In June 2016, just before Britain voted to leave the European Union, there was a debate at the vast Wembley Arena. Boris Johnson, leader of the “Leave” campaign, was asked about the impact Brexit would have on Northern Ireland and its fragile peace process. He spoke instead, irrelevantly, about — the Balkans. He said nothing about Northern Ireland.
His evasion was eloquent. Johnson’s triumph in 2016, and his subsequent rise to power, were based on the provision of easy answers to hard questions. The one thing even the most insouciant British politician knows about Northern Ireland is that there are none of those. So the Brexiteers, ironically, adopted the strategy that the poet Seamus Heaney ascribed to Northern Ireland’s people: “Whatever you say, say nothing.”
Tuesday, a bomb was placed under the car of a policewoman in County Derry. In the first two weeks of April, dozens of police officers were injured in riots, mostly in Protestant working-class districts. The fears expressed by those who had predicted that Brexit would be profoundly destabilizing are acquiring a dark substance.
No one has been killed. The attempted bombing was the work of a small faction of die-hard Republican dissidents. They have little support, but will try to reignite conflict.
Rioters in Protestant districts have not been profoundly engaged with Brexit. The frustration of long pandemic-related lockdowns has to be factored in. So does the anomie of economic marginalization, and the activities of Loyalist gangs more concerned with protecting their drug dealing patches than with high politics.
Thus Northern Ireland is not yet slipping back into the anarchy of the Troubles. It is, however, in a state of very high anxiety. The relative calm that settled on the place for nearly 20 years after the signing of the peace agreement of 1998 has been replaced by real fear for the future. In divided societies, if people expect violence, they become pessimistic about all the things that might prevent it: engagement, reconciliation, consensus.
For years, Johnson has been deeply mendacious about what Brexit means for Northern Ireland, practicing deceit and denial.
The deceit concerns details of the agreement he made with the European Union. The Irish government and the E.U. insisted the regulatory border between the two entities could not be on the island of Ireland: The only solution was for Northern Ireland to remain for trading purposes within the E.U.’s single market. But this means the trading frontier has to be between Britain and Northern Ireland — the so-called border in the Irish Sea.
Goods moving into Northern Ireland from Britain now have to have extensive paperwork. It makes the province obviously different from the country it is supposed to belong to. Johnson swore he would never agree to this. But having agreed to create such a barrier, he has tried to deny that he did so. Just this week, he claimed that “ludicrous trade barriers” to internal trade had been erected by the E.U., as if this had nothing to do with him.
The denial has to do with the more fundamental issue. Brexit is an English nationalist project that has weakened Britain as a political unit. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against it. Alienation from Britain has risen in both places. Unionists have to face an existential question: What does unionism mean if the United Kingdom breaks up? Johnson’s answer is to wave the union flag and insist all is well. The dishonesty is dangerous. It adds to the angst of a Protestant community that does not know where its future lies. Any responsible democratic leader would know that reassurance begins with the acknowledgment of reality. Johnson’s forte is avoiding it.