Peace in Northern Ireland is in danger – Johnson’s lies and inaction offer no help
Jonathan Powell, Observer, Apr 11 2021
Jonathan Powell was chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997-2007

Fires in Belfast on Apr 7 after youths petrol-bombed a bus.

The Northern Ireland conundrum over Brexit was always insoluble. As John Major and Tony Blair pointed out in the referendum campaign, if the UK left the single market and customs union there had to be a border somewhere, either on the island of Ireland or in the Irish Sea. In either case, someone’s rights were going to be hurt: nationalists or unionists. In Dec 2019, Boris Johnson opted to put the border in the Irish Sea to get his Brexit deal over the line. He then chose to lie about it, live on TV, saying there would be no border and that no one would have to fill in any forms. At first, the unionist response was muted. Arlene Foster even said NI had the best of both worlds.

At the beginning of this year, however, the truth began to seep through. Unionists realised it was they who had lost, as supermarket shelves developed gaps and it became impossible to buy English pot plants at garden centres. Unionists, who can be very literal and very moral, found it hard to believe that the British PM would have brazenly lied to them. Anger started to well up and the Loyalist Communities Council, whose launch I attended in 2015, warned of possible violence. The DUP saw support haemorrhaging to the Traditional Unionist Voice, a more radical unionist party, leaving Sinn Féin as the largest party in the polls in line to take the position of first minister in the elections next year. The DUP’s response was to demand that the NI protocol be axed. The violence didn’t happen straight away. But the anger was stoked by the decision of the Police Service of Northern Ireland not to prosecute republican leaders who had attended a large funeral for Bobby Storey, the former head of intelligence of the IRA, in contravention of Covid rules. There was therefore plenty of tinder when criminal elements in loyalism struck a match by putting children as young as 12 on to the streets to attack the police. Unionist political leaders, instead of supporting the police, called for the resignation of the chief constable, Simon Byrne. Things got dangerous when the rioting moved to interface areas and youths from the two communities started attacking each other. The death of Prince Philip has led loyalist leaders to call off the rioting, at least temporarily, but we cannot be certain the calm will continue, even if there is a pause. We are now going into the “white nights” of early summer and the marching season, when violence traditionally is at its worst. There is a way to avoid a long, hot summer but it requires political leaders to take four concrete steps or else we risk undoing all the good work of the 23 years since the Good Friday agreement.

First, we need an activist British government. It took Johnson a week to even issue a tweet on the violence. Just like his week’s delay in responding to Covid last March, this too could cost lives. The government – No 10 as well as the Northern Ireland Office, needs to work with the Irish to convene political leaders to draw a line under what has happened and encourage them all to take a responsible approach. Second, it is a mistake to ignore the loyalists. They have been left behind by the progress since the Good Friday agreement and lacked a political voice since the death of the charismatic leader David Ervine in 2007. The police need to find a more effective way of dealing with criminals in paramilitary organisations, but we should also reach out to those who want to take a political way forward, and they exist, and help them into the mainstream. The degree of deprivation in the loyalist enclaves in Belfast is staggering. The statistic that sticks in my head is that these ghettos have the lowest level of educational attainment in Europe. The government in Northern Ireland and the British government need a sustained focus on changing that. Third, the UK needs a new approach to the EU over the protocol. Instead of taking unilateral – and illegal – steps to delay implementing it while poking the EU in the eye, the government should try to work with it to make the protocol function in a light-touch way. Some in the commission fear Johnson’s intention is to demonstrate the protocol cannot work and force the EU to impose a border in the Celtic Sea between Ireland and the continent, effectively taking Ireland out of the single market. The problem for those unionists calling for the protocol to be scrapped is they need to propose an alternative and an acceptable one hasn’t been found in the last six years. So we have to make the protocol work and it is possible with pragmatism on both sides, particularly if the British agree to align phytosanitary standardsthat create most of the problems.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, we need to expand the middle ground so politics in NI is no longer a zero-sum game between the two traditions. Luckily, that is happening. At least 20% of the population now define themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist and the support for the Alliance party has been surging. Unionists are naturally afraid of being pushed into a united Ireland against their will as the result of demographic change and as the consequences of Johnson’s Brexit choice force them into the economic orbit of Brussels. A push for Scottish independence after the elections in May will accentuate that fear. A stronger centre could help de-dramatise the issue and remove the threat of a cliff-edge 48%/52% vote in a border poll, which would be everyone’s nightmare. It is undoubtedly the best way to draw the poison of identity out of politics in Northern Ireland. All this requires the British government to start paying attention to Northern Ireland rather than cynically using it. The worst problems in Ireland have always happened when Britain ignores it. And it means no more using it as a battering ram in a new post-Brexit conflict with the EU. Most of all, it means coming clean with the people of Northern Ireland about where they stand. The government can no longer claim clean hands if it fails to take these steps and the result of its political approach is the unravelling of peace in Northern Ireland.

Boris Johnson refuses calls for summit on violence in Northern Ireland
Toby Helm, Lisa O’Carroll, Michael Savage, Apr 11 2021

A burnt-out bus on the Shankill Road in west Belfast.

Boris Johnson’s government is resisting growing calls to hold a special crisis summit with Dublin to address rising tensions in Northern Ireland, amid growing international anxiety about a return to sectarian violence. The Observer has been told by senior sources that suggestions from Dublin to London that the crisis requires a high-level intergovernmental conference to help stabilise the situation have met with no enthusiasm on the British side. It is understood that Dublin strongly believes recent tensions and several nights of violence, as well as the breakdown of relations between Northern Irish parties, require the two governments to meet as a matter of urgency. A source said:

The view in Dublin is that the political leadership required to stabilise the situation is not going to come from within Northern Ireland right now. It needs to come from the two governments. Dublin believes that such a meeting would provide a very visible way to reassure people that the centre is going to hold.

Dublin wants a meeting to be held in Northern Ireland between the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, and the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, to address a series of issues that have reignited tensions, including trade and border problems caused by the Brexit deal struck by Boris Johnson. It is understood that calls for a special meeting, as provided for under the Good Friday agreement, were relayed through diplomatic channels late last week but were turned down by London. An insider said:

There is a fear of upsetting unionists, a worry that this would be seen as Dublin interfering too much in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

The Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said yesterday that political leaders must not allow Northern Ireland to “spiral back to that dark place of sectarian murders and political discord” after the region was marred by another night of disorder on Friday. On the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement 23 years ago, the taoiseach said:

There is a particular onus on those of us who currently hold the responsibility of political leadership to step forward and play our part and ensure that this cannot happen.

Police officers were injured as they came under attack in the loyalist Tiger’s Bay area in north Belfast on the eighth consecutive night of violence. A burning car was rammed against a police vehicle, and bins were set alight in the middle of the road, sparking fears that the violence would continue into the weekend. Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, said on Friday evening:

I’m worried about the weekend ahead. We all need to be very careful and very consciously try to do all we can to prevent this happening. I think there’s a strong role here for the two governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement. I made that point to Brandon Lewis this morning.

Lewis flew to Belfast for urgent talks with the five party leaders on the Northern Ireland executive on Friday but no statement was issued because of protocols surrounding the death of Prince Philip. On Thursday the White House expressed its concern, with Joe Biden calling for calm after what police described as the worst violence in Belfast for years. Writing in today’s Observer, Jonathan Powell, who was the chief British negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007, says Johnson lied about the effects of his Brexit deal and says the current return to violence requires statesmanship rather than gamesmanship. he writes:

All this requires the British government to start paying attention to Northern Ireland rather than cynically using it. The worst problems in Ireland have always happened when Britain ignores it. And it means no more using it as a battering ram in a new post-Brexit conflict with the EU. Most of all, it means coming clean with the people of Northern Ireland about where they stand. The government can no longer claim clean hands if it fails to take these steps and the result of its political approach is the unravelling of peace in Northern Ireland.

Labour is also calling on Johnson to set up a British-Irish intergovernmental conference, designed under the agreement as an “escape valve” to manage disagreement and tension. Louise Haigh, the shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said:

If he is serious about dialogue, the prime minister should revive the Good Friday agreement institutions which he has paid little attention to. Every moment of instability in Northern Ireland demands focus, attention and leadership from the prime minister. Boris Johnson must start showing that.

A scheduling of intergovernmental talks is unlikely to happen until a legal dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol between the EU and the UK is resolved. A roadmap on implementation of the protocol was delivered by the UK to Brussels on 31 March and technical talks are currently underway. On Friday Lewis made clear to Northern Ireland parties the the protocol would not be scrapped but communications around the resolution of the EU-UK dispute will need careful and strategic handling in the current febrile atmosphere in Belfast and elsewhere in the region.

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