In The Irish Times on Monday 1st April 2019 Eoin McNamee discussed why there should not be a return to a hard border between the Irish republic and the North of Ireland post-Brexit. The article covers events when the hard border was in place during the 1968-1998 Troubles, recounting how armed British soldiers boarded school buses conveying schoolchildren between schools between the border, the Provisional IRA (PIRA) planting improvised explosive devices at border points targeting British soldiers and the violence and shootings by PIRA and the British Army. With the UK getting closer to leaving the EU there is uncertainty as to whether there will be a soft Brexit allowing for the retention of the freedom of movement of people goods and services or a hard Brexit. A hard Brexit will result in a hard border between the UK and the only land border it has with an EU Member State, Ireland.
Reading McNamee’s article many may think recounting border incidents during the Troubles is an exaggeration of what could happen should there be a hard border. After all there has been peace in the whole of Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Unfortunately this view is one held by the British, not the Irish. Anyone who has studied and kept up-to-date with events in the UK’s six counties in the North of Ireland since the 2016 EU Referendum will know sectarian violence has returned to the country.
Formed in September 2016 the Irish republican party, Saoradh was formed at its first ard fheis and is an amalgamation of the republican groups the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (the political wing of the former Real IRA), Republican Network for Unity and the 1916 Society. As Saoradh has been backed by PIRA’s founder, Billy McKee and the New IRA (formed in 2012 through an amalgamation of the Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs and disaffected former Provisionals), it is believed that Saoradh is the New IRA’s political wing. Saoradh’s main aims includes:
- The end of British rule in the North of Ireland;
- An end of power sharing in the Assembly in Stormont, Belfast;
- An end to the GFA;
- An end to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (who Saoradh still refer to as the Royal Ulster Constabulary).
Saoradh have been stoking discontent among the nationalist community in the North and welcome a hard Brexit saying:
‘Brexit has the potential to break up the British state … with the inevitable infrastructure of a hard border imminent, this will drive home to the Irish people the partition of our country … and as history teaches us, it would inevitably stoke the fires of resistance against the British rule in Ireland.’
Support for Saoradh was seen in the July 2018 Bogside riots in Derry and violence in the Creggan, Derry. In addition to this, over the last twelve months there has been a marked increase in dissident republican violence, mainly by the New IRA that includes shooting, kidnappings and the detonation of a car bomb outside Bishop Street courthouse in Derry in January 2019. Other dissident republican groups such as the Irish National Liberation Army and Continuity IRA still exist and are becoming more active.
The loyalist groups, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Freedom Fighters have also been active in the North of Ireland over the last eighteen months. This has included the shooting of some these groups’ leaders who were murdered because of their positon related to supporting the GFA. The rationale behind these killings is the fear of a referendum being held regarding the reunification of all 32 Irish counties under governance of the Dail in Dublin. This is an anathema to loyalists and has been since 1919 when Irish republicans, Sinn Fein set up an Irish government (Dail Eireann) that led to the 1919-1921 was of independence with Britain. In 1922 the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed resulting in partition with 26 counties coming under governance of the Dail, with the six northern counties under the governance of the Unionists in Stormont. There is no possible way loyalists will agree to a reunification of all 32 counties and they will literally fight to stop this.
Returning to McNamee’s article, one can see the recipe for a return to violence similar to that seen during the Troubles is entwined in Brexit and the Irish border issue. Add the issues a hard border has with the impasse between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein in the Assembly in Stormont that has led to the suspicion of the Assembly since January 2017 and the possibility of direct rule of the North from Westminster, an escalation of sectarian violence is not a probability but a very real possibility,.
UK counter-terrorism has not solely focused on Islamist group activity in the UK, they have also investigate extreme far-right activity and that of dissident republican and loyalist groups in the North of Ireland. If violence in the North escalates it will put an even greater strain on counter-terrorism police and UK security services’ resources, but more importantly it will result in needless deaths and serious injury being suffered by people, potentially, on both sides of the Irish Sea. All UK and EU politicians must not use the Irish border issue in Brexit as a political football as the consequences of not taking the threat of what a hard border will result cannot be contemplated or worse, ignored.