AT A conference last week, I sat next to someone who works on peace and reconciliation projects in Northern Ireland. Her news was alarming. The mood on the streets of Belfast and Derry has changed over the past six months. The sectarian murals on the gable-ends have been updated; a troubling sense of tension has returned.
Amid all the shock at the Supreme Court’s monumental ruling that the Prime Minister gave unlawful advice to the Queen, something went largely unnoticed. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, announced that a hard border would return on the island of Ireland if Britain left the European Union without a deal. That was not a threat, he insisted — just an inevitable immediate consequence of Britain’s no-deal choice.
This is not good news. The Provisional IRA may be gone, but, as the death of Lyra McKee reminded us (News, 26 April), dissident Republicans remain and, although fewer in number, they are no less violent. The north-south border is a totem of their cause.
Professor Colin Harvey, of Queen’s University, Belfast, recently conducted a series of town-hall meetings across the border region. They suggest that Brexit could prove “profoundly destabilising”, with everyday disruption but also new motivation for the men of violence. Thorny issues of identity had been softened when both sides of the border were in the EU. Post-Brexit, the perception of the north as British and the south as Irish will re-harden.
English politicians have neglected Northern Ireland in three years of debate over Brexit. They have paid no heed to the fact that the EU played a critical part as the umbrella under which the Good Friday Agreement was able to bring an end to three decades of sectarian violence. The border communities who lived through years of fear have not forgotten that — and that is why, Professor Harvey suggests, people have been “retraumatised” by the prospect of no deal. It is, he says, “all bringing back terrible and desperate memories”.
The scandal is that the omission of peace in Ireland from the political considerations has not been merely a matter of neglect. Just before Boris Johnson became Conservative Leader, a YouGov poll of the Tory members who elected him showed that this tiny electorate were willing to destroy their own party, inflict significant damage to the economy, and risk Scottish independence and a united Ireland — so long as they secured an exit from the European Union.
All this could come to pass. The most recent all-Ireland poll has shown, for the first time, a one-point lead favouring Irish unification. Scottish independence feels nearer than before. The economy is in the balance. But the prospect of a return of violence to the streets of Ireland could be the gravest of the prospects that may lie ahead.
After the Supreme Court’s historic ruling, there is only one way out of the quagmire for Mr Johnson: he must secure a deal with the EU. That deal must offer a solution to the Irish-border question. His proposals for a unified single market for agriculture between Northern Ireland and the Republic will not be enough. All parties now need to concentrate their minds. Politicians ignore the prospect of a return to violence in Northern Ireland at our peril.