The UK’s Northern Irish Brexit Blues

Photograph Source: John Morton – CC BY 2.0

Northern Ireland has now become the focal point of the UK’s post-Brexit crisis.

While the connection between the more than a week of rioting by Protestant “Loyalists” and Brexit may not seem obvious, some, such as the Northern Ireland justice minister, Naomi Long, say the UK prime minister Boris “BoJo” Johnson’s “dishonesty” over the still-to-be-decided Brexit border has exacerbated the situation.

The protocol agreed between the EU and the UK fudged the issue of the land border between the UK-member Northern Ireland (NI) and the EU-member Republic of Ireland to NI’s south.

The Brexit deal put NI in a distinctive and somewhat anomalous position — legally part of the UK, but at the same time within the EU’s customs regime and part of the single market, with some exceptions, where trade is concerned.

This uncertainty over a nonstandard border between the Protestant-dominated NI and its neighbouring Catholic-majority Irish Republic has made more appealing the prospect of a united Ireland, primarily for economic reasons— such a reunion would confer the huge benefit of direct access to EU markets for NI, without the encumbrances involved in being tied to the UK.

NI is currently in the economic doldrums because of uncertainty over the UK-EU border issue.

At the same time, the merest prospect of a reunion with its Catholic neighbour alarms a significant part of the Protestant-majority NI.

NI’s Protestants would of course become a minority in a reunified Ireland, and many “Prots”, albeit of an increasingly older generation, would welcome the imposition of a hard border with its neighbour to the south, if only as an ever more redundant and forlorn symbol of NI’s ties to the UK.

BoJo was warned repeatedly (by the Biden administration no less) that any Brexit deal which compromised the Good Friday peace agreement between the two parts of Ireland would run the likelihood of jeopardizing that peace. These apprehensions are starting to be realized on the volatile streets of Belfast.

BoJo’s grovelling before Donald Trump showed how desperate he is for a UK-US trade deal to help replace trade lost when the UK left the EU. The pro-Irish Biden won’t offer BoJo the sniff of such a deal while the streets of Belfast are burning.

Meanwhile, the EU is taking legal action against the UK after the latter announced it will waive paperwork on food entering NI, an open breach of the Brexit agreement.

BoJo’s overwhelming electoral priority was securing a Brexit deal via any pretense under the Ukanian sun (those susceptible to omens may know that this sun is notorious for shielding itself behind rainy grey clouds, just read a novel by Dickens or Henry James?) — BoJo doesn’t give a rat’s posterior for maintaining peace in Ireland, nor for the greatly increased possibility of a push for independence on the part of the EU-supporting Scotland.

A few days ago, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said a fresh referendum on independence would impossible to resist should her party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), secure a majority in next month’s elections for the Scottish parliament.

Every opinion poll so far indicates the SNP will win this election.

The vagaries of its first-past-the-post electoral system ensure that UK general elections are largely determined by votes cast in England, and playing to the Brexit-inclined English electorate was BoJo’s overwhelming objective in the 2019 election.

The English chauvinist BoJo probably won’t lose any sleep over rioting in Belfast, there being for now no real likelihood that his whopping 80-seat parliamentary majority in Westminster (London) will be threatened by unrest in NI.

The ex-London mayor BoJo’s view of the political universe has always been somewhat London-centric, except perhaps when it comes to obtaining munificence, legally mind you, from shady Kremlin oligarchs and Gulf Sheikhs.

Responding to the unrest in Belfast, BoJo joined every other mainstream politician, British and Irish alike, in issuing his pro forma statement denouncing the criminality of thugs and hooligans, etc.

The violence in Belfast obscures for now the other drawbacks to the UK’s ramshackle Brexit deal.

Also contributing to the muddying of the economic impact of Brexit is the economic boost provided by the pent-up demand generated by the Covid lockdowns—with pubs, restaurants, and shops shuttered, and holiday travel vastly curtailed, Brits spent much less than usual, precipitating a retail crash and recession.

With the latest lockdown about to be lifted after a successful vaccination rollout, the expectation, especially in Downing Street, is that Brits will embark on a spending spree.

There are 2 counter-indications to this rosy scenario.

The first is that many Brits lost their jobs during the lockdowns, and these unfortunate individuals, if they obtain post-lockdown employment, will probably be paying-off debt rather than hitting the shopping malls.

The second is that none of the Brexit deal’s structural weaknesses will be removed by a burst of short-term household spending—there are only so many new cars, fridges, and flat-screen TVs a household needs or can afford.

The other distraction from any Brexit woes is the death of the queen’s husband, Prince Philip. All the UK mainstream media are giving this event saturation coverage, so much so that a growing number of Brits are turning off their TVs in sheer frustration. The Prince’s death has even eclipsed the Meghan Markle-Harry media drama as the cynosure of attention.

BoJo is benefitting (for now) from a vaccination “bounce”.

The latest Opinium poll for The Observer found that 44% now approve of the government’s Covid handling, with 36% disapproving. Overall, the poll recorded a 9-point lead for the Conservatives over Labour, the largest Tory lead since last May. This despite the fact that the UK’s death toll, just over 127,000, remains one of the highest in the world per 1000 of population.

Major events surrounding the royal family—births, marriages, funerals— usually provide a boost for the “king/queen and country” Conservatives.

If the Tories receive a helping hand from Philip’s death, Labour will be in deep trouble when local council elections take place in 3 weeks’ time.

The Tories have always had an electoral advantage from Ukania’s structurally unbalanced political system.

Now with the vaccination “bounce” and the royalist psychodrama (a hint here is provided by the BBC’S description of Philip as “the grandfather of the nation”) providing the Tories with yet another step-up the electoral ladder as “the nation’s grandfather’s” funeral takes place on live TV– there is talk in the media of the lacklustre Labour leader Keir Starmer being deposed from the party leadership should Labour receive its expected trouncing in the polls.

To think that in the 21st century, an advanced industrial country could have a fictive “grandfather of the nation” helping undermine the electoral prospects of its main opposition party!

In that country, to resort to a cliché, the surreal has now become its real.

The Northern Irish have of course experienced English surrealities for centuries, but then they have never really mattered for an England-dominated UK.

The riot has always been their voice, as it is now.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.