Brexit threatens peace in Northern Ireland. The impact of the UK’s departure from the EU must be managed, amid rising tensions.
Brexit means big changes in the structure of the United Kingdom, not least in Northern Ireland. There is a moderate risk of a return to instability for Northern Ireland, which may necessitate certain policy measures. The chances of violence on a sustained scale akin to the Troubles of the 1960s-90s probably remain low, but the possibility of flare-ups and terrorist attacks cannot be ruled out. With this mind, the UK should strengthen the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), and increase intelligence gathering by UK police and local security services.
Although the UK and EU have agreed to avoid checks – including no use of cameras – on the Irish land border, checks are now in place on some goods coming via the new sea border, angering some Unionists. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 is at risk of failing. The violence that preceded the peace deal cost the lives of thousands of people throughout the UK. It hardly suggests a positive outcome if a peace deal contingent on the absence of border checks is undone by border checks, whether at sea or on land. The centuries-old cleavage between Catholics and Protestants could see latent tensions bubbling back to the surface, a point which has been made by former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major.
Currently, however, concerns over a return to violence may be somewhat overblown. There have been no major flare-ups, although incidents involving a new generation of nationalist extremists – such as the murder of a journalist by the so-called ‘New IRA’ and the sending of explosive devices to sites in the mainland UK – are of some concern). Furthermore, the rise of Sinn Fein as a political force in the Republic of Ireland provides a concerning backdrop to the situation. While Sinn Fein fell short of forming a government in the Republic, it is still an event that could impact negatively on stability in Ireland as nationalist sentiment and calls for Irish reunification are likely to increase, in turn driving up the tension levels.
The experience of the British Army in counterinsurgency could be useful in managing any flare-ups, if utilised in an advisory role assisting the PSNI. Operationally deploying the Army in the event of a flare-up event should be avoided. The use of excessive force in dealing with civilian populations in insurgency situations may lead to alienation and increases the probability of sectarian violence. The UK has made that mistake in the past, with the internment of mostly nationalist people, many of them who were not involved in violence in the 1970s. This exacerbated tensions, being the prelude to increased violence in Northern Ireland. A better policy prescription might be the strengthening of the local police force, the PSNI, which has traditionally been the counterinsurgency (COIN) lead.
Furthermore ensuring continued operational co-operation between PSNI and the An Garda Siochana (Irish Police) outside of EU information sharing systems such as Europol and Eurojust will be a challenge, but one that needs to be addressed.
As the only UK police force whose officers are routinely armed, the PSNI is well equipped on multiple levels to tackle localised outbreaks of violence. Police led management of key trouble spots is often more psychologically palatable to local populations, less likely to exacerbate tensions and less expensive than deploying the military in theatre. In any case, the British military is undergoing sizable changes. The budgetary and resource constraints likely to be imposed by Whitehall’s new-found focus on space, cyber warfare and a naval build-up make it more likely that there will be less numbers of infantry available with the British Army for a Northern Ireland contingency.
The other policy measure the British government could implement would involve increasing the intelligence focus on Northern Ireland, drawing on its own decades of operational experience of intelligence gathering – including in coordination with the Garda- in Northern Ireland, predating EU intelligence sharing agreements. This can compensate to some extent for the loss of full access to European security databases such as SIS II. While the UK security apparatus is concerned with far-right and Islamist extremism, the possibility of violent republicanism reemerging must not be underestimated.
The key to managing post-Brexit stability in Northern Ireland depends heavily on minimising, if not avoiding, the impact of border checks at sea. Avoiding physical border checks, strengthening the PSNI and increasing intelligence oversight of Northern Ireland should drive UK efforts to preserve peace in Northern Ireland.
Jeevan Vipinachandran holds an MSc in Comparative Politics: Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics.
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