This is a translation of my April 2021 newspaper article in Nederlands Dagblad
The British government could not have been clearer about a potential border in the Irish Sea before December 2020 if it had tried. ‘No British Prime Minister will ever agree to this’, then-Prime Minister Theresa May proclaimed in 2018. ‘Over my dead body’, Boris Johnson said in August 2020 about the same topic. However, only four months later, that same man put his signature on a deal that necessitated exactly such a border.
Let there be no doubt about it in anyone’s mind: the unrest and violence that have been unleashed upon Northern Irish streets this year is due to Brexit only, and the sole responsibility for this lies with the British government. The explanation for this is simple: the Unionists were promised there wouldn’t be a border in the Irish Sea and the Irish Nationalists were promised there wouldn’t be a border on the Irish mainland. These promises could have been kept if the British had opted for a ‘soft Brexit’ with which all borders could have remained open. However, the Conservatives had also promised that the open borders with the European Union would become a thing of the past.
These promises wholly incompatible with each other; a ‘hard, open border’ is an absurd, impossible notion. The logical result is that one of the three promises had to be sacrificed; given how committed the British government are to restricting immigration and the fact that both the EU and USA have been very clear about not wanting a hard land border on the Irish mainland, it was clear which promise had to be sacrificed. The result is that the Unionists feel betrayed by the British government.
How can this problem be solved? Looking at the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, an important part of the solution was the fact that borders on all sides were opened. In 2021, this (obvious) solution is simultaneously one of the most impossible solutions, as it will require the partial or complete undoing of Brexit which the British government will never agree to.
If we may believe many Brexiteers, the answer lies in the removal of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit deal, which stipulates that a customs border in the Irish Sea is required. However, this will not solve the problem at all; removing this customs border will only result in the return of a hard border on the Irish mainland which will almost certainly result in violence from the Irish Nationalist side. Furthermore, the EU and the USA are likely to mount large diplomatic pressure on the UK should it decide to go through with this. All in all, the UK government has put itself in an impossible position, and while (primarily) Unionist youngsters throw rocks and molotov cocktails at the police every day, the Conservative government has decided to do nothing. Boris Johnson voiced his ‘concerns’ on Twitter, but has so far failed to show his face in Belfast.
Doing nothing and hoping that the problem with solve itself is not a solution; it will only serve to make the situation much worse. The immediate danger is that the violence will be grab hold of all sides to such a degree that paramilitary organisations will resume the armed conflict. With The Troubles still fresh in our memories (along with its 3,500 killed and 50,000 wounded) it is clear that this must be prevented at all costs. The only remaining hope for the Northern Irish peace process is a large peace summit, where the British and Irish governments, the Northern Irish political parties and perhaps the EU will open talks. After the broken promises by the British governments, the Unionists will need more than meaningless words from the UK government. Likewise, the Irish Nationalists must be ensured by all parties that the border with the Republic of Ireland will remain open.
A possible avenue into easing the tensions is by investing a great deal of money and attention into the Northern Irish economy and standard of living (on both sides), given that the region is in the top 10 of poorest areas in Northern Europe. The lack of perspective will drive people into the arms of paramilitary organisations quicker, and an improved economy could work as a preventative tool.
But still, this is likely to be wishful thinking. After 23 years of peace, it is abundantly clear that the conflict is still very much alive in the hearts of many Northern Irish people. With Unionists willing to fight for their loyalist cause and Irish Nationalists seeing a real possibility for Irish reunification, the future looks bleak.