Northern Ireland is about the thorniest issue in Britain’s side. Just when everyone thought its sting was out of the way, it came back to pinch if not bite yet. For Britain, an invited sting, just about everyone saw it coming when Britain voted Brexit.
The past hangs so very heavy upon Northern Ireland that what Brexit is doing to it makes no sense unless one goes three or four centuries back as though that were yesterday. Or a century at least; that were earlier this morning.
Northern Ireland is in its location among the oddest places. It sits in the north of the island of Ireland but as British territory. A use of preposition here can be politically loaded. Northern Ireland “in" the north of Ireland could suggest the place is in Ireland, that it is “to" the north of Ireland marks it as an entity outside of Ireland, which it is, as a part of Britain.
Just how this northern corner of Ireland became Britain is a hangover of British colonialism, among the many such around the world. Except that this one has hung around to hurt Britain continually.
Ireland was a British colony until it won freedom just over a century back following a breakaway declaration in 1919. Ireland was mainly Catholic. But Protestant Christians loyal to the British packed themselves into six counties in the northern Ulster region to become a part of Britain on the back apparently of respectable democratic choice. Britain smartly sorted out the demography first and then sealed it with democracy.
As with India, freedom in Ireland came with its own partition that divided it along religious lines. Ireland remained a Catholic-majority country, Northern Ireland a Protestant-majority part of Britain. Catholics who sought unity with the Republic of Ireland came to be called Republicans, and the Protestants who wanted union with Britain came to be known as Unionists.
The split among Republicans and Unionists running through Northern Ireland proved lethal. Violence rose to new levels from the late 1960s. Over about 30 years, more than 3,500 were killed, in a population of just 1.5 million. Over periods that marked a higher death toll from terrorism ‘per capita’ than in Punjab through its bloody 1980s.
The solution came finally through what came to be called the Good Friday agreement in 1998. Under that an agreement was worked out for sharing government between Republicans and Unionists, Irish people were given a choice to take citizenship of Ireland if they so choose, and the government in Dublin gave up its territorial claim to Northern Ireland.
That it appeared to have done rather eagerly. For Dublin, those six counties appeared better a British problem than theirs. Nor was there enough welcome there to attract any mass migration to Ireland.
The government in Britain finds itself bound to the Unionists of Northern Ireland. A few of those fly the Union Jack more than all of the rest of Britain does. The British government cannot turn its back on them; the British public outside of Northern Ireland has done so for long.
But an issue that had calmed down considerably since the Good Friday agreement is on the boil again following Brexit. So long as Britain and Ireland were both a part of the EU, there was no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Brexit opened up the dangerous prospect of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, dangerous because barriers to the movement of people and trade could reopen a hostile division among people.
To prevent that a Northern Ireland protocol was worked out between the UK and the EU. Under that British goods going into Northern Ireland would be checked within Britain, with no further checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Some EU laws would continue to apply to Northern Ireland.
This worried the Unionists because they institutionalised some barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. The worry turned to fear when the Republicans secured a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time earlier this year. In response to Unionist demands, the UK government has announced it will back away from the protocol it had signed up to.
This is creating problems of its own. If it doesn’t, it faces problems of another kind. In neither case can the government in London wish them away. It is not always a long way to go between simmering and boiling.