Northern Ireland is turning into a failed state in a permanent condition of crisis, something which is being ignored by Boris Johnson as he and his ministers strut about the capitals of Europe giving speeches about defusing the crisis in Ukraine.
Yet when Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), pulled it out of the devolved government in Northern Ireland last week, collapsing the power sharing administration, Johnson made no comment. That should not have caught anybody by surprise, as the British Government’s actions and inactions over the past couple of years had already gone far to degrade the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 which brought an end to the violence.
Given that Sinn Féin is likely to emerge as the largest party in May’s Assembly election, and the DUP is opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol, a power sharing executive in Belfast may never be resurrected. The delicate compromise between unionist and nationalists, Protestants and Catholics, which was one of the historic successes of British diplomacy, is falling apart and the British Government shows little sign of taking notice.
Alan Whysall, an ex-civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office now at the Constitution Unit, a blog on the politics of Northern Ireland, writes that the “Westminster government has, over the last two years, appeared to many to have been willing to see division develop over the Protocol for its own reasons. It has seemed to move far from the traditional role of successive British governments of working to foster constructive politics in Northern Ireland, in close partnership with Dublin.”
Whysall says that if the British Government “does not change its approach markedly, it is hard to have any great confidence that power sharing government can be restored – and once gone, given the present conditions of polarisation, it will be much harder to get back […] The foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement are at serious risk of crumbling.”
By choosing to make the Protocol the main bone of contention with the EU, Johnson destabilised Northern Ireland politics. The DUP had once grudgingly accepted the Protocol, but found that this lost it political support among unionists – not least because Johnson and Lord Frost, then the chief negotiator with the EU, said that it could and should be changed because it placed a trade barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain.
“The British government weaponised unionist opposition to the Protocol early last year,” Brian Feeney, a historian and commentator in Belfast told me. “At the same time, it stopped talking to the Irish government.” Though the key partner in the Good Friday Agreement, many Tory MPs do not like the idea of Dublin playing a role because of “their fetishism over national sovereignty”.
Come June last year, the situation had got so bad that President Joe Biden told the US charge d’affaires in London to deliver an extraordinary rebuke to the British Government, telling it to stop “inflaming” tensions over the Protocol. Nevertheless, Johnson was back in business earlier this month declaring that he might suspend post-Brexit customs checks between Northern Ireland and the mainland.
He will not, in fact, do anything of the kind because France and the EU have said they will suspend the entire Brexit trade deal in retaliation. But his threat to do so further poisons the political waters in Northern Ireland. If a British Prime Minister says that the Protocol does indeed threaten the unity of the UK, then they are going to believe him.
Unionist fear that the Protestant community in Northern Ireland is under threat is high, and not only because they feel the link with Britain is weakening. They know that when the next census is published later this year, it may show that they are no longer the majority of the population or that the two communities are now equal in numbers. The majority of school children and students are already Catholics.
This demographic transformation will increasingly determine the outcome of elections. Already Protestants are moving house in large numbers from places with growing Catholic populations. This is concentrating Protestants more to the counties of Antrim and North Down, while Belfast is now very much a nationalist city.
Nationalist-controlled councils offer to display the symbols of both communities, but when this is routinely turned down by unionists, no symbols are put up. Yet this absence is felt by Protestants to reflect the loss of “a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State”, as the Protestant monopoly of power was once described by the Northern Ireland Prime Minister of the day, Sir James Craig.
The unionist/Protestant mistake was not to hug close the power sharing state created by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement which fixed in place the status of their community whose real power is in decline. Had that new state been a success then it would be more difficult for Sinn Féin to demand unity with the Irish Republic.
The DUP, whatever they said in public, never liked the agreement and thought that they could effectively neuter it by backing Brexit which they believed would mean a revived hard border with the Irish Republic.
DUP leaders, who congratulated themselves on their hard-headedness, naively believed the pledge of Boris Johnson that never would he assent to a trade border down the Irish Sea – something that he promptly did after winning the general election in 2019.
By supporting Brexit, the DUP inflicted on themselves a classic bit of political self-harm. For a century, Irish governments had periodically tried and failed to interest the world in the question of Irish Partition, but now the DUP had turned the 310-mile long Irish border into an international issue with which every government in Europe and the US is familiar.
The DUP discovered late in the day that the Conservative Party did not care much about them. Earlier this month, DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr was lamenting to an almost empty House of Commons that the Conservatives were in reality “an English nationalist party”. He noted that Johnson had not uttered a word about the collapse of the Northern Ireland administration, which had occurred days earlier.
“Does this mean there could be a return to violence?”, people often ask fearfully. The answer is probably not, or at least not for the moment, but you can never quite tell in Northern Ireland where a couple of sectarian killings could change the whole political atmosphere overnight.
What can be said at this stage is that one of the great achievements of the British government since 1945 has been allowed to drain away, primarily by the Boris Johnson Government, though his predecessors also played a role. The power sharing agreement in Northern Ireland was once presented to the world as a shining example of British statecraft which other countries should follow. But no longer: the ignorance and prejudices of Johnson and his lieutenants have helped reawaken fears that might gradually have died away.
I was sitting in a cafe in heavily nationalist West Belfast three years ago when a local radio reporter came in looking for residents to interview about the effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland. She said that the impact was already massive, adding: “Stupid, stupid English for getting us into this pickle. We were doing nicely and then they surpassed themselves [in stupidity].” The pickle is about to get a lot worse.
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