this “today”. Which probably means that a referendum will be postponed indefinitely. 

    It is the loss to the Northern Ireland working class of the welfare system and the free NHS which is probably the biggest factor in their favouring the status quo in Northern Ireland. This was reinforced when vaccines became available, before they came on stream in the South, with friends and relatives travelling north to get a jab, using old NHS numbers. And this is perhaps another reason for Northern Ireland’s loyalist beast to refrain from roaring too much about “no surrender” to a united Ireland at the moment. The reality is that it is not really being threatened at all. And nor is the “union”. 

    If The Economist and the class it represents are making a big deal of this, it is not because of an “Irish” problem, but a problem with their traditional party under Johnson, which has led them into a costly Brexit deficit, in the context of the ongoing financial crisis - with its Covid overlay.

Divisions and boundaries still to break

For Northern Ireland’s working class, it is the divisions in its own ranks which are the ever-burning issue, and too often still, literally. Of course, if unionist privilege has tended to fall away, the reason for this is bad for all workers. Because it is due to the serial job cuts which still continue and the impoverishment of the working class as a whole, compounded by the pandemic. 

    Indeed, poverty occurs across the board. All the indicators show that it affects everyone, regardless of which church their forebears attended, or which colour ribbon they wear, even if some nationalist ghettoes are still worse off. In fact what has changed in the last 2 decades, is that while hardship has worsened, it has hit everyone more equally! 

    What remains absurd however, is that Northern Ireland is so socially backward: something as fundamental as children’s education is still segregated along religious lines! But then the system of political representation under the Belfast Agreement has also segregated politics along sectarian, religious, lines. So that Northern Ireland has, in effect, a two-party system pitting nationalist Catholic against Protestant unionist. The smaller non-sectarian parties do not get a look-in. 

    Yes, sixty years since the non-partisan civil rights movement helped the propertyless poor get the right to vote (and then faced the guns of the British army), that hard-won vote turns out to be useless. Not to say that the alternative to the ballot is the bullet, of course. But one thing that has not been tried on any scale since the 1960s - is a collective, united class struggle across the divide. 

    Brexit has brought to the surface the old grievances of loyalist-unionists and those who do not wish to take down their flags. But today, this seems more like a last gasp than an explosion. 

    Thanks to the example of “Boris Johnson the unionist”, perhaps unionism is finally running out of credit. And maybe now the ridiculous nationalist paraphernalia will be seen for what it really is, a ruling class fraud which has nothing to do with workers’ interests. Because for the working class, borders anywhere, in the sea, on the land, or indeed those “peace walls” - all divisions which cut through its ranks - are good for nothing but bridging, breaking through and smashing down. 

25 April 2021