The Clash Between the UK and EU Over Northern Ireland is a Precursor to Confrontations That will Last Decades

Image Source: Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) – CC BY-SA 2.5

“Get your retaliation in first,” is a cynical old saying in Northern Irish politics that means you hit your opponent whenever you can without waiting for a provocation. It neatly captures the violent traditions of the province and explains why the political temperature there is always close to boiling over.

Imagine then the pleasure of those unionists who had always opposed the Northern Ireland Protocol, which places the new EU/UK commercial frontier between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, to find that they had been genuinely provoked by the European Commission. In a classic cock-up, but one with grave and lasting consequences, Brussels had briefly called for a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, something it had repeatedly told Britain was an anathema because it would endanger the Good Friday Agreement and open the road to communal violence.

Yet here was a glaring example of the EU selfishly backtracking on its own warnings and fecklessly reopening one of the most explosive issues in European politics, the culpable purpose of this being to stop vaccines capable of saving the lives of British pensioners from being exported from the EU to the UK.

The Commission was instantly struck by a hail of abuse for its folly and it promptly withdrew the proposal with embarrassment, but for almost the first time in four years the EU was on the back foot in its relationship with Britain. No wonder Michael Gove was openly gloating as he told the House of Commons that the European Commission’s action had been condemned by everybody from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the former prime minister of Finland. And there was indeed some innocent pleasure to be had in watching somebody as poised and ostensibly competent as the Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, get quite so much egg on her face.

She had presumably miscalculated or ignored, as have so many politicians before her, the extreme combustibility of Northern Irish politics, or failed to notice how far they had already been inflamed by the creation of an Irish Sea EU/UK commercial border at the start of this year. Such flames are not be easily put out, whatever calming noises may come from Brussels, London and Dublin.

Port officials in Belfast and Larne, who actually conduct the border checks, have stopped working on the grounds that they fear for their safety. A piece of graffiti has appeared on a wall in Larne reading: “All Border Post Staff are Targets.” For weeks, the media had been full of stories about frustrated Northern Irish businesses facing ruin because of the new border checks.

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).