Northern Ireland: Fiddles amid flares

Date first published: 24/07/2018

Key sectors: all

Key risks: civil unrest; political instability

On 14 July the West Belfast homes of former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and the party’s Northern Irish head, Bobby Storey, were attacked with incendiary devices. The incidents capped off three days of notable violence across Northern Ireland, which included Irish Republican supporters clashing with police and widespread tensions across Derry. Notable, except perhaps in Westminster, where the incidents hardly caused a stir. Britain has been headed out of the European Union (EU) since June 2016 and the political aspects of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) have been all-but-dead since January 2017. An unravelling of the security aspects of the peace deal could have a larger impact on Brexit talks than nearly any other factor currently being discussed.

The GFA was dealt a major blow by tensions between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists (DUP) over an expenses scandal that dominated local politics in 2016. When Sinn Fein withdrew from the government in January 2017 to push for early elections, however, it was difficult to see how strongly this would backfire. The subsequent Northern Irish local election in March 2017, as expected, left the DUP and Sinn Fein as the region’s largest unionist and Republican party respectively, and therefore were mandated to form any new government together under the terms of the GFA.

Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election in June 2017, however, resulted in an unexpected – and unprecedented – boon for the DUP when May’s Conservatives were left just short of a majority in Westminster. The DUP subsequently agreed to a confidence-and-supply agreement to enable a Conservative government. The same pact removed any incentive to return to the table for talks with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. Although sporadic talks are held, almost no local observers predict that a renewed devolved government in Stormont will be in place anytime soon.

The British government has begrudgingly accepted that Norther Ireland’s border with Ireland is a key hurdle in Brexit talks. Demonstrating the continued resistance to this, and sheer lack of understanding of the issue, Boris Johnson lamented that the issue had ‘dominated debate’ in his first public comments since resigning as Foreign Secretary earlier this month.

But it is already clear that local anxiety over the border, the foolhardy decision to seek the DUP’s support in Westminster despite it effectively violating the GFA, the prospect for disruption that Republicans see as a potential route to move closer to Ireland, and radical Unionist sentiment that has grown in Northern Ireland in lock step with rising far-right sentiment across Britain in recent years.

A major crisis in Northern Ireland is a serious risk. Had either of the 14 July bombings resulted in casualties, tensions may well have spiralled out of control. Discussions over the Irish border in such a context would make current issues such as the electronic registration of goods and the percentage of goods that needed to be re-labelled at ports not only seem quaint but ignorant, at best.

It is important that the government fiddle with minutiae over customs in an effort to secure a Brexit deal but the flare-up in Northern Ireland demonstrates that other risks to the Brexit process are being ignored.