Living as we do in the north of England, we have good reason to watch recent events in Northern Ireland with more than a little sense of foreboding. That’s because the province’s three decades of Troubles also played out here.
Today, many young people are told of the IRA’s bombing of a coachload of British Army and RAF personnel on the M62, killing 12 passengers, in the way I remember my parents talking about the Second World War. The same goes for bombs that exploded in the centre of Warrington in 1993, killing two children, and the 1996 lorry bomb, which devastated central Manchester and injured over 200 people.
We oldies recall these events with great clarity. I can also remember fleeing with terror from what turned out to be bomb hoaxes in the centre of Leeds. In the backs of our minds – and sometimes at the forefront – the shadow of the Troubles loomed over our daily lives.
The 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which brought that turmoil to an end, is just over a month away but it seems the peace process might yet unravel. During the Brexit referendum of 2016, who knew that a side-effect of EU withdrawal would be the destabilisation of Northern Ireland? This is now a real possibility.
If the UK withdraws from the customs union, the hard border with the Irish Republic erased by the GFA would be restored, and we’d be back to the divisions that fed and watered the Troubles. The alternative would be to run the border down the Irish Sea, allowing Northern Ireland to remain in a customs union with the Irish Republic. But this would be a significant step towards Irish unification, and there’s no way that Unionist politicians will stand for that.
So the DUP has rejected the restoration of power sharing with Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly in order to grasp the comfort blanket of virtually direct rule from Westminster, leaving the government little room for negotiation on the customs union with Brussels and making it more likely that border posts across Ireland will be rebuilt.
Brexit-supporting DUP MPs, don’t forget, are propping up the Conservatives, whose right-wingers also want nothing to do with a customs union. This puts Theresa May between a rock and a hard place, which is no surprise to journalists like me who spent time in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Rocks and hard places are everywhere.
I think the Unionists have woken up, smelled the coffee and realised to their horror that it’s Irish coffee. The wording of the GFA surrendered the UK’s “selfish strategic or economic interest” in the province, and agreed the principle of a united Ireland if a majority of people in the North voted for it. So the DUP – more hardline than those Unionists who negotiated the GFA in 1998 and faced with an increasingly Nationalist-voting demographic – have panicked at the sudden realisation that Brexit could provide a fast-track route to Irish unification.
If a hard border starts to look inevitable, it’s feared that republicans will once again take up arms. And one thing the IRA learned during the Troubles is that their campaign was more effective when waged on the British mainland, wreaking economic damage with bombs like the one in Manchester.
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