Brexit is just a few weeks old and already threatens fragile political stability in Northern Ireland

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The European Commission has announced that it could invoke the clause to impose controls on exports to Northern Ireland – which, unlike mainland Britain, is still part of the single market – to prevent vaccines from leaving the market. ‘Ireland and enter Great Britain via Northern Ireland. Hours later, Brussels recoiled from the threat amid furious protests from the UK and the Irish.
But the damage was done. The very tight terms of Brexit, dictating an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and controls on Northern Ireland’s sea border with mainland Britain, began to unfold almost immediately. The reply from pro-Brexit Prime Minister Arlene Foster was, as might be expected, icy: “This is an incredibly hostile and aggressive act on the part of the European Union.”
Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, is pro-Britain, pro-Brexit, but opposed to the new EU / UK trade deal which requires customs checks on certain goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the UK.

Within days, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson threatened to derail those checks, which could further undo the trade deal he so torturously accepted less than two months ago, further exacerbating tensions in Northern Ireland.

None of this bodes well for the new EU / UK relationship, nor for the fragile political stability in Northern Ireland, especially as the first victim could be his most precious commodity, lasting peace in North Ireland.

In the days following the crass diplomatic misstep of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a crass fear campaign of crude graffiti plastered the walls of Northern Ireland. The stern warnings threatened port workers, “all border port staff are a target” and “no border with the Irish Sea”, an apparent rejection of Johnson’s Brexit deal.

This was quickly followed by Northern Ireland’s DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots, telling port workers in Belfast and Larne not to work. EU officials who are working with them on new post-Brexit controls on live animals and fresh food have also been urged to stay at home. On Friday, some of them returned to work.

While these seemingly intimidating threats are not a harbinger of a return to the paramilitaries and the dark days of sectarian violence of the 70s, 80s and 90s known as “the unrest”, they are a reminder that the forces emotional underlying it remains malicious, and in some cases motivated.

Just last week in Belfast, police arrested a gang of nearly two dozen masked men, who local media said were linked to a feud within a pro-British loyalist paramilitary group.

Northern Ireland is still torn by an identity politics of pro-British and pro-Irish visions, and these latest developments suggest a perhaps unintended symbiosis of a potential paramilitary threat aligned with politicians’ goals, just as they l ‘have done, with lethal effect in the past.

DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr., who follows his father like an outspoken bastion of pro-British sentiment, warned Johnson: “I am telling you that protocol betrayed us and made us feel like strangers in our country. ” With characteristic flourish, in the House of Commons, he told Johnson to take action: “Tea and sympathy won’t cut the mustard.

A reality for Paisley and Foster is post-Brexit, the popularity of the DUP is fading, according to polls published this week in the province’s flagship newspaper, the Belfast Telegraph. Some supporters are moving towards harsher marginal unionist outfits and others towards the province’s political middle ground, the Alliance Party.

None of these repercussions seemed relevant last week during the acrimonious row over who is more entitled to the tens of millions of doses produced by Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca: the UK or the EU.

At the time, it stunned seasoned EU hands: Former Finnish Prime Minister and EU politician Alexander Stubb called it a “nativist and protectionist” an act of “vaccine nationalism. “.

Most infuriating for pro-EU politicians in Northern Ireland, like South Belfast MP Claire Hanna of the moderate pro-Irish SDLP, is that despite a few empty shelves in supermarkets, many felt they dodged a bullet of Brexit. “We were probably getting to a point where people were recovering from the initial shock of Brexit,” Hanna told CNN.

But it seems too late now. The cat is out of the bag, and the DUP’s anger, and the opportunity to regain his support, is unleashed.

Why Britain must look beyond the United States for trade deals

Despite von der Leyen’s rapid backtracking, Foster’s party demands that the protocols be dropped, putting Brexit back on the political agenda.

Political tensions are mounting: anti-Brexit pro-Irish nationalists and extremists in Sinn Fein argue that the DUP is only responsible for themselves.

Sinn Fein Chairman Mary Lou McDonald called for a ‘cool head’ as she told the BBC that ‘those who have stood up for Brexit and are crying salty tears now over the consequences of Brexit must accept that these are the consequences of their decisions “.

This is a sensitive point for the DUP. Johnson accepted the Brexit trade deal knowing that East / West border controls – in effect a border in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland – would infuriate the party. But he got away with it, in part because his Brexit deal helped him win a parliamentary majority large enough in Westminster that the DUP no longer had any leverage over him.

Chilling irony

Von der Leyen’s missteps and Johnson’s reaction to them now rekindle DUP’s hopes of a Brexit reset. The EU is not in the process of rocking, however.

European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, who helped negotiate the protocol, told Irish television station RTE that “the UK should stick to what it pledged to do, that we would have a good implementation of the protocol. For us, this is absolutely essential to avoid a hard border, to keep the peace. ”

Sefcovic’s British counterpart, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, had called for limiting border controls and extending the transitional period for inspections due to end in early April until January 2023.

Further discussions are scheduled for next week.

A smooth Brexit deal in Northern Ireland has always been a rocky prospect. Someone was inevitably going to be upset, while managing expectations (tea and sympathy) was always going to be necessary.

The risk for Northern Ireland now is that Johnson opens the door von der Leyen so carelessly opened, and lets in the dangerous breeze of nationalism.

It would be a chilling irony, if a feud over vaccines became the catalyst – plunging Northern Ireland into increased instability and risking a return to the region’s violent past.


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