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Grassroots loyalists think this Brexit deal is a sell-out. That’s why tensions are running so high

Published : Monday, 21 October, 2019 at 12:00 AM  Count : 184
Henry Patterson

There has been much talk of late about Irish "border communities" being threatened by a hard border. But not about border unionist communities, which by and large have been ignored by visiting camera teams and have a completely different narrative, while talk of a hard border has a less negative ring in their ears.

The reason is simple and it is summed up by the common use of two terms by border unionists to describe the IRA campaign and the role that they see the Irish Republic to have played during the Troubles: "ethnic cleansing" and "safe haven".

Many border Protestants were driven from their homes to safer towns. Border security installations did not exist in 1969 - they were built to try to control the IRA's use of the border as a means to bring in men and explosives to Northern Ireland from the relative haven of the republic; to escape after attacks in the north; and as somewhere to plan operations and manufacture explosives and weapons. (In 1988, the British army believed 10 of the IRA's main active service units were based in the republic.)

The Irish state used the British desire for security cooperation to gain the political concessions in the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. Some in Leo Varadkar's government pursued a similar strategy by talking up dissident attacks near the border as a product of Brexit when they are nothing of the kind. They predated Brexit and even if Brexit does not happen, they will continue.

All this provides context for the Democratic Unionist party's rejection of the revised withdrawal agreement, perplexing some observers of unionist politics who point out it had already accepted regulatory alignment with the EU. (Which held out the prospect of divergence over time from the rest of the UK.

The clue to the DUP's problems with Brexit lies in the party's class politics. Although its critics had portrayed it as a proponent of a hard Brexit, this missed divisions and nuances - the DUP's initial support for Brexit lacked much of the ideological fervour of the members of the European Research Group. As it supplanted the Ulster Unionist party during the peace process, its earlier, largely working-class appeal was widened to include the Protestant middle and business class.

It was well aware of the opposition to Brexit of much of this business community. However, it was also acutely conscious that many working-class loyalists, who had not rated membership of the EU as high on their list of priorities, reacted to the referendum by integrating Brexit into a vision of unionist retreat and loss during the peace process.

Despite the collapse of the republican movement's revolutionary project and Sinn Féin's acceptance of the principle of consent, a substantial section of the loyalist working class believes that republicans have turned a military defeat into a political and ideological victory. This they have done through a cultural war on issues such as flags and emblems, Orange parades and, most importantly, the "inquiry culture" into the legacy of the Troubles and what is seen as the rewriting of history. This is now manifest in the profoundly different narratives on Brexit and the border.

The focus of the Irish government and the EU on the danger to the peace process of a hard border produced an upsurge of media and publishing interest in the Irish border past and present. As the author of a book on the role played by the border during the Troubles, I followed this coverage with interest but also with some concern at its onesidedness.

Typical was a visit last April to the border near Derry by a delegation of senior US politicians led by the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Richard Neal, one of the congressmen, claimed that the last time he was on the border, 30 years earlier, his bus was stopped and searched by heavily armed British soldiers. Brexit, he implied, meant a clear and present danger to the peace process and the danger of a return of the "bad old days".Why the soldiers were there was not explained, but implicit was acceptance of a longstanding Irish nationalist narrative about the border as a mutilation of the island, imposed and maintained by imperial might.

 A similar point was made by Varadkar when last year he circulated among EU leaders a copy of an Irish newspaper featuring the story of an IRA bombing of the Newry customs office in 1972 in which nine people were killed. Any customs controls on the island of Ireland risked the return of such devastating incidents. Nevertheless, in the pursuit of Brexit before the end of the month, and under pressure from the Benn act, Boris Johnson has conceded the core of the Irish argument and left the DUP with little choice but rejection.

While Irish nationalists saw Brexit as a fundamental violation of the Good Friday agreement, now the large majority of working-class unionists who voted for Brexit will not be happy with a deal that hives off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. In this they have the support of Tony Blair, who opposes the deal because it puts the union at risk.

Days before the deal was announced, it was reported that loyalist paramilitary organisations were predicting protests and campaigns of civil disobedience if the British government attempted to align Northern Ireland and the republic in any customs arrangement.

Some of this may well turn out to be bluster, but the message from those in a position to know about grassroots loyalism is that it is very difficult to find anyone who supports this deal and that tensions are high. The DUP's rejection and promise of a war of attrition in the House of Commons is in part at least designed to keep a lid on this anger.

The writer is emeritus professor of politics at Ulster University and the author of Ireland's Violent Frontier


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