On Jan. 30, 1972, at approximately 3:55 PM, British paratroopers opened fire on civilians in Derry, Northern Ireland, during an originally peaceful protest against Britain’s unlawful imprisonment of 342 suspected members of the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA). Initially, the soldiers employed rubber bullets and CS gas to diffuse the situation, but the violence soon escalated to real gunfire and excessive force, resulting in the death of 14 protestors. The events of this day came to be known as Bloody Sunday, an addition to the list of civil rights incidents of the same name, including the Bloody Sunday of Selma, Alabama, seven years prior, and the one of St. Petersburg 60 years before that.
Ireland’s “Bloody Sunday” was the boiling point of what later came to be known as “the Troubles”—the 30-year conflict along the border between Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland and Catholic nationalists in the Republic of Ireland. Ultimately, the Troubles claimed the lives of over 3,000 individuals, with violence largely ceasing after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which instituted a soft border between both countries, rid of checks and incumbent on international cooperation.
Though the Democratic Union Party (DUP) did not officially support the agreement, it largely appeased both unionists and nationalists because Northern Ireland would remain a territory of the United Kingdom, without any visible separation from the rest of Ireland. Unfortunately, scarcely had two decades passed before a threat to this peace ascended to the top of the British political agenda: Brexit.
Voters in a UK referendum, on June 23, 2016, moved to leave the European Union (EU), which would not only affect Britain, but Northern Ireland as well. Pre-Brexit, both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were part of the same customs agreement under the EU, meaning no checks of goods were required between both countries, safeguarding effective trade. As Brexit negotiations pressed on, it became imperative to show great care around the issue of Ireland’s border, so as to prevent (1) disruption of the Irish economy and (2) a repeat of the Troubles.
Essentially, the UK is faced with three options: negotiate a deal with the EU which would maintain a soft Irish border despite its ejection from the customs union, leave the EU without a deal and re-institute a hard border, or re-unify Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is a fate unwanted and feared by both sides. Here is where the much-maligned backstop comes into play.
Throughout Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister, great emphasis was placed on a backstop clause in the UK’s final deal with the EU. A backstop would be a kind of “break glass in case of emergency” measure in the case of a no-deal Brexit—or at least the omission of a soft Irish border from the final deal. Unless an effective trade deal could be devised and agreed upon by both parties, the backstop would guarantee a soft Irish border, forcing the UK to essentially remain a part of the EU’s customs union indefinitely. Hard-line Brexiteers within Parliament are in opposition to the backstop unless it contains a specific time limit, since it would undermine the original intentions of the referendum. However, many agriculture unions and business groups in Ireland support the backstop as it would maintain the protection of cross-border trade at all costs, despite the fluctuations of public opinion or change in leadership.
Theresa May’s failure to garner enough support for the backstop clause within Parliament created a political impasse, leading to her eventual resignation–perfect for the entrance of Boris Johnson to the stage of the Greek tragedy that is modern British politics. A hard-right Conservative leader, Johnson’s election has been seen as evidence of a resurgence of nationalism, not just in the UK, but all across Europe.
The motivating spirit of Good Friday was one of British neutrality after decades of their own violent interventions, the likes of which caused Bloody Sunday. This neutrality around the issue of Northern Ireland remained a central force in early Brexit negotiations, but has now been usurped by the ulterior motives of Boris Johnson and his Conservative party. Members of the DUP, which originally refused to enact Good Friday, provide precious votes in Johnson’s Parliament, and thus wield power over his Irish dealings.
A majority of citizens in Northern Ireland voted to remain a part of the EU, but the pro-Brexit DUP drowned out their voices with unionist propaganda. Now, as Johnson continually threatens EU member states with the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, should they refuse to kill the backstop, Northern Ireland is haunted by the looming figure of a British prime minister hell-bent on a hard-border, a punishment for something they never wanted.
Johnson’s election made many hopeful that that fateful 2016 referendum would finally come to fruition, but it is unlikely to be any more successful than May’s attempts. The Prime Minister of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, said as much when he seriously doubted a whole new deal would be soon written up and agreed upon, which immediately prompted the DUP to request Ireland “dial down their megaphone diplomacy”.
Britain, the Tories, the DUP, and all Brexiteers will attempt again and again to de-legitimize the concerns of the Irish people. To Johnson, what is more important than the threat of economic disruption or Irish border warfare is the completion of Brexit at the expense of the backstop, deal or no deal. Fortunately, as interest in the fate of Northern Ireland has spread globally, Varadkar and Co. could take advantage of the spotlight to ensure Johnson cannot bully Ireland in to submission.
For decades, British imperialism has prevented Ireland from truly becoming a proper political player on the world stage. In opposition to Irish unity at the expense of peace along the border, Britain has allied with unionists in an effort to secure its interests in the region. As the situation unfolds, all must pay attention to the North Channel, for Ireland may finally force its way into Brexit negotiations, ensuring the safety of its people is not decided by politicians across the Irish Sea.
Categories: Foreign Affairs