Richard North, 07/04/2021  

There can be few people who are not disturbed by the reports of resumed street violence in northern Ireland, although it has to be acknowledged that the violence has never really gone away – Good Friday Agreement notwithstanding.

Some pundits are quick to link the violence – which saw reports of 41 PSNI officers injured over the weekend, and more since – to the implementation of the EU-UK Protocol, and that is certainly the view of the Independent.

It asserts that the main issue is that loyalists - who want to remain part of the UK - believe that the new rules cut Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of Britain and therefore threaten their British identity. This view, the paper claims, is shared by Northern Ireland's unionist parties, including the governing Democratic Unionist Party, which supported Brexit but is now campaigning to have the Protocol scrapped.

Continues the paper, Northern Ireland's cross-community party Alliance, and nationalist parties including Sinn Fein - who want Northern Ireland to be reunited with the Republic of Ireland - say the issues with the Protocol are teething problems and that unionist parties are not working to find practical solutions to the problems. They have also challenged unionist parties to present a credible alternative to the Protocol.

Cue at this point EU ambassador João Vale de Almeida, recorded in the Guardian as calling on unionist leaders to focus on making the Protocol work rather than fighting against it.

He, on the other hand, pledges the EU's commitment to flexibility on its implementation, as long as the British government demonstrates good faith, telling us that he understands the "sensitivities" and the "delicate and volatile situation in Northern Ireland", which he visited last year.

Bluntly, this looks rather over-optimistic. Veteran watchers of the Northern Ireland scene will remind you of the old saw: "if you think you understand Northern Irish politics, you haven't been listening". Things are rarely as straightforward as they might appear to outsiders, and local comment is often tainted by partisan perspectives.

That de Almeida isn't really on the ball is suggested by his claim that the EU is "fully committed in a constructive way to find solutions for those problems", then saying that any such solutions had to be "within the limits of the protocol that we have agreed not long ago".

The Ambassador says that the EU "can look at ways and means to facilitate it [the protocol] and make it even more flexible" and was examining an overdue plan for the implementation of the agreement delivered by London to Brussels last Thursday. The solutions, he says, would come from "implementing the Protocol, implementing it fully; implementing it well".

To that effect, he says Britain needed to own the Brexit it got, including the Protocol, as it was a result of the government's decision to go for a hard Brexit putting sovereignty ahead of collaboration on trade. "[Let's] not forget the origin of the issues".

"We are talking about the impact of Brexit, which was decided by the British people", he adds. "We are talking about the impact of the departure from the single market, which was decided on the British side as well. Squaring the circle is finding solutions for very intricate and delicate problems that were created by decisions taken and decisions [that] have consequences".

And here we have a further area of difficulty. De Almeida glibly says that Brexit was decided by the British people, which indeed it was – or the majority of those who voted in the referendum. But although departure from the Single Market was "decided on the British side", it can hardly be said that this was a conscious decision of the British people. It was hardly the case that they were given the opportunity to decide between exit options.

When it comes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the situation becomes even murkier, as the province as a whole voted to stay in, and there was no opportunity for to vote specifically for Johnson's settlement. It was effectively forced upon them and is not something they have any choice over.

One doubts therefore, whether de Almeida idea of "implementing the Protocol, implementing it fully; implementing it well" is the answer he thinks it might by. Other would suggest that, since the Protocol is the problem, the very act of implementation – however "flexible" that might be – will cause considerable political stresses.

Whether there is a way forward, though, looks doubtful. De Almeida says that the protocol "took a few years to negotiate" and then asserts that, "I can guarantee that from listening to those who negotiated – and Michel Barnier and David Frost were among them – I can tell you that they turned every stone to try to find alternatives to this Protocol".

"No one", he says, "came with a better idea – even those who attack the Protocol today, who would like to see it scrapped, have no alternative to the Protocol. So that what should be our focus. Our focus should be to implement the protocol,” the ambassador added".

The thing is that there were only ever two realistic solutions which would be acceptable to the EU, in order to stop the Irish land border becoming a back door into the Single Market. Either the UK as a whole remained within the Single Market and maintained alignment with the EU's external tariffs, or Northern Ireland was kept in regulatory and tariff alignment, effectively creating a border down the Irish Sea.

Once Mrs May had decided to take the UK out of the Single Market, though, the die was cast. She tried to kick the can down the road by agreeing the "backstop" which would allow alternatives to be explored within the context of the "future relationship" talks, but that was not to be.

Johnson, having undermined May and then forced a leadership election, took over the reins and committed Northern Ireland to a "wet" border, thus placing the province in the unhappy position that it finds itself in today.

This has the Financial Times asking whether the UK is heading for break-up, the outcome of which might be a United Ireland. Nevertheless, this paper does concede that it is difficult to predict whether the fallout from Brexit will trigger a border poll on a united Ireland - which under the Good Friday Agreement is widely interpreted to mean referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

The Agreement states that a decision to hold a referendum in Northern Ireland rests solely in the hands of the UK secretary of state responsible for the province, who is required to trigger a plebiscite "if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting" would support a united Ireland.

A January survey by pollster LucidTalk, the FT says, found 47 percent of respondents in Northern Ireland wanted the province to remain in the UK, with 42 per cent favouring it becoming part of a united Ireland. On that basis, the criteria for a referendum are currently not met.

The more deeply researched Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys, conducted annually by Queen's and Ulster universities since 1998, have consistently found support for unification at a little over 20 percent, which has Lord Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the DUP, saying that there were no grounds for a border poll. "I don’t see it happening anytime soon".

That makes it difficult to argue that the loyalists have anything to fear, or that anything will be achieved from the current spate of violence. However, even the Irish Times concedes that tensions have been heightened in loyalist areas since January – where there is opposition to the Protocol because it places a customs and regulatory border between the North and the rest of the UK.

But even then, this is not the only trigger. Anger increased further last week, we are told, following a controversial decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Féin politicians for attending the funeral of Bobby Storey during Covid-19 restrictions.

As much of the street violence has been directed at the police, the motives for the violence are even more difficult to disentangle. DUP leader Arlene Foster is currently directing her wrath at Sinn Féin for presenting themselves as above the law, granting themselves a special status for their funeral "whilst everybody else had to deal with the restrictions at particular points in time".

But then, Northern Ireland, in its way, has always lived by its own rules – loyalists and separatists alike. We can only watch and wait, but if the violence does develop into something more enduring, we may find ourselves dealing with another dimension of Brexit, that British politicians have wished upon us.

If this costs lives, there must surely be a reckoning.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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