The Folly of Brexit: Violence in Northern Ireland and Depression at Home

The 27th of August, 1979 saw the deadliest attack on British forces by the Provisional IRA ever. Two bombs targeting British convoys killed eighteen soldiers, wounded six, killed a civilian and wounded another. It was only five minutes away from the place my mother and I called home in the late 90s. In all, more than 3,700 people in Northern Ireland died in the four decades preceding the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that put an end to The Troubles. I fear that Brexit threatens to reawaken the slaughter anew.

The Provos may have decommissioned their weapons and finally dissolved in 2005, but dozens of smaller militant groups on both sides of Northern Ireland’s political divide remain active and ready to renew hostilities in the event that Brexit creates a hard border between the United Kingdom and Ireland. 2016, the year the UK voted to leave the European Union, coincided with a fatal car bomb attack committed by a new group known as the “New IRA”. Picking up where the Provos left off after the GFA, two men linked to the New IRA committed an explosive attack outside a courthouse in Derry by high-jacking a pizza delivery vehicle, loading it with explosives and setting it off outside a courthouse the police were evacuating.

Brexiteers downplay and dismiss this violence. They live in a fantasy land where Brexit will usher in a new age of British imperial might, establishing the United Kingdom as a swashbuckling proponent of free-trade, a sort of Singapore-on-Thames. Free from laws passed by the European Parliament and enforced by the European Court of Justice, the U.K. will be able to forge its own way in a globalised economy. But contrary to these delusions, Brexit necessitates a more insular, closed off Britain. Brexit necessitates the re-erection of a hard border between the United Kingdom and Ireland as its only E.U. neighbour; under WTO rules, customs checks will impede free movement at the border between the two countries, something that has underpinned two decades of peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

Police in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have issued dark warnings that a return to a hard border between the two countries will make Northern Ireland a target once again for militant groups and terrorist activity. Northern Ireland’s top police officer has expressed fears that dissident republicans will view hard checkpoints involving passport and customs checks manned by British police as ”fair game” for terrorist attacks. This would naturally reawaken Protestant paramilitary groups such as the UVF and bring the province back into indefinite civil war.

The EU was an important broker in the peace negotiations that finally put the violence that scarred my community to bed. The customs union negated the need for a hard border with checkpoints and controls and Northern Irish and Irish people could travel freely across the island as if it were one country. Shops along the border traded in both Euros and Pounds. The GFA ushered in the devolution of power to Stormont to manage local affairs. Now thanks to Brexit, old fears of being administered by Westminster are being awakened. Brutal paramilitaries threaten to plunge communities and cities back into violence. Incidents such as the Omagh bombing and Bloody Sunday are conveniently forgotten to accommodate for today’s Brexiteer delusions. The desire not to return to the dark ways of the past is apparent in the referendum breakdown which had Northern Ireland vote 56% to 44% to remain in the European Union.

Those in favour of Brexit often mask their imperialistic sentimentalism and sympathies by claiming that Britons are unhappy with the European Institutions being involved in domestic affairs, trading off policy responsibilities to EU institutions. To reap the benefits of EU membership, members must continue to adhere to 3 essential criteria:

  • stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
  • a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU;
  • the ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

Seems rather sensible right? Quite frankly, as the world transitions to what some geopolitical academics refer to a “G-Zero World” – where there are no clear leaders in political and economic power – smaller states should band together for economic growth, democratic stability and geopolitical security. Naturally in Europe, there are shared ideals between nations in terms of foreign policy, economic management and law and justice. Ideas about European Unity go back to 1693, where William Penn suggested a European Parliament to prevent war. The idea that the EU, an amalgamation of democracies, is undemocratic, is preposterous. Let’s break it down:

  • The EU Parliament: Directly elected,
  • The European Commission: Made up of the nationally elected heads of government,
  • Council of Europe: Nationally elected government ministers of each member, relevant to the topic at hand. Presidency of a 6 month rotating basis.

Unsurprisingly, Brexiteers don’t like to talk about the House of Lords – a chamber entirely undemocratic by design where the citizenry has no say of who gets appointed.

Ironically, Brexiteers have been missing out on their supposed trade benefits. Since Brexit, EU Free Trade agreements have been established with Canada, Japan, Singapore and Ukraine while a deal in Vietnam is being trailed and negotiations with the US and Australia are still being negotiated (among others). Once Britain leaves the EU, they will have to invest time and money into drawing up agreements of their own.

With austerity biting hard and a refugee crisis gripping the continent, citizens are plainly looking for someone to blame. But rather than blaming conservative austerity and bail out policies that encourage inequality and risky corporate behaviour, people have succumbed to a populist message that has targeted institutions that have underpinned Continental peace, stability and prosperity. The pro-Brexit campaign was plagued with lies, deceit and empty promises. This was best exemplified by Nigel Farage’s denial that his campaign had ever made use of the infamous big red bus that claimed 350 million pounds was being sent to the EU every week. The Daily Mail, a News Corp arm that was consistently pro-Brexit, heralded that Britons would have to pay eight pounds for a visa to enter the EU after Brexit. “EU Must Be Joking!” read the headline. How dare the EU demand a visa from us – don’t you know who we are?

The thing is, no one really cares who we are anymore. Leaving the EU will be Britain’s last nail in the coffin as a global power. The rest of the world watches on thinking, how could they – why would they? Once integrated into a Union with 27 other countries with a population of half a billion people and a $19.1 trillion economy, the rocky isles are now back to the drawing board. The UK has been doing much self-reflection since the referendum and many in the country are now calling for the opportunity to vote directly on Teresa May’s deal or a second referendum on Brexit. Breaking up the UK has been floated – Scotland’s anti-independence result was won largely because doubters wanted the assurance that they would still be part of the EU. The movement for a second referendum remains the only light of hope that Britain may once again do the truly patriotic thing and re-join Europe, band together with its allies and advocate for the internal reforms it wants to see. The world needs a Britain that can once again advocate for liberty, freedom and progress in a world turning away from these values – not a Britain riven by terrorist violence in Northern Ireland and economic depression at home.

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