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Northern Ireland — bad timing

Opinion Piece

Four months ago Jonathan Powell warned that the “Good Friday” agreement of 1998 that ended 30 years of killing in Northern Ireland was at risk. “What worries me is the casual political vandalism. They really don’t seem to care (about) the damage they are doing to the very fragile political settlements in Northern Ireland.”

“They” are the British government led by Boris Johnson, who has never shown any concern for the subtle and delicate peace deal that former prime minister Tony Blair and Powell, his chief of staff, wove a quarter-century ago.

For the first time in Northern Ireland’s 101-year history, the election at the weekend saw Sinn Féin, a Catholic “nationalist” party that is pledged to unify Northern Ireland with the “Republic of Ireland” that occupies the rest of the island, win the largest number of seats.

This dismayed the three political parties that split the votes of the former Protestant ascendancy between them, but it didn’t surprise them. A higher Catholic birthrate has already produced a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland’s schools, and perhaps by now in the whole population as well.

But a lot of people in Northern Ireland are scared, and not just Protestants. Twenty-five years of peace is not long enough to forget the previous 30 years of what was effectively a civil war, when people only a few streets over might see you as the enemy and sectarian bombings and murders were a daily occurrence.

The old fears and hatreds are diminishing among the generation born since 1998 (and in some of their elders too). But many believe that it’s too soon to gamble on a peaceful transition to a post-sectarian all-Ireland republic.

It would only take a few dozen diehard “loyalists” (Protestants) to derail such a process: there are undoubtedly plenty of guns and explosives still hidden away. The militants would lose in the end, but only after a whole new wave of violence, fear and hatred.

Unfortunately, Northern Ireland may be starting down this road, because the Good Friday deal says that any Northern Irish government must be a power-sharing entity in which a “first minister” and a “deputy first minister” are drawn from the two biggest parties.

“Deputy” is just a word — the two ministers have exactly equal powers — but to Protestant hardliners it represents an intolerable demotion. In a deliberate act of sabotage, the biggest Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party, is refusing to accept the “deputy first minister” role.

The rules say that if no government can be formed, there must be another election within 12 weeks. If that doesn’t have a different outcome — and why should it? — then it’s back to the “direct rule” from London that prevailed before the Good Friday agreement. At which point the Catholic hardliners probably start mobilising too.

None of this is inevitable, but Brexit made it much more likely. The UK leaving the European Union automatically required the re-creation of a real border in Ireland between Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, still a member of the EU.

The magical part of the Good Friday deal was to make that border invisible: no customs check, no passports, nothing. So Catholic nationalists could pretend they lived in a united Ireland, while Protestant loyalists could pretend that “power-sharing” didn’t really mean things had changed. But when the UK left the EU, that fiction died.

To keep the border invisible, Johnson had to move it to the middle of the Irish Sea, leaving all of Northern Ireland in the customs union of the EU. The customs checks now happen on ships and aircraft coming from Britain to anywhere on the island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland.

The loyalists feel betrayed and abandoned, and they’re right. Secretly, most English politicians have wanted to unload them for decades, so unification will happen eventually. The problem with trying to do that now, before generational turnover has done its work, is that there may be one more round of violence before it happens.

Gwynne Dyer