Troubles in the Irish Sea: Brexit Continues to Test Britain’s Forbearance

The critics of Brexit are rejoicing their deft prophecies. The referendum held in 2016 dismissed a handful of issues, deemed them mere redundant, only to leave them festering for the long-term reality post severance from the European Union (EU). However, neither the critics nor the defendants expected the consequences to follow in such a short period. Months after the much-anticipated exit from one of the world’s most illustrious economic blocs, the United Kingdom faces an uphill battle on multiple fronts: externally and within the Kingdom. An outcry for a second independence referendum in Scotland, renewed calls for seceding the Gibraltar territory, and even the looming financial distress; various issues are now pushing Great Britain under duress. However, a key anomaly is the brewing tension in Northern Ireland.

A protocol that was signed rather hastily, as if to quickly draft a withdrawal strategy, now poses an existential threat to the order of Westminster as alienation is reigning the region for the first time in over a centurial course of domination by Great Britain. And while the ground reality exudes no hostility, it is only a matter of time before a tussle ignites, fulled by the pilling resentment of a decades-long conflict: only this time directed towards England perverse to its historical lineage.

The roots of the tempering situation today go back to the early 20th century. In the aftermath of the outbreak of World War I, while most of the Irish population remained loyal to British rule, the stout Catholic Nationalists rebelled against Britain in 1916. The execution of the rebels by the British forces led to a fissure that soon bifurcated the sentiments in Ireland. The North – predominantly comprised of Loyalist Protestants – celebrated the execution of the rebels whereas the South – dominated by the Catholic community – sympathized with the nationalist agenda of the rebels. Following World War I, guerrilla campaigns emerged in the South as Catholic Nationalists started their struggle for an Independent Ireland. The Anglo-Irish war rivaled the South against the North as loyalists resisted the nationalist struggle for independence from Great Britain.

Under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, the United Kingdom tried to unify the conflicting communities of the Loyalist Protestants and the Nationalist Catholics. Yet, the nationalists continued to launch campaigns to detach Ireland as an Independent state, liberated from British rule. The struggle eventually weighed heavily on the Kingdom leading to the creation of the Irish state: comprising of 26 catholic-dominant counties in the South. Though the Irish Free State existed under British rule, the South eventually parted as the Republic of Ireland in 1949.

However, the border mishap shaped the conflict for decades to follow. Irregular partition plan left a few Catholic-majority counties in Northern Ireland, fuelling resentment as the Protestant-Unionists drafted discriminatory policies for the state; oppressing the Catholic minority to exact revenge. Similarly, the Catholic-Nationalist regime of the Irish Republic heavily influenced its constitution with a Nationalist agenda envisioning a future of unified Ireland. The conflicting ideologies resulted in three decades of violence between the Unionists and the Nationalists: notoriously known as The Troubles.

Probably one of the most harbored resolves came in the form of the power-sharing accord, renowned as the Good Friday Agreement, in 1998. The agreement led to the dissolution of physical borders between the North and South, eradicated violence between the butting Unionists and Nationalists, and presumably solved the problem sowed decades ago. However, despite the historic agreement, the UK exiting the European Union threatened the bargain as Britain failed to account for equity. Resultantly, the Brexit deal poses a passage for violence to return but transfiguring in a rather unique proposition.

In order to retain the Good Friday Agreement, that is, to avoid any increased surveillance and re-erecting borders between the North and the South, the Northern Ireland Protocol was added to the Brexit Agreement. The Irish Protocol entails that the Northern Ireland Peace Deal would be respected, provided that checks are placed on trade between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland. Simply put, the goods entering to and fro between the UK and Northern Ireland are now subject to checks and regulations, over-sighted by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, to enjoy an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The protocol was inserted as a safeguard against the prospect of a resurgence of violence between the dueling sides if physical borders were to re-structure. While the regulation of trade was easier when the UK was a part of the single EU market, Brexit complicates matters beyond expectations. While many expected the complexity of the matter at hand – Northern Ireland being a non-EU member and subject to inspections unlike the Irish Republic (still a member of the EU) – hardly anyone expected the pervading feelings of betrayal and growing hostility within the peripheries of the North.

Many of the Unionist-Protestants have addressed the Irish Protocol as a betrayal from Great Britain since, unlike Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland now faces an imaginary border in the Irish Sea – a mark of separation from Great Britain and a symbolic step closer to the aspirations of the Nationalist-Catholics of a unified Ireland. The inauguration of the customs border in the Irish Sea sparked a Unionist protest in Belfast which led many scrambling in the echelons of England. The clashing Protestants argue that the Irish Protocol is an abomination as it breaches the Good Friday Agreement. In the perspective of the Unionists, the protocol does sketch a line separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the Kingdom which is proclaimed as a customs check yet symbolizes inequity within the Kingdom. While Scotland and Wales continue to trade boundless with England, Northern Ireland would be continually adherent to checks and regulations as if a separate state instead of an offshoot of the UK.

UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried to make amends and provide some semblance to the baffling situation. However, he fell short in his efforts and ended up reiterating that Northern Ireland is still a part of the UK much like Wales and Scotland. His frustration was clearly visible as he made half-witted attempts to blame the EU for implementing the protocol rather harshly. The Conservative party, however, betrayed his effort to consolidate a unified stance over the issue. The Party extended support to the Unionists, acknowledging that the Irish Protocol must be re-negotiated into the Brexit’s Irish Customs Provision. The European Union, however, has been terse yet straightforward regarding its position on the matter. While it assured of implementing the terms of the Protocol exactly as negotiated by the Johnson regime, the EU insinuated that it would not re-negotiate any provision and would resort to levying heavy fines on the UK if it attempts to unilaterally bypass the Protocol.

The situation, thus, is dire but not yet catastrophic. Any sane mind would attest that the EU would not resort to upholding the Protocol if violence erupts between the North and the South. Nor would the UK hesitate to use Article 16 to suspend the Irish Protocol entirely. However, calls for an Independence referendum are emerging in Northern Ireland, echoing the demands of Scotland. This is where the fear dens. One could only predict that the ominous silence of the protestants implies patience over their loyalty to Great Britain. However, this proposition fails to sustain. Mr. Roy Montgomery, a former Irish Representative to the EU, stated: “Trust in the British government’s good faith, never high, is now minimal on all sides in Northern Ireland”. If his words are relied upon then neither a unified Ireland nor a rebelling North seems a farfetched reality. It would be ironic, however, as the impending doom of Great Britain would go down in history as a self-etched downfall.

Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
The author is a political and economic analyst. He focuses on geopolitical policymaking and international affairs. Syed has written extensively on fintech economy, foreign policy, and economic decision making of the Indo-Pacific and Asian region.