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By Jason Michael
Peace in Ireland is a delicate balance of many factors. For 20 years these factors have for the most part held firm, allowing peace to grow. If Brexit drives a hard border through this island the peace is over.
Watching from the backseat of the car as a young British soldier dropped the business end of his rifle in through the driver’s window filled me with a mixture of excitement and fear. We certainly never experienced anything like this in Kilmarnock. Back then I was a teenager and didn’t fully appreciate everything that was going on. All I knew was that we were taking a trip to Dublin to visit family. Yet this was in June 1992, only weeks after the Provisional IRA had blown up a British Army checkpoint at Cloghoge in south Armagh – killing one poor young soldier, injuring many others, and utterly destroying the base. These soldiers around our car were taking no chances.
What I remember most of that surreal event was the scolding my dad got from the mother for the rest of the journey. Seen from where he was sitting – in the driver seat; with his wife beside him and his kids wide-eyed in the back, he was quite right to threaten to insert that rifle in the back passage of lad holding it unless he removed it from the car. It wasn’t being aimed at anyone. It was just being held in that lazy, wannabe macho way soldiers carry their boom sticks. All this young man wanted was to inspect my dad’s documents and have a look inside the vehicle. There was no explaining that to mum though. She was not amused.
A few years later, a year or two after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I was again caught up in the Troubles. This time, while on a trip to Derry, a dissident group put a “lunchbox bomb” in a bank next to the Diamond. The police had cordoned off the street and the Army Bomb Disposal unit was getting ready to do its thing. Rubber-necking at the police line with what seemed to be everyone else in the city, a little red-headed girl next to me said cheerily: “Fireworks!”
Those fireworks – the last chapter in the Irish Troubles – took the lives of some 3,532 people in the thirty years between 1968 and 1998. Having lived on the island of Ireland since the end of the Troubles, admittedly as an outsider, I have seen how those years and the violence have shaped and misshaped the country – on both sides of “the border.” As a student I worked for a spell at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation; where harrowing stories of murder and victimhood were told, and where a hard, yet delicate peace was won between IRA volunteers, loyalist paramilitaries, their victims and their families. Nothing has been easy about maintaining this fragile peace these past twenty years.
We like to think that the Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles, and so long as we keep telling ourselves that here we are able to pretend that things are normal. People can take the train into Belfast from the Republic and do their shopping or go for lunch in what is a gorgeous wee city, making-believe they are in a town like any other. But they’re not.
Wander off the tourist track, down Sandy Row in south Belfast or up the Falls to the Shankill Road in west Belfast and you’ll quickly discover this isn’t quite Kansas. Peace has not returned to Belfast, peace has been imposed on Belfast. Running between and through housing estates there is a “peace wall,” a concrete, steel plate, and wire division; a physical expression of the Apartheid that still exists in Irish society – not unlike Berlin of old. Peace is not simply the absence of violence. There are no bombings these days, and the shootings are rare and mainly the result of in-fighting rather than inter-group conflict, but in Belfast, Portadown, Derry, and many other places in the North it is clear for all the world to see that the Troubles have not ended.
The Good Friday Agreement – or the Belfast Agreement as some call it (not wanting to use the language of the other side) – is neither a peace treaty nor a surrender. Whatever its legal and political realities may be, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement is a ceasefire; a provisional arrangement with political and legislative ramifications awaiting some future settlement that will finally end the Troubles. It is, however, like most such arrangements, balanced precariously on the status quo of the political and social climate of the day it was signed. Any significant change to that status quo, especially one that would essentially alter the power dynamic of the peace will send it all rapidly down the pan.
Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, made most of the state-political concessions. While Britain – very much one of the belligerents – pretended to be an honest broker in the discussions (bearing in mind this was a long time before David Cameron’s apology for the Bloody Sunday massacre), Ireland changed its constitution; effectively giving up its territorial claim to the six counties. Republicans were expected to put down and eventually decommission their weapons before any such demand was made of the loyalists – essentially handing the monopoly of power over to a British state that has been shown to have colluded in the murders of nationalists and innocent Catholic civilians.
According to the European Union the departure of the UK from the EU will put a hard international border between the two parts of Ireland. This will have a profound and devastating effect on the economy of the island, but more pressing than this is the uncomfortable reality that republicans and nationalists in the North will find themselves locked into the British state once again, where Britain has the monopoly on violence – the exact conditions that played a significant part in the ignition of the conflict. It doesn’t take a genius to realise the more militant elements of the republican movement will not be happy with this change in the status quo.
On Sunday last – Remembrance Sunday – a viable pipe bomb was discovered close to the cenotaph in the town of Omagh. We can all remember the 1987 Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen that took the lives of twelve people and injured more than sixty, and again the 1998 Real IRA car bombing in Omagh that took the lives of 29. This bomb was no idle threat. This is all part and parcel of the fuse wire that is smouldering in Ireland right now, and the threat posed by Brexit is the match.
Now let’s be clear, I am not attempting to absolve killers of their actions. We can have no sympathy for those who would so callously use such barbaric and mindless violence against innocent people to further their political objectives. There is no place for guns and bombs in politics. Yet there is a gulf between our sanguine moral and political sentiment and the coal face of political violence in Ireland. Shootings and bombings have happened and may yet happen, and they always happened for a reason – no matter how much we disagree with these actions.
Elements within the republican movement over the whole of Ireland are evidently on a war footing. Weapons and ammunition have been intercepted by the Gardaí and the PSNI, telling us that things are moving. We can only assume that elements of the loyalist and unionist organisations in the North are doing the same. Mrs May was warned by Sinn Féin and others less partisan in Ireland that Brexit threatened to undermine the Good Friday Agreement and she has ignored every warning. Now that she has set a date and a time for her better Britain the timer on the truce in Ireland has started ticking. My fear – a growing fear on this island – is that it might be another thirty years before we can get back to even this uneasy peace.
Could Brexit bring the Troubles back to Northern Ireland?
2 thoughts on “Brexit is Undoing the Fragile Peace in Ireland”
Sadly, I have predicted conflict between the residue of the UK and others and this was always going to be a likely flashpoint. Unfortunately , when a legislature is obsessed with giving it’s electorate what they WANT rather than what they NEED and is best for their well being, it is always going to lead to trouble!
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The divisions within Northern Ireland are as real as the divisions between North & South Korea; another conflict that has not ended but merely been subject to a cease fire.
I also fear that if sectarian violence erupts in NI again then it will spread to Scotland this time. We were always a kind of safe haven, a no man’s land for both sides, unlike England which was a target for one side. With the Indy tension in Scotland, the emboldened Unionists & the xenophobia stirred up by Brexit I see Glasgow losing its title of Belfast Without the Bombs.
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