Ever since the idea of Brexit was floated by those who have something to gain from the folly, those who had the most to lose warned that the grand ideal of English nationalism would inflict serious damage upon the hard-won peace brought to Northern Ireland.
During three decades of political and sectarian violence that only ended in the early 1990s in a fragile peace, some 3,600 people lost their lives and another 36,000 were injured as the mainly Protestant and slight majority sought to maintain the ties that bind the British-controlled province to the other three nations of England, Scotland and Wales that make up the United Kingdom.
Lining up against these ‘Loyalist’ elements were a large minority of Irish nationalists, mostly Roman Catholic, who believe that the province belongs historically with the rest of the island in a united Ireland, and that the then highly secured and protected border with the Republic of Ireland needed to go.
Violent Irish Republican elements, mostly under the command of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), squared off violently against Northern Irish police, British military forces as well as dark Loyalist paramilitary elements largely under the command of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)
The Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998 formally ended the conflict and established a peace process. Guns were removed from Irish politics, paramilitaries on both sides stood down and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland became largely invisible.
This history lesson is important because this is the risk that Brexit posed to the island of Ireland. And during the entire four years of negotiations between the UK government and the European Union, it was THE biggest single issue to finding a Brexit deal. If you remember all of the contortions over the backstop and regulatory alignment, Northern Ireland’s future status was the issue.
The Brexit deal was indeed only made possible because the government in London conceded that instead of the customs border between the UK and the EU falling along the border on the island of Ireland, it would instead run down the Irish Sea.
The consequences of that decision, however, are only now fully being realised by the Brexiteers and by the Loyalist community now within Northern Ireland.
All goods moving between the rest of Britain across the Irish Sea and Northern Ireland are subject to customs and health checks on live animals or other agricultural produce. That is what Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative colleagues signed on to. But a month into Brexit, the dark side of Northern Ireland is again bubbling dangerously to the surface.
In recent days, port authorities in Larne and other points of entry into Northern Ireland, have been intimidated by Loyalist elements who object to the searches, custom and veterinary checks. Port staff have been physically threatened for simply doing the work that is required under the international agreement.
The number plates of vehicles belong to staff have also been recorded and photographed — a not-so-subtle reminder of what might follow. And the history of Northern Ireland clearly shows that the staff have reason to be worried for their safety and that of their families. A bullet dropped through a letter box sends as clear a message as one fired down the barrel of a gun.
But there is another threat now, one that comes from a most unexpected source, and one that has caused political trepidation on both sides of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — as well as a rare outbreak of unity between the governments in Dublin, Belfast and London too.
Under fire for not getting its hands on enough doses of vaccine at a time when the UK government deserves full kudos for its ordering and roll-out of the jabs, the European Commission looked set to override part of the Brexit withdrawal which guarantees the free movement of goods north and south in the island, in an effort to prevent vaccines being shipped into the province.
It was dumb and ham-fisted thought, one that showed how quickly it was prepared to intervene to save its political bacon at the expense of the peace process itself and the hard-negotiated Brexit deal.
The commission had signalled it wanted to trigger the so-called Northern Irish protocol that would have allowed for export controls, specifically on the AstraZeneca vaccine as it took legal steps to secure its doses.
Naturally, there were frantic calls between Dublin, London and Brussels before the Commission relented just as the controls were to come into place.
What the episode has shown is that EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen fails to understand the complexity of the issue and the sensitivity with which the border must be handled. For most of the four years of talks, Jean-Claude Juncker was at the helm. And when it came to the nitty-gritty of negotiations, Michel Barnier was only all too aware that a misplaced comma or an imprecise wording could have severe consequences indeed.
It’s not too long ago that the newspaper a person read, what they drank, where they went to school, what team they supported, what sports they played, even the spelling of their name, had consequences in the polarised setting of Northern Ireland. No one wants to go back to those days. That is something that needs to be remembered in Brussels. And by those who try to intimidate port workers only doing their jobs to bring beef and bananas into Belfast. Yes, there are consequences to Brexit.
Mick O'Reilly is a Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News. Source: Gulf News