FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid English

Photograph Source Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

I was sitting in a cafe on the Falls Road in heavily nationalist West Belfast when a local radio reporter came in looking for residents to interview about the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland. She said that the impact was already massive, adding: “Stupid, stupid English for getting us into this pickle. We were doing nicely and then they surpassed themselves [in stupidity].”

It does not take long talking to people in Northern Ireland to understand that almost everything said by politicians and commentators in London about the “backstop” is based on a dangerous degree of ignorance and wishful thinking about the real political situation on the ground here. Given how central this issue is to the future of the UK, it is extraordinary how it is debated with only minimal knowledge of the real forces involved.

The most important of these risks can be swiftly spelled out. Focus is often placed on the sheer difficulty of policing the 310-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because there are at least 300 major and minor crossing points. But the real problem is not geographic or military but political and demographic because almost all the border runs through country where Catholics greatly outnumber Protestants. The Catholics will not accept, and are in a position to prevent, a hard border unless it is defended permanently by several thousand British troops in fortified positions.

The threat to peace is often seen as coming from dissident Republicans, a small and fragmented band with little support, who might shoot a policeman or a customs’ official. But this is not the greatest danger, or at least not yet, because it is much more likely that spontaneous but sustained protests would prevent any attempt to recreate an international frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic that wasn’t backed by overwhelming armed force.

It is unrealistic to the point of absurdity to imagine that technical means on the border could substitute for customs personnel because cameras and other devices would be immediately destroyed by local people. A new border would have to be manned by customs officials, but these would not go there unless they were protected by police and the police could not operate without British Army protection. Protesters would be killed or injured and we would spiral back into violence.

We are not looking at a worst-case scenario but an inevitability if a hard border returns as it will, if there is a full Brexit. The EU could never agree to a deal – and would be signing its own death warrant if it did – in which the customs union and the single market have a large unguarded hole in their tariff and regulatory walls.

An essential point to grasp is that the British government does not physically control the territory, mostly populated by nationalists, through which the border runs. It could only reassert that control by force which would mean a return to the situation during the Troubles, between 1968 and 1998, when many of the 270 public roads crossing the border were blocked by obstacles or cratered with explosives by the British Army. Even then British soldiers could only move through places like South Armagh using helicopters.

The focus for the security forces in Northern Ireland is on dissident Republican groups that never accepted the Good Friday Agreement. These have failed to gain traction inside the Roman Catholic/nationalist community which has no desire to go back to war and give up the very real advantages that it has drawn from the long peace.

But that peace could slip away without anybody wanting it to go because Brexit, as conceived by the European Research Group and as delineated by Theresa May’s red lines, is a torpedo aimed directly at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. This meant that those who saw themselves as Irish (essentially the Catholics) and those who saw themselves as British (the Protestants) could live peacefully in the same place. Moreover, the agreement established and institutionalised a complicated balance of power between the two communities in which the Irish government and the EU played a central role.

Yet ever since the general election of 2017, when May became dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), it is the DUP – the party of Ian Paisley – that has been treated by politicians and media in Britain as if they were the sole representatives of the 1.9 million people living in Northern Ireland. Its MPs are seldom asked by interviewers to justify their support for the UK leaving the EU when Northern Ireland voted for Remain in the referendum by 56 per cent to 44 per cent.

In ignoring the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the British government is committing the same costly mistake it committed in the 50 years before 1968 which led to the fiercest guerrilla conflict in western Europe since the Second World War. The nationalist community today has a lot more to lose than it did half a century ago. It is no longer subject to sectarian discrimination in the way it used to be, as well as being highly educated and economically dynamic, but this does not mean that it can be taken for granted.

It may also be that the majority of the Northern Ireland population in two years’ time, when the Brexit transition period might be coming to an end, will no longer be Protestant and unionist but Catholic and nationalist. In the last census in 2011 Protestants were 48 per cent of the population and Catholics 45 per cent. The Protestants are not only a declining proportion of the population, but an increasingly ageing one, figures from 2016 showing that Catholics are 44 per cent of the working population and Protestants 44 per cent. Significantly, Catholics make up 51 per cent of school children in Northern Ireland and Protestants only 37 per cent.

The Protestants are a community on the retreat, but many have argued that this does not make much political difference because it is a mistake to imagine that all Catholics wanted a united Ireland. Many felt that they were better off where they were with a free NHS and an annual UK subsidy of £11bn.

But Brexit has changed this calculation. With Ireland and the UK members of the EU, religious and national loyalties were blurred. Many Protestants, particularly middle class ones, voted Remain in the referendum, but the vote was still essentially along sectarian lines. “You would not find many nationalists post-Brexit who would not vote for a united Ireland in a new border poll whatever they thought before,” said one commentator, though the likelihood is that if there were to be such a poll there would still be a slim majority favouring the union with Great Britain.

If May’s deal with the EU is finally agreed by the House of Commons then the issue of a hard border will be postponed. Any return to it would put Northern Ireland back on the road to crisis and violence. Stupid, stupid, stupid English.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

July 09, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
COVID-19 Exposes the Weakness of a Major Theory Used to Justify Capitalism
Ahrar Ahmad
Racism in America: Police Choke-hold is Not the Issue
Timothy M. Gill
Electoral Interventions: a Suspiciously Naïve View of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War World
Daniel Falcone
Cold War with China and the Thucydides Trap: a Conversation with Richard Falk
Daniel Beaumont
Shrink-Wrapped: Plastic Pollution and the Greatest Economic System Jesus Ever Devised
Prabir Purkayastha
The World Can Show How Pharma Monopolies Aren’t the Only Way to Fight COVID-19
Gary Leupp
“Pinning Down Putin” Biden, the Democrats and the Next War
Howard Lisnoff
The Long Goodbye to Organized Religion
Cesar Chelala
The Dangers of Persecuting Doctors
Mike Garrity – Erik Molvar
Back on the List: A Big Win for Yellowtone Grizzlies and the Endangered Species Act, a Big Loss for Trump and Its Enemies
Purusottam Thakur
With Rhyme and Reasons: Rap Songs for COVID Migrants
Binoy Kampmark
Spiked Concerns: The Melbourne Coronavirus Lockdown
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela is on a Path to Make Colonialism Obsolete
George Ochenski
Where are Our Political Leaders When We Really Need Them?
Dean Baker
Is it Impossible to Envision a World Without Patent Monopolies?
William A. Cohn
Lead the Way: a Call to Youth
July 08, 2020
Laura Carlsen
Lopez Obrador’s Visit to Trump is a Betrayal of the U.S. and Mexican People
Melvin Goodman
Afghanistan: What is to be Done?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
The End of the American Newspaper
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Merits of Medicare for All Have Been Proven by This Pandemic
David Rosen
It’s Now Ghislaine Maxwell’s Turn
Nicolas J S Davies
Key U.S. Ally Indicted for Organ Trade Murder Scheme
Bob Lord
Welcome to Hectobillionaire Land
Laura Flanders
The Great American Lie
John Kendall Hawkins
Van Gogh’s Literary Influences
Marc Norton
Reopening vs. Lockdown is a False Dichotomy
Joel Schlosberg
“All the Credit He Gave Us:” Time to Drop Hamilton’s Economics
CounterPunch News Service
Tribes Defeat Trump Administration and NRA in 9th Circuit on Sacred Grizzly Bear Appeal
John Feffer
The US is Now the Global Public Health Emergency
Nick Licata
Three Books on the 2020 Presidential Election and Their Relevance to the Black Live Matter Protests
Elliot Sperber
The Breonna Taylor Bridge
July 07, 2020
Richard Eskow
The War on Logic: Contradictions and Absurdities in the House’s Military Spending Bill
Daniel Beaumont
Gimme Shelter: the Brief And Strange History of CHOP (AKA CHAZ)
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s War
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Racism May be Blatant, But the Culture He Defends Comes Out of the Civil War and Goes Well Beyond Racial Division
Andrew Stewart
Can We Compare the George Floyd Protests to the Vietnam War Protests? Maybe, But the Analogy is Imperfect
Walden Bello
The Racist Underpinnings of the American Way of War
Nyla Ali Khan
Fallacious Arguments Employed to Justify the Revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s Autonomy and Its Bifurcation
Don Fitz
A Statue of Hatuey
Dean Baker
Unemployment Benefits Should Depend on the Pandemic
Ramzy Baroud – Romana Rubeo
Will the ICC Investigation Bring Justice for Palestine?
Sam Pizzigati
Social Distancing for Mega-Million Fun and Profit
Dave Lindorff
Private: Why the High Dudgeon over Alleged Russian Bounties for Taliban Slaying of US Troops
George Wuerthner
Of Fire and Fish
Binoy Kampmark
Killing Koalas: the Promise of Extinction Down Under
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail