[Podcast script originally written for GOVT 3071, “Enduring Global and American Issues” at Cornell University (Cornell in Washington), taught by Professor David Silbey, May 2021. Up to date as of May 1, 2021.]
A riot in Derry on March 29th, 2021 marked the first of about twelve nearly consecutive days of violence in Northern Ireland. Over these days, police in Derry, as well as Belfast, Carrickfergus, Ballymena and Newtownabbey, encountered young people armed with makeshift weapons including bricks, bars, fireworks and petrol bombs gathered to engage in crowded protests. Police Service of Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Jonathon Roberts said rioting of that scale had not been “seen in Belfast or further afield in Northern Ireland for…years,” and the violent scenes invoked for many memories of similar events throughout the region’s centuries of ethno-religious and political conflict. What, then, brought Northern Ireland to this point?
To this question, many would give a one word answer: Brexit. Brexit is, of course, the nickname given to The United Kingdom’s slim-majority vote to leave the European Union on June 23rd, 2016 — at which point many of the finer details of the exit agreement were left unclear.
Exit from the EU inevitably impacts all those economic and societal areas of which membership in the EU plays a leading role, including trade and border control. Importantly, since the Brexit decision logically mandates Northern Ireland’s departure from the EU alongside the rest of the UK, default border control changes would establish new procedural checks and trade rules across the Irish land border separating Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — or, following Brexit, separating the UK and the EU.
This would have been a rude departure from existing conditions at the time of the Brexit vote. The 1998 Belfast Agreement, also called the Good Friday Agreement, formally marked the end of Northern Ireland’s years of sectarian paramilitary conflict dubbed “The Troubles.” A hallmark feature of the Agreement is its mandate against border checks and physical border infrastructure on the land border separating the North and the Republic. Many feared that running contrary to the Agreement and allowing for the return of these elements following the UK’s exit from the EU would interrupt the lifestyles and economies of those on each side of the border, and perhaps invoke paramilitary violence.
In response to these concerns, language deemed the “Irish backstop” was incorporated into the original withdrawal agreement. The Irish backstop decreed the retention of Northern Ireland within some aspects of the Single Market, which comprises most of the EU member states, and granted the UK a common customs territory with the EU until further guidance was developed to prevent the need for customs controls within the UK (that is, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK). Under the backstop protocol, these conditions would continue unless the UK and the EU agreed on alternate arrangements. Once again, all this was developed with the goal of preventing the establishment of a “hard” border with customs control between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit. It was generally opposed by Unionists (those in favor of Northern Ireland’s retention within the UK) and supported by Nationalists (those in favor of an independent, united Ireland).
The Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (or the DUP) dubbed the backstop a “border down the Irish sea” that put Northern Ireland’s presence within the UK at risk. When Boris Johnson came into office as British prime minister in July of 2019, replacing predecessor Theresa May, he called for the removal of the Irish backstop from the withdrawal agreement, deeming it “anti-democratic.” Johnson argued that he could devise a new, successful withdrawal agreement without the backstop and without the subsequent development of border checks.
New guidelines to replace the backstop were negotiated by Johnson and the Irish Prime Minister, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in October 2019. Terms for what is now known as the Northern Ireland Protocol were finalized in December 2020. December 2020 also marked the formal exit of the UK from the “EU trading regime and other co-operative arrangements” following a transition period which began in January 2020 to allow for negotiation and establishment of rules and arrangements regarding trade and other areas of cooperation between the EU and the UK.
The Northern Ireland Protocol allows free, unchecked trade to continue between the North and the Republic, but in return mandates some checks to “be undertaken on products as they cross the Irish Sea from Britain to Northern Ireland, to ensure safety standards…and to make…necessary customs checks.” These checks essentially act as insurance against the use of Northern Ireland as a “back door” for unregulated trade between the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Under the protocol, EU single market rules continue to be applied in some areas of Northern Ireland, but leaves Northern Ireland as a whole within the UK customs union. The protocol also mandates that Northern Ireland’s politicians, after four years, “must be asked to give consent on whether the new arrangements should continue.”
The deal making process and subsequent fallout of Brexit in Northern Ireland has been highly politicized in a region in which highly politicized events and periods have also historically been highly susceptible to violence. During the Brexit voting process, party lines remained evident: while not completely uniform, Unionists showed out in general support for Brexit, while Nationalists stood up in overwhelming opposition. Scholars argue that this exemplifies the fact that “ideology as identity is paramount” in Northern Irish politics, with Unionists holding union with Great Britain above all else, and Nationalists prioritizing “unity of the island.” Although Nationalists are cognizant of the fact that a united Ireland is not a politically realistic demand (at least, not in the near future), a hard land border separating the North from the Republic is simply unacceptable for them. A former Irish Minister for European Affairs argued that “the erection of a physical border infrastructure between the north and south of Ireland [would] lead to a rapid deterioration in the fragile peace that exists” in the North. She stated that “border posts…[would] become inevitable targets for dissident terrorist groups,” and further argued that “those advocating in favour of a hard Brexit [had] no idea, or perhaps no concern, for the economic and political carnage [it] would cause in Northern Ireland.”
However, it is clear that concerns surround not only the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, but also the so-called “Irish Sea Border” between Northern Ireland and Great Britain: as reported by BBC in March 2021, “new checks” on the Irish Sea had “been causing disruption to supplies of food, plants and online deliveries.” As explained earlier, the Northern Ireland Protocol essentially permits Northern Ireland to continue to follow EU rules pertaining to uninspected travel of goods across the land border, but establishes, in return, a new “regulatory” border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (since Great Britain is not following these same rules). Goods dispatched from Great Britain undergo checks at Northern Ireland ports before travelling freely through Northern Ireland or across the Irish land border into the Republic. Unionists call this system a violation of the Good Friday Agreement, just as Nationalists did for the prospective establishment of a hard land border between the North and the Republic.
This clear divergence of interest begs the question of whether any agreement could possibly appease both Unionist and Nationalist wishes. It is perhaps this feeling of hopelessness in finding common ground that led to the wave of violence seen in Northern Ireland throughout late March and early April 2021. The Northern Ireland Protocol focused heavily on preserving peace by paying mind to the Irish land border; however, by doing so, it allowed for Northern Ireland to continue playing by certain EU rules, adding credence to the Unionist claim that Northern Ireland, to their discontent, is treated differently from the rest of the UK. The supposed focus of the Protocol on the land border has also led to accusations of prioritization of “the interests of those who care more about Northern Ireland’s relationship with Ireland ahead of those who care about its relationship with Great Britain,” further stoking Unionist unease.
Because of the likelihood of these issues to rear their heads in upcoming elections and votes, many argue that the volatility in Northern Ireland due to concerns surrounding the Brexit deal will likely continue for years. Some fear that the conflict is pushing politicians toward increasingly extreme beliefs, behaviors, words, and actions as their parties and voter bases retreat to the poles of their respective ideological lines. Others fear that a cyclical process is beginning, in which more extreme voters demand more extreme politics, leading “politicians [to] use inflammatory language, which [in turn further] winds up the public.” In fact, the full political ramifications have just begun to make themselves clear: at the end of April 2021, Arlene Foster announced her resignation as leader of Northern Ireland and the Democratic Unionist Party following pressure from fellow British Unionists, who criticized her approach to the Brexit fallout. Foster’s replacement will be hand-selected by the very Democratic Unionist Party that was so critical of her soft-stance on the post-Brexit trade arrangements — meaning that the new pick will almost certainly be exponentially more heavy handed on the matter.
Adam Fleming, BBC News Chief Political Correspondent, has thoughtfully made note of the most impactful and historically significant potential consequence of Brexit in Northern Ireland: he writes that “the biggest question of all is the degree to which the implementation of the Brexit deal affects the number of Northern Irish citizens saying they would like to be part of Ireland. British law compels the Northern Ireland Secretary to hold a referendum…if there is evidence that a majority of the population wants reunification.” Importantly, “opinion polls suggest a small but growing minority in favour” of reunification, though “the law is silent about what evidence should be considered [in deciding whether or not to hold a referendum], or how a vote would work” in that case.
To learn more about this issue, I sat down with David, the Director of Community Dialogue, a Belfast-based organization “committed to a dialogue process, developed over the years, to help transform understanding and build trust amongst people who often hold opposing political, social and religious views.”
Hannah: Alright, David, thanks for joining for a few minutes today.
David: My pleasure.
H: So, to start out, I thought it would be helpful if you gave us a short history of Community Dialogue, and a quick introduction into the work the organization is currently engaged in or has been engaged in in the past — and, just a little rundown of your role in the organization.
D: Okay. Community Dialogue was founded in 1996. It was founded in response to the paramilitary ceasefires in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s and the possibility of emerging inter-party talks between the opposed political representatives on either side of the conflict. Our purpose in setting up Community Dialogue was our overwhelming concern that our future, and the future of all of our children, was way too important to be left solely to the hands of our political representatives. So, our intention was to encourage as broad and diverse a civic society engagement as we possibly could in the critical issues that were preventing progress towards a peaceful resolution of our conflict. So, what I’m saying is, we wanted ordinary people to try to reach agreement on what needed to be done to resolve the conflict and build a ladder of communication between the ordinary people and the people behind closed doors making those decisions. And, that is what we did, along with numerous other civic society organizations.
Community Dialogue’s membership at the time reflected the diversity of the people who were engaged in the conflict and the people who were actively trying to resolve the conflict. So, we had a nun, we had an Ulster Volunteer Force paramilitary commander, we had members of the Irish Republican Army, members of the Irish National Liberation Army, we had ex-security force personnel, we had community workers, rights workers, people who were activists in various different communities. And, the funny thing about us as a group was we didn’t see eye to eye on anything — because we all had different ideas about what was wrong and what needs to be done about it. But, we did share one underpinning understanding, and that was that through dialogue we knew that we could identify the underlying causes of the conflict, the shared needs that were obscured by it, and that we could reach agreement on what we needed to do to ensure that we could create a future in which we, in all of our diversity, could live in a way where we felt equal and had equal access to rights, equalities, services, and opportunities. We successfully demonstrated that we could do this internally, despite our own divisions, through facilitated dialogue, and we set about trying to encourage dialogue on critical and contentious issues as broadly as we possibly could across Northern Irish society.
So, that’s who Community Dialogue was, where we came from. And, to a certain extent, it’s what we still are today. Our current mission has moved beyond simply addressing the political sectarian conflict — we engage in all aspects of conflict, challenging exclusion, marginalization, disempowerment, [and] intolerance in all of its forms. So, today, we work with marginalized women, with the LGBTQ+ community, with ethnic and other minorities, vulnerable adults and young adults, etc. etc. etc., as well as engaging in the ongoing pursuit of a peaceful political solution to our ongoing conflict — which, admittedly, these days, is more political than it is violent.
H: Right, and that’s a good transition into the topic that we’re talking about here, about what we’re seeing surrounding the Brexit issue and all of those other really complex political issues that are playing out on the ground over there. So, I figured we could just jump right into that and see what the view of your organization is about what happened, what led up to those violent events we saw in late March and early April, and what you were seeing happen there up close in Belfast and around the region.
D: Okay, well firstly, I would say that the violent events that you’re referring to were an articulation of Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist fear that they were being pushed out of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a consequence of the Brexit deal that many of their political leaders convinced them to vote for. Which is ironic. I must say, also, just to be clear, because history and events, as you know, are contested and also, as you know, whilst we may attempt to behave and articulate things in an impartial way, none of us [are] impartial, and that is true of peace builders as well. We have our own biases, we have our own views, our own standards and values, and we impose them on what we are talking about. So, you need to be aware that I am not speaking as an impartial outside observer…I am a child of the Northern Ireland conflict. I was born into that conflict. Simply by being born I received as my birthright political sectarian violence, segregation, and all of that stuff. I grew up with it, so I’m part of it. I have lost people in the conflict, and I have friends and colleagues who have taken the lives of people in the conflict.
So, I’m not impartial. Having said that, as a Protestant and a Unionist and a Loyalist person, the protest would have been much greater and would have started much, much earlier if it hadn’t been for the social isolation requirements of COVID-19. I think, bizarrely, the COVID-19 pandemic managed to stop Northern Ireland tipping over into renewed, full-scale, sectarian, street violence. While you saw sparks of that in the news reportage, in my experience and in our experience it was fairly low key, and it didn’t last as long as we would have feared. And I think we have COVID-19 to thank for that. So, I’m not sure if I have strayed away from the question, maybe if you want to try and pull me back into line again, Hannah?
H: That is so interesting to hear how those issues are kind of interacting. And I have to say, it’s interesting just to be speaking because I can see how you conduct your work just by sitting here talking with you, how you engage in these dialogues, and some of the words that you use — it’s really interesting to me. But, I guess we can kind of reframe the question and focus in, not into necessarily what led up to those events because you did touch on that, but how Community Dialogue so far has been responding to these specific events and the prospect that this is an issue that is going to stick around, and how this climate surrounding these political issues will be impacting Community Dialogue’s work in the near and maybe far future.
D: Okay, well you’re actually reminding me that I didn’t go into any great background detail on the issue of Brexit. I don’t know if you want me to clarify what the position of people in the United Kingdom and the position of people more specifically in Northern Ireland is there — why did we vote to leave and why did it create tension. Do you want me to say a couple of words about that?
H: Sure, that would be interesting to hear how you frame it. That would be great.
D: I’m going to attempt to do so in as impartial a way as I possibly can, but you need to bear in mind that the Brexit vote actually broke my heart. As a citizen of the United Kingdom, it did more to diminish my sense of Britishness than thirty years of Irish Republican Army violence — which is a remarkable thing to say, that a single vote by the British people could do so much to undermine my sense of identity, and yet thirty years of conflict merely reinforced my identity. So, the people in the United Kingdom — a small majority of the people in the United Kingdom — voted [for Brexit] because [of], to put it in its best possible light, a hunger to restore democracy at the local level, i.e. within the United Kingdom, instead of at a distance, i.e. in Brussels. People wanted more decisions made locally on how things were done locally. So, that’s something that I sympathize with very, very strongly. However, I have a very clear belief that the majority of people voted to leave the European Union because of fear and ignorance that was fueled by deliberate lies from the Brexit campaign managers, and that people voted, basically, to have more control over who gets to live here. Less people of color. Less people who have different cultural identities to us. People were harking back to an imagined past where they believe (wrongly) that this place was somehow ours and somehow felt more like ours and there was less of this “distasteful” and “unsettling” diversity about the place, and people are hungry to return to that…I guess that’s my bias sneaking in there. A lot of people [who voted] for Brexit would be annoyed at what they’re hearing me say.
In Northern Ireland, a majority of people voted to remain within Europe, so being pulled out against our will was shocking. In the Protestant community more people voted to leave than voted to stay, and that was at the behest of the Democratic Unionist Party, which is our main political representative. And, in doing so, in encouraging Protestant people to leave, what they were actually doing was undermining the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which was specifically what the Irish Republican Army campaign aimed to achieve. And, from my perspective, the Belfast Agreement [enshrined] the principle of consent — which meant that if enough people want to remain within the Union, they remain within the Union, but if enough people want to leave the Union, we have a referendum, and if the result goes their way we leave the Union and join the Republic of Ireland as a new, expanded nation. So, it’s in our hands what our future is, and that’s the beauty of the agreement, we get to decide ourselves. But, leaving the [European] Union has fundamentally undermined and weakened Northern Ireland’s position in the UK, and that’s where the fear and the anger and the violence comes from, particularly as expressed by marginalized, disempowered, and misinformed working-class Loyalist communities. So, there you go, that’s kind of the Brexit background.
People like me, I’m very, very lucky to have dual nationality. I’m an Irish citizen as well as a British citizen, and I now have one nationality that still feels comfortable to me, although I’ve kind of lost the other one through Brexit.
So, will I trundle on into what Community Dialogue is doing?
H: Yes, that would be great, thank you.
D: We’re doing what we’ve always done, but we’re doing it with a renewed emphasis on the imperative for us as citizens to reach agreement on our future through consensus-building dialogue. And, because we target, in particular, people who feel themselves to be marginalized, isolated, excluded, disempowered, and voiceless, it means we are working with people who very often lack the confidence or the skills to engage to reach consensus, and to do something about the decisions they manage to make. So, we’re running our consensus-building dialogues side by side with capacity-building workshops designed to build understanding skills and confidence amongst marginalized, polarized, disempowered people to make them more able to engage in future-building as informed citizens. We do so through political education training that is non-party political, that is cross-community in its basis, and everybody who participates does so in the understanding that they are engaging in a process of future-building that must enable people who are profoundly different from them to feel equality in their sense of belonging. And that is the only part of the process, in my experience, that can be difficult for people. Envisioning that future where not just I am comfortable, but you and other people who are different from me are equally comfortable, because that entails an element of loss, an element of sharing, and an element of compromise. And that’s a little bit painful.
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