It took 30 years of violence during the euphemistically termed ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, at the cost of more than 3,500 lives, before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement enabled the more than twenty years of peace that followed. It took all of three months from the end of the one-year Brexit transition period on December 31st for the petrol bombs to start being hurled again, and buses and cars in Northern Ireland to start being torched. It is reported that more than ninety policemen in Belfast and elsewhere have been injured in the riots over the past couple of weeks. A quaintly deferential pause has been called by the ‘loyalists’ to the escalation of what is rapidly becoming a deeply worrying conflict between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the great divide in recognition of the week of mourning following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, but this ‘truce’ has no more chance of lasting than the unofficial truce that broke out on the Western Front at Christmas in 1914. Boris Johnson can’t pretend he wasn’t warned.
Northern Ireland was always going to be the single intractable and ultimately irresolvable problem with Brexit. As the legacy of slavery hangs over the United States, and to a somewhat lesser extent over us, so the legacy still endures of the ‘planting’ of Protestants in the north of Catholic Ireland that began some three hundred years ago. As long as Northern Ireland remained one of the four component parts of the United Kingdom, and Ireland remained part of the European Union, the former’s departure from the EU was going to have to result in a border of some description between the two if the EU was going to be able to maintain the integrity of its trading standards. It was abundantly clear that a land border of any description would inevitably, and very quickly, put the fragile peace accord of the Good Friday Agreement in serious jeopardy. So Boris Johnson, very late in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, adopted what seemed to be the lesser of two evils and agreed to a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain down the Irish Sea.
One minor problem with this solution was that Johnson had visited Northern Ireland the previous August and assured the political and business communities, hand on heart, that access to the markets the other side of the Irish Sea would remain entirely unfettered: ‘There will be no border down the Irish Sea, that will happen over my dead body.’ Whether this was a deliberate, bare-faced lie, like some many of his others – his conscience and any ethical sense he might ever have had were dead and buried long ago, even if his body hasn’t yet followed their example – or whether he simply hadn’t bothered to look at, or think through, the detail, is immaterial. Trade in both directions is fettered; many businesses in Great Britain have decided it isn’t worth the hassle to continue to deliver to Northern Ireland; the supermarket shelves there are depleted; and unionists, in particular, understandably feel betrayed.
Even as the petrol bombs exploded and the police were trying to quell the rioting last week there was little indication that Downing Street gave much of a damn about what was going on. Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, went to the verbal extreme of declaring that the injuries to the ninety-odd policemen were ‘unacceptable’. But I suspect that for all his protestations of devotion to the United Kingdom Boris Johnson himself, ensconced as King of his Little England castle, just doesn’t care about what happens to those he probably thinks of as the ‘Paddies’ and ‘Micks’ of Ireland, precious few of whom ever got to Eton. Ireland, like France, is the other side of a stretch of water and full of people who, because they aren’t part of England, are all essentially foreigners, even if the ‘loyalists’ don’t agree, and even if they all speak a version of the Queen’s English. But Johnson would do well to remember that, with Biden now President of the United States, if the Good Friday Agreement goes up in flames, which seems pretty well inevitable if Johnson keeps on down the path he is taking at present, any hopes of a trade deal with the United States, supposedly the one big, fat prize of Brexit (however deluded that ambition was in the first place) will be consumed to ashes by those very same flames.