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Belfast, Brexit and Boris Johnson

Publisher Peter Stockland encourages a look towards the plans for Brexit and its implications on an Irish land that’s still nursing deep and troubling wounds.

Belfast, Brexit and Boris Johnson August 2, 2019  |  By Peter Stockland

This is the final piece of Convivium’s four-part series on Northern Ireland and its history as it exists today. Click here to read part two: "The Vocabulary of Who We Are."


Critics argue British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is playing with fire by planning to “crash out” of the European Union if there’s no Brexit deal by Oct. 31. We should all pray he isn’t dicing with nail bombs as well. 

No one can predict the future, of course. Yet confirmation this week that Johnson’s cabinet is preparing to reimpose direct rule on Northern Ireland as part of a no-deal Brexit adds a dark threat of violence to what might have been “mere” economic chaos.

The risk – the word needs a triple-underscore – of this decision to life and limb would be disturbing enough. But the even deeper peril would be to the survival of hope among a population painstakingly trying to rebuild social architecture after 30 years of civil war, and 20 years more of post-conflict trauma. It’s a threat with particular resonance for Canadians given how breathtakingly close we came only a generation ago to the fracturing of our own country. More immediately, it highlights the very real consequences that could – again triple underscore – arise from our continued shambolical incompetence vis-à-vis the rightful demands of Indigenous people for authentic institutional power sharing.

Yes, sure, granted, Canadians are a good people at heart. Just so, anyone who spends time in Northern Ireland, as I did for 28 days this summer, will find themselves in a place where gregariousness seems almost genetic; where hospitality is invariably served with extra lashings of a unique, addictive, understated local humor. Unless the visitor’s heart is made of anthracite, he or she will leave with deep affection, and more probably love, for the place and its people. 

No amount of fellow feeling can obscure awareness, however, of the tectonic grinding and rumbling that is a constant of Northern Ireland’s political, social and cultural life. It’s bearable because it’s actually a massive improvement of the buckling waves of violence that recurred from 1969 until 1998. But essential elements of social architecture – institutional, interpersonal – are nevertheless weakened, made vulnerable, in some cases deformed by it. 

At the democratic electoral level alone, for example, the NI legislative assembly that was put together in a burst of good will, optimism and hard-headed real politik following the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement has not been able to meet, much less legislate, since January 2017. Why? Deadlocks on key issues are partially responsible. The profound cause, though, is the cratering of basic human trust that makes any kind of true politics possible. 

Prime Minister Johnson’s Brexit “crash out” in October, it’s widely predicted, will further compound such distrust with the inevitable insularity that follows serious economic upheaval. Added to that will be the sheer logistical pressures of navigating a revived border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south. 

Think of it this way: for the last 30 years of the 20th century, citizens of Belfast, Derry, and other Northern Ireland cities, negotiated various aspects of their lives around police and military checkpoints, demands for ID cards, and flashlights shone in their eyes at night. They endured the atmospheric current of being constantly suspected and of being suspicious that a parked car or innocuous package might blow up, shattering windows, bones, bodies. Crossing the border to visit the southern portion of their own small island was an exercise in heightening fear with frustration. 

Then the Troubles were over. For 21 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, life lived as perpetual Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder gave way, bit by bit, to what a great deal of the rest of the world understands as truly normal existence.  And now here’s Boris. And Brexit. And the renewed prospect of the old border, a major symptom of the bad old days, back with a vengeance all over again. Can you imagine how that would feel?

As venerable British journalist Simon Jenkins wrote this week, undoing two decades of rebuilding Northern Ireland’s social architecture will begin with a loud, frightening bang on Nov. 1 if the UK government leaves the European Union with a crash, not a negotiated settlement.

“No-deal Brexit has suddenly gone serious. It is no longer an exercise in bombast and biceps-flexing. Boris Johnson is about to impose a massive economic sanction on his own country. He is playing with fire: it is a political stunt that has gone horribly wrong,” Jenkins said.

He cited a policy paper – read: warning cry – from a London think tank called the Institute for Government that warns of “border chaos” the day after the UK’s non-negotiated abandonment of its EU membership. 

“Emergency measures on trucks, plane flights, tourism and immigration will be entirely at the EU’s mercy – as the UK will, overnight, become legally a ‘foreign state,’” Jenkins wrote, citing the IfG report. “Rudimentary “technology checks” on truck movements will require a huge infrastructure of certificates, gantries and cameras, inspection depots and tariff collection points. None of this is remotely in place. Sixteen thousand officials will need to be set to work on it, and by October. This is impossible.”

Just ponder the logistics. An estimated 16,000 public servants will have to be diverted from their other duties – presumably they have other duties – just to manage the first few days of trade chaos foreseen from a non-negotiated departure from the EU. 

A proposal by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says there will have to be 200 different measures in place to deal with the “economic storm” that will follow a Brexit “crash out” by the UK. A senior British Industry official says Britain will “probably still lose the kitchen though we might save the bedroom” even if everything is done perfectly.

Increasingly it appears even that last-gasp salvage effort will require Britain to re-assert the kind of full control over Northern Ireland’s political life, which in August 1969 led to British troops being deployed in the streets of Belfast, Derry and elsewhere. Have I mentioned those troops were in those streets for almost 30 years?

Without being alarmist, some version of that is a considered prospect if, as senior ministers in the new Johnson cabinet confirmed this week, the UK is relying on reinstituting so-called “direct rule” on Northern Ireland to ensure an Oct. 31 abrupt rupture with the EU. Why? Because beyond the re-opening of the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland to a free flow of goods and people, the two agreements that brought an absence of open conflict (calling it peace would be hyperbolic) were predicated on a “devolved” legislature at Stormont in Belfast. 

In many ways, the legislature and the resulting devolution of powers comprise roughly equal parts magical thinking and “good-god-no-more-bloodshed” willingness to put the guns and the bombs away. Legislators at Stormont are called MLAs but no one would confuse them with provincial MLAs (MPPs in Ontario; MNAs in Quebec) in Canada. 

They do have some powers over social issues that belong to the federal government in the Canadian scheme. But when it comes to what really matters legislatively, their independence is severely circumscribed by the need to ask Mum and Da in the UK Parliament to fork the allowance. In other words, budgetary control, meaning real political power, remain with Westminster.

Still, for all its deficiencies, what the Northern Ireland legislature stands for is social architecture that allows former sworn enemies to conduct themselves as parliamentarians, not paramilitaries. Even when those erstwhile foes cannot sit in the chamber together, as has been the case since January 2017 when the legislative session collapsed in acrimony, the very chance of it to getting back to work again keeps the tectonic political plates from bursting all apart. 

The evidence? Negotiations to resume the legislature’s function began again last May 7. They were kickstarted by the shooting death of Lyra McKee, a young journalist killed by a stray bullet during a shoot-out between the police and the New IRA on Holy Thursday evening. McKee’s funeral was the occasion for all-party commitment to do the right thing, and the most important right thing of all is avoidance of a return to indiscriminate violence.

Even a bear of very little brain such as I am can follow the crooked line that Boris Johnson’s resort to direct rule in Northern Ireland could draw those well-intentioned political commitments. If direct rule returns to NI as a condition of successful implementation of Brexit, and as accompaniment to the economic whirlwind to be reaped, what need is there of the underlying social architecture of a Northern Ireland legislature? 

After all, direct rule by the UK in NI was invariably the modus operandi from 1972 until 2007 when the current power sharing arrangement flowed out of the so-called St. Andrew’s Agreement. Hey, it worked then. Why not now? Except, gee, look at those dates. Pretty much covers the entire period of the Troubles, doesn’t it? Coincidence? Even a bear of very little brain such as I am would say, ummm, probably not.

Here’s why. There are two things you hear constantly as you make your way with your ear to the ground (it’s murder on the lower back but it’s a great way to pick up things) around Belfast and the North. 

The first is that the English don’t really give a snake’s legs about Northern Ireland. They would soon be rid of it if they could ship out with dignity, and weren’t so frightened of the backlash from loyalists and unionists whose whole raison d’etre is preserving their historic British identity and therefore political links to Mother England. 

The second is that the old paramilitaries haven’t gone anywhere. They’re hiding in plain sight in the hard luck neighbourhoods of East and West Belfast, in Armagh, in Derry, in numerous other places. They’ve morphed into criminal gangs – O’Mafias, you might say – running drugs, running guns, smuggling, trafficking human beings. But the politics are still there, rumbling underground most of the time, becoming visible menace when the time requires.

One of those times is in the days around July 12, when loyalists march through the streets of Northern Ireland’s cities beating drums, ostensibly to mark the victory of William of Orange over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, in reality to parade a fading triumphalism as the Orange Order dies off of old age. In the days leading up the “Glorious Twelfth,” towers reaching two-storeys high and even higher are made from wooden shipping pallets stacked up on vacant land. They are then burned in bonfires that are started with Molotov cocktails at midnight on the evening of July 11. 

The urban mythology is that the towers are the handiwork of kids as young as 10, though no one believes that. In fact, there are always adults present during the construction phase. I was reliably told that often those “supervisors” are members of neighbourhood paramilitary units who use the building of the towers to identify and cultivate pre-adolescents for future membership, using the time-honoured traditions and techniques of gang recruitment everywhere. 

The kids selected are given the privilege of guarding the towers the day and night before the burning; guard them, that is, from other loyalist gangs seeking to claim turf by burning the towers down prematurely. There have been instances, I was told, of the pre-teen guardians being given loaded handguns to carry with them while on watch. There is little worry of the police intervening. 

The accepted practice is that regardless of the degree of drunkenness and disorder during the bonfires, the police stay out of the neighbourhoods and just let things burn themselves out. Even the fire department, which at times is called to extinguish blazes ignited by the towers toppling over on nearby houses, will only come to spray water on surrounding buildings, never to douse the fires themselves. During the 30 years of the Troubles, after all, Northern Ireland’s combined security forces were overwhelmingly loyal to the loyalists. To assume neutrality now would be seen as a terrible, and potentially dangerous, betrayal. 

The last pieces of bonfire politics involve nailing some prominent local Republican politician’s photographed face to the structure about to be burned, and placing a Republic of Ireland tri-colour flag on the top. 

“At least,” someone told me as we watched the gas bombs being thrown at a tower on the edge of downtown Belfast, “they’ve pretty much gotten away from burning effigies of the Pope.”

The July 11 burnings are so huge and hot that their collapsed remains smoulder all night. Smoke from them wafts through city streets the next morning. Their transformation is at once cathartic, memorial and semaphoric. We have a lot of tightly bundled energy to release, they say, and we will not let you forget the ashes of the past or become oblivious to potential fires in your future. 

This is the social architecture that Boris Johnson appears, in his critics’ eyes at least, about to blunder down upon. Columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote recently that Johnson still does not seem to understand the most basic facts of life about the island that the English first attempted to colonize in 1161. O’Toole argued, for example, that Johnson’s Conservative government as a whole seems only dimly aware that the border separating Northern Ireland from the Republic to the south is at the very least a “UKish” border. 

“The porous boundary that divides it from the rest of Ireland is not, strictly speaking, a British frontier. So it is called “the Irish border,” making it, for the Brexiters, someone else’s problem,” O’Toole wrote in the Guardian. “The terrain where a post-Brexit UK meets the remaining 27-member EU bloc is… somewhere over there. For Boris Johnson … its troubles are, as Neville Chamberlain might put it, ‘a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.’ They might have to know more about it if only we could call it what it is: the UKish border.”

But the fact is that as long as Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, that “UKish” border will also be a crossing point into the European Union, if not technically Europe itself. The Republic has no intention of joining any Brexit dash to purported freedom from the hated legions of bureaucrats headquartered in Brussels. The Republic is also committed to the ideal that the island of Ireland should contain only one united country called Ireland. 

“But these are mere facts and thus as meaningless as the most obscure fact of all: that Northern Ireland is part of the UK, a state whose very shape is defined by its frontiers. But that raises the even bigger issue of the union itself and what Brexit will do to it,” Fintan O’Toole wrote in his Guardian column.

And what is at least one thing that Brexit, at least insofar as it requires re-imposition of direct rule, might conceivably do to the United Kingdom? Well, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), we all know, was fiercely committed to the conviction that whatever else Ireland might be, the British should have no role nor place nor governance, devolved or otherwise, in its future. 

The IRA did not abandon that conviction with the 1998 and 2006 agreements that brought about the current absence of violence. They merely agreed to pursue their conviction by other means, that is through the social architecture of a Northern Ireland framed through a legislative assembly whose members conducted themselves as parliamentarians, not paramilitaries. If such hope is well and truly lost, you begin to see where Boris Johnson playing with fire just might (see: triple underscore above) risk dicing with nail bombs. 

Yet it doesn’t even need to go that far to return a tragedy from which the people of Northern Ireland have been trying to awake since the 1960s. Its harbinger arrived during a conversation I had in a coffee shop near Queen’s University Belfast with a highly intelligent, religiously committed, politically aware, and utterly non-violent fellow in his mid-20s. His opinions were, each one, articulate, researched, of sound depth and breadth. When talk turned to Brexit, however, his expression changed to the frustration of someone trying to grasp a rope that swings back inches short of an extended hand. 

He shared, he said, the queasiness general in Northern Ireland at the looming prospect of the UK abruptly severing its 36-year relationship with the world’s largest trading bloc. The sheer uncertainty was alarming enough. Worst of all, though, was the timing just as Belfast and the North begin to show signs, however unevenly distributed, of long-awaited benefits from a reasonable degree of protracted stability and absence of conflict.

“If only,” he said, “we could go just one more generation without turmoil.”

We here who take our peace for granted might think deeply about what that sentence means on both sides of the sea between the island of Ireland and us.


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