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Northern Ireland

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The Brexit Border Backstop

The other Europeans are not laughing at the English for the most part. They are looking at them with pity and scorn. But also with a great deal of impatience.

On Tuesday the British parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s ‘deal’ for Britain’s exit (‘Brexit’) from the European Union, painfully negotiated over more than two-and-a-half years, by an overwhelming 149-vote majority.

It was the second time parliament, including a large chunk of her own Conservative Party, rejected the deal she made with the EU last November. And the main reason both times was the so-called ‘backstop’: a commitment by May’s government to avoid a hard border in Ireland at all costs.

Today (I am writing on Wednesday), the British parliament will also reject a proposal that Britain just leave the EU without a deal. ‘Crashing out’ would mean instant customs barriers at the United Kingdom’s port, airports and land borders, with immense disruption of trade including food imports and industrial supply chains. It would be an economic disaster.

On Thursday, once that option is foreclosed, the British parliament will vote on asking the EU for a postponement of the departure date (currently scheduled for the 29th of this month). That vote will almost certainly pass, but neither the government nor parliament can even agree on how long a postponement to ask for.

If your local daycare was this feckless, you’d move your children at once.

The EU will probably grant the United Kingdom a delay to avoid a ‘no-deal Brexit’, but there will be no more negotiations: the delay would only be to give May time to sort out the politics of getting her deal through. It will be a long delay, not just a few weeks, because nobody believes she can do that quickly (if at all). And it will require the consent of all the EU’s 27 other national leaders.

It’s all about the ‘backstop’. That’s why parliament won’t pass May’s deal, and it’s why the EU refuses to re-negotiate it.

May’s November deal with the EU promised that the United Kingdom would stay in the existing customs union with the EU, and also remain closely aligned with the ‘single market’ that guarantees the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour across the whole EU – until and unless the two parties negotiate an alternative arrangement that keeps the inter-Irish border unpoliced and almost unmarked.

If you drive the 500-km. border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, the road crosses it dozens of times (there are 270 vehicle crossings). The only way you know you have crossed the border again is that speed limits are posted in kilometres in the republic, but in miles in the North.

But for 30 years during the ‘Troubles’ (1969-1999), which saw 3,000 people killed in a province of less than two million people, the border was a war zone. British soldiers, of whom hundreds died there, called it ‘bandit country’.

The killing ended with the ‘Good Friday agreement’ of 1999, which managed to achieve a compromise between the Protestants of Northern Ireland (who feel British) and the Catholics (who mostly identify as Irish). There would be power-sharing at government level, and the border with the Republic would become invisible. The Irish nationalists in the North could even have Irish passports instead of British ones.

Brexit is almost entirely an English nationalist project – Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted to remain in the EU – and the Brexiteers just ignored the fact that leaving the EU would sabotage the Good Friday deal by creating a hard border in Ireland. There would have to be customs officers and passport checks, or else there would be huge amounts of smuggling and an uncontrolled flow of illegal migrants.

But a hard border would bring the war back, even though most people don’t want it. The population on the UK side of the border is overwhelmingly Catholic, and any attempt to control the border without putting officials on it will fail: the local people will just destroy the cameras and other sensors.

But put in customs officials, and you will need police to protect them – and soon enough you will need soldiers to protect the police. Welcome to the Troubles, volume two.

So the Irish government demanded that the border stay open and invisible. It is and will remain a member of the EU, so that became EU policy. Which means Northern Ireland (and therefore all the rest of the UK) must stay in the customs union until someone comes up with a magical method for controlling the border invisibly.

That’s why the ‘backstop’ was necessary, and Theresa May accepted that when she signed the deal last November. But she cannot sell it to her own party’s hard-line Brexiteers, let alone to the other parties in parliament. Magical thinking still rules, and the arrogance is as breathtaking as the ignorance.

What happens next? Nobody has any idea.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 7. (“The other…impatience”; and “The EU…leaders”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Irish Border

History never leaves Ireland alone. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the lethal alliance of the Conservative Party in Britain and the Unionist Party, which represented the Protestant minority in Ireland, made it impossible for the British parliament to pass a Home Rule Bill for Ireland.

A Home Rule Bill might have let the two countries take their distance peacefully and gradually, while retaining close links – or maybe not, but it was worth a try. Instead came the Easter Rebellion of 1916, the Irish War of Independence, the partition of the island between the independent Republic and Northern Ireland (part of the UK), the Irish Civil War, and three decades of terrorist war in Northern Ireland that only ended 20 years ago.

Well, the Conservatives and the Unionists are back in coalition now, and another war is brewing on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. At the moment it’s practically an invisible frontier, with no border posts or customs checks, because both the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic belong to the European Union. Brexit, however, will put an end to that, and probably to peace as well.

In principle, Britain flouncing out of the EU shouldn’t hurt anybody except the British themselves, but the UK’s Irish border is a nightmare. Prime Minister Theresa May has sworn a mighty oath that the United Kingdom will leave both the ‘single market’ and the customs union, but that will turn this ‘soft’ frontier into a ‘hard’ EU border with a non-EU country: border guards, customs checks, passports, queues and all the rest.

What made the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 possible was the promise that the border between the two Irelands would practically disappear, which allowed the Catholic nationalists of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to believe that their war had not been just a futile struggle that killed 3,000 people. They could dream that with all the coming and going across an open border, the two parts of Ireland would grow closer and eventually reunite.

Recreate a hard border and they will feel cheated. Not all the militants of the IRA will pick up their guns again, but some almost certainly will. It was very hard to stop the first time, and there is no particular reason why a renewed war couldn’t last another thirty years and kill thousands more.

Presumably Theresa May does not want to see this, and the EU recently offered her a way out. If you must go, they said, then leave the inner Irish border open and put your customs and immigration controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (which are conveniently separated by the Irish Sea).

Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs union and nobody would be stopped at its land border with the Republic. Customs and immigration checks would only happen at Northern Irish ports and airports, when people or goods have crossed or are going to cross the Irish Sea. It makes as much sense as anything can within the context of Brexit – but May has to reject it.

She must reject that offer because she lost her parliamentary majority in the election she needlessly called last June, and remains in power only thanks to the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party – i.e., the hard-line Protestants of Northern Ireland. And the DUP, always terrified that Britain will abandon them, simply will not allow any kind of border, however soft, to be put between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

May cannot defy the DUP on this or her government will fall – and the Conservatives would probably lose the subsequent election, putting her nemesis, the dreaded Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, in power.

However, if May insists on leaving the EU customs union, there will have to be a ‘hard’ border – and if there is, says Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, he will veto any negotiations between the EU and the UK on a free trade deal after it leaves the Union.

Theresa May is finally cornered, and the United Kingdom may end up ‘crashing out’ of the EU with no deal at all. The UK can then spend the next decade trying to renegotiate on less favourable terms the 59 trade deals it now enjoys with other countries as a member of the EU – and, more likely than not, dealing with a renewed IRA insurgency in Northern Ireland.

Or May could aim for a deal that keeps the UK in the customs union. Then the border would remain open, and there would be no Irish veto, and a reasonable deal on post-Brexit trade would be possible. But that would split the Conservative Party, and avoiding that is far more important to her than all these other issues.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Northern…it”)

Northern Ireland

Martin McGuinness, who began as a terrorist and ended up as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, died peacefully in hospital on Monday aged 66. His career spanned almost five decades in the history of that small but troubled place – and by resigning from the power-sharing government in January, he began a new and possibly final act in that long-running drama.

If it really is the last act in the Northern Irish tragedy, leading eventually to some form of “joint sovereignty” over Northern Ireland by the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, then there may be some more blood spilled before the end. That would not have bothered McGuinness, for all his latter-day reputation as a man of peace.

As a Catholic born in Derry, Northern Ireland’s second city, McGuinness grew up believing that Britain must be driven out of Ireland and that the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland must be forced to accept unification with the Irish Republic. But the burning issue when he was a young man was the oppression of Northern Irish Catholics by the Protestant majority.

The initial Catholic protests against that in the mid-1960s were non-violent, but McGuinness (aged 21) was already the second-in-command of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Derry at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 14 civil rights protesters were killed in the city by British soldiers.

The Provisional IRA exploited atrocities like that to convert the Catholics’ non-violent struggle for civil rights into a guerilla war employing terrorist tactics and aiming for unification with Ireland. McGuinness was one of the foremost advocates of violence, and quickly rose to become the IRA’s chief of staff.

He claimed to leave the IRA in 1974 in order to enter politics (which made it possible for him to talk to the British authorities), but all local observers agree that he remained a senior IRA operational commander at least down to the end of the 1980s. As such, he was probably responsible for such IRA innovations as “human bombs” (not to be confused with suicide bombs).

In 1990, for example, Patsy Gillespie, a Catholic civilian who worked as a cook at a British army base, was abducted by the IRA and strapped into a van packed with 450 kg of explosives. While his family was held hostage, he was ordered to drive the van to a British army check-point – whereupon the bomb was detonated, killing Gillespie and five British soldiers.

In all, the IRA killed 1,781 people during the period when McGuinness was a senior commander, including 644 civilians, and McGuinness was probably involved in the decision-making on half of those attacks. Fintan O’Toole, a columnist in the Irish Times, recently called him a “mass killer”.

But if so, he was a pragmatic mass killer. When it became clear in the 1990s that the campaign of violence was not delivering the results McGuinness had hoped for, he was open to peaceful compromise, at least until circumstances improved. He played a key role in persuading most of the more dedicated IRA killers to accept the power-sharing government embodied in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

As the leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, in Northern Ireland, McGuinness became the Deputy First Minister of the province, sharing power with the biggest Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). He was seen as a calm, constructive politician during his ten years in office – but he never lost sight of his ultimate goal.

When he resigned in January, he had two excellent pretexts for doing so. First, he knew that he was dying (from a rare heart condition). Second, First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP and his partner in office, was entangled in a profoundly embarrassing energy scandal but was stubbornly refusing to step aside.

However, McGuiness was also well aware that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in last June’s referendum created new possibilities in Northern Ireland (which voted heavily to stay in the EU).

The open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic depends on both countries being part of the EU. When Britain leaves it will almost inevitably become a “hard” border that controls the movement of both goods and people. That would greatly anger the Catholic of Northern Ireland, and if Sinn Fein goes on refusing to appoint a deputy prime minister then no new power-sharing government is possible either.

There was an unscheduled election early this month that produced no movement from Sinn Fein, and another may be called at the end of next week. But there is no sign that either Sinn Sein or the DUP will budge, and in the end Britain may be obliged to re-impose “direct rule” from London on Northern Ireland, which would anger Catholics even more.

McGuinness was probably not hoping for a return to violence, but he was undoubtedly open to it if necessary. Solving the border issue will require creative thinking all round, and could lead to outcomes the IRA and Sinn Fein would welcome – like joint British-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland. A little violence could help to stimulate that kind of thinking.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“He claimed…soldiers”)

Basque Terrorism: As Good As It Gets

18 August 2009

Basque Terrorism: As Good As It Gets

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s still a nest of terrorists around here, but nobody worries about it much. These days, when you hear a helicopter at night it’s only the medevac chopper bringing some urgent case down to the main hospital at Bayonne on the coast.

In the bad old days, the helicopter you heard would have been using infrared detectors to spot Basque terrorists heading across the mountains at night into Spain. This south-western corner of France is just as Basque as the much larger Basque-speaking provinc es of Spain, but ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Land and Liberty) always used France as a safe rear area and did its actual killing across the frontier.

The terrorists are still around, and they enjoy a certain amount of local support. Last Saturday was the summer festival in our local town, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (or Donibane Garazi, in Basque), and everybody for miles around was drinking and dancing in the square below the citadel, waiting for it to get dark enough for the fireworks to begin. Suddenly banners were unfurled on the city walls: “Kidnapped? Tortured? Murdered? Where is Jon?”

So you ask, and it turns out that everybody knows who Jon is. He’s a local man, universally believed to be an ETA member, who got on a train to Toulouse but never arrived. Everybody also believes that he was carrying a large sum of money for ETA, which leads nasty cynics like myself to contemplate several alternative possible reasons for his disappearance, but local opinion is convinced that it was the state that got him.

Yet local opinion is not really very upset about it. Most people don’t care much whether the French police seized or killed Jon, or if somebody else robbed and killed him, or even if he just decided to disappear and live on the proceeds. It’s all part of the game that some play on the fringes of society, and they are welcome to play it as long as they don’t frighten the horses.

Across the border in Spain, where the killing happens, people take ETA much more seriously, and there is less sympathy for the killers among Spanish Basques than among French Basques. But there is also irreducible hard core of support for the extreme nationalist option. Spain does not let political parties that openly support terrorism run in national elections, but when a radical Basque party was allowed to run in the June elections for the European parliament it got 140,000 votes.

That’s only five percent of the population in those provinces. The terrorist struggle for Basque independence has so few supporters because the Basque provinces of Spain already have almost complete control over their own affairs. But that tiny minority of hard-liners is enough to sustain the armed struggle forever.

The “struggle” has killed 825 people over the past forty years, including three police killed by ETA bombs and sixty people injured by a truck bomb in Burgos this summer. There have been three cease-fires over the years, the last in 2006, but they never lead to a final deal because there is a small but steady supply of young people who cannot resist the lure of extremism. It gives meaning to their little lives.

But even on the Spanish side of the frontier, where there are deaths from terrorism every year, few people see it as a dominant factor in their lives. It’s just background noise, like the daily toll from traffic accidents.

The French police now cooperate closely with their Spanish counterparts in trying to catch the ETA militants who shelter in the French Basque provinces, but even when they didn’t, nobody in Spain suggested invading France to stamp out the terrorist sanctuaries. That would be grotesquely disproportionate, like invading Afghanistan to protect Americans from Arab terrorists.

The ETA story, like that of the IRA in Northern Ireland, teaches us three things. The first is that you don’t need a territorial “base” to carry out terrorist attacks; an isolated farmhouse or an anonymous city apartment will do. The second is that you should treat terrorism like any other crime: use the police to track the perpetrators down, and don’t inflate the whole problem enormously by getting the army involved.

The third is that you must not expect a decisive victory. When we talk about a “war on crime”, we do not expect all the criminals to come out one day with their hands up, after which there will be no more crime. Success is defined in terms of keeping the crime RATE down. Success in anti-terrorist operations has to be seen in similar terms, and anybody who promises you more is lying.

Eight years of the “war on terror” have created a huge military, corporate and bureaucratic lobby in the United States whose livelihood depends on a highly militarised approach to terrorism, so it will be a long time before a saner strategy prevails in Washington. Britain’s learning curve in Northern Ireland was thirty years long, and Russia has learned nothing yet in Chechnya. But people generally do the right thing in the end – after they have exhausted all the alternatives.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The struggle…accidents”)