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Why Northern Ireland is the most serious obstacle to Article 50’s invocation

Few Protestants or Catholics want to go back to the days of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. (BBC)
Few Protestants or Catholics want to go back to the days of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. (BBC)

When pro-Leave campaigners argued that, by leaving the European Union, Great Britain could ‘take back control,’ one of the clear things over which Brexit proponents seem to want to take control was national borders.northernirelandUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Given that Great Britain itself is an island, that’s mostly a theoretical proposition, because you can’t step across the border into England, Scotland and Wales — their ‘borders’ are through their seaports and airports.

That’s not true in Northern Ireland, the only region in the United Kingdom that does share a land border with another European Union member-state. It’s also one of the most delicate tripwires for British prime minister Theresa May in her dutiful quest to invoke Article 50 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty next year and begin negotiations for a British EU withdrawal.

Scotland has garnered more headlines because Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has argued that Scots, who voted strongly for Remain, deserve a second independence referendum  when the British government finally does leave the European Union. But if ‘Remain’ proponents are looking to the one part of the United Kingdom that could impossibly prevent Article 50’s invocation, they should look to Northern Ireland, where Brexit could unravel two decades of peace, and where Brexit is already causing some anxiety about the region’s future.

May, just days after replacing David Cameron at 10 Downing Street, visited Belfast earlier this week in a bid to reassure both unionists and republicans. But it’s not clear that May’s first journey to Northern Ireland, which preceded a meeting with Ireland’s leader a day later, was a success.

May boldly claimed that Brexit need not result in the return of a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But settling Northern Ireland’s Brexit border issue is virtually intractable for the May government — at least without alienating one of three crucial groups of people: first, the mostly Catholic republicans of Northern Ireland; second, the most Protestant unionists of Northern Ireland or finally, those Brexit supports across the entire country who voted ‘Leave’ in large part to close UK borders to further immigration.

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As in Scotland, Northern Ireland’s voters narrowly titled against Brexit — 55.78% supported ‘Remain,’ while just 44.22% supported ‘Leave.’ Generally speaking, republicans widely supported ‘Remain,’ and unionists leaned toward ‘Leave,’ including first minister Arlene Foster. Continue reading Why Northern Ireland is the most serious obstacle to Article 50’s invocation

Gary Hart deserved better than the dregs of NI peace

GaryHartPhoto credit to Getty Images.

US secretary of state John Kerry appointed former Colorado senator and one-time presidential candidate Gary Hart as the latest US envoy to Northern Ireland’s five-party peace talks earlier today.USflagnorthernirelandUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Nearly two decades after former US senator George Mitchell concluded the Good Friday Agreement, bringing a tenuous peace between republican Catholics and unionist Protestants across Northern Ireland, Hart’s role will not amount to midwifing a landmark peace deal — it will be ensuring its continued implementation:

Fresh negotiations involving the five parties in the power-sharing mandatory coalition convened by the UK Government commenced last Thursday and are due to resume tomorrow.

As well as the long-unresolved peace process disputes on flags, parades and the legacy of the past, over the coming weeks politicians will also attempt to reach consensus on rows over the implementation of welfare reforms in the region and on the very structures of the devolved Assembly.

Northern Ireland is thriving today, amid a growing economy in the long-troubled capital of Belfast. Peace has brought with it a rising standard of living. But, as was on full display upon the death of former Northern Irish first minister Ian Paisley last month, long-simmering tensions still exist. It’s possible, though far from probable, that the kind of widescale violence of the ‘Troubles’ will return to Northern Ireland anytime soon.

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RELATED: No eulogies for Paisleyism

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It’s great to see Hart — at long last — providing useful service to his country. But US envoys to Northern Ireland today are all destined to be cast as relief pitchers in comparison to Mitchell’s role in shepherding the historic 1998 accords.

For someone who was, to a person, the most prescient voice on homeland security and the threat of terrorism in 1990s, his high-profile turn as a US envoy represents a bittersweet return to public life. Hart’s second act should have started long before age 77. Continue reading Gary Hart deserved better than the dregs of NI peace

No eulogies for Paisleyism

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Ian Paisley was a small man, and he led a small movement that forestalled peace in Northern Ireland for decades, withholding from Protestant and Catholic families alike the economic and social progress that accrued to virtually the rest of western Europe, and inflaming sectarian tribalism that still haunts Northern Ireland’s cultural fabric in the 21st century.United Kingdom Flag Iconnorthernireland

Upon his death today at age 88, he’ll be feted as a statesman in too-long-to-read eulogies prepared long ago in The Guardian and The New York Times.

Those eulogies will note that Paisley, at age 81, finally agreed to a power-sharing agreement with Irish Republicans, making him Northern Ireland’s first minister from 2007 until his retirement in 2008. It was a decade after he opposed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that generally ended active fighting between Northern Ireland’s Protestant loyalists and Catholic republicans. Those eulogies will show pictures of Paisley smiling and laughing with his nemesis, Martin McGuinness, the Northern Irish leader of Sinn Féin who continues to serve as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister in a power-sharing coalition with Paisley’s successor, Peter Robinson.

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They were nicknamed the ‘Chuckle Brothers,’ though it’s hard to find too much to laugh about in the deaths of over 3,500 people during three decades of fighting that tore apart families and stunted the growth of a country all in the name of religious nationalism.

Paisley’s critics argue that his 11th hour conversion to power-sharing was a cynical maneuver — with the knowledge that reverting to the violent era of the Troubles was impossible, Paisley moved to cement his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the natural party of Protestant governance in Northern Ireland, displacing the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and David Trimble, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to enact the Good Friday Agreement.

Cynical or not, Paisley’s late-in-life conversion is a fact, and it won’t be the first time that politicians have taken self-serving actions. In exchange for the power-sharing agreement, Paisley will be remembered today as a statesman with a peerage, not a garden-variety terrorist. That’s just politics, and Paisley made the smart move. He saw, a decade after Good Friday, that the train was well out of the station, and he jumped on at the last minute.

And so much the better for Northern Ireland that he did.

But he took a damned ugly path to get there. Continue reading No eulogies for Paisleyism

What’s going on with Gerry Adams and the Northern Irish police?

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With just less than a month until voters in both Ireland and Northern Ireland choose their representatives to the European Parliament, the Belfast police have for the past four days given the Irish republican Sinn Féin a potent campaign issue — and exacerbated tensions nearly two decades after the struggle between Irish Catholics and Protestants moved from killing and violence to the realm of politics. northernirelandIreland Icon

Northern Ireland’s police force arrested Gerry Adams, the leader of the republican Sinn Féin since the early 1980s on Wednesday, holding him for four days in relation to one of the most brutal murders of the Northern Irish violence. Other Sinn Féin leaders, including Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, have attacked the arrest as a political stunt, but other politicians in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have been more reticent to comment on what’s become an unpredictable turn of events.

The  arrest relates to the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a mother of 10 who was pulled from her home by armed gunmen within  the Irish Republican Army. She was later killed and ‘disappeared,’ her remains found only in 2003. It was a particularly cruel murder among many such killings during Northern Ireland’s  ‘Troubles,’ the violent struggle between unionist Protestants who largely supported Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom, and Irish nationalist Catholics, who wanted northern Ireland to be part of a unified Irish republic.

The struggle dates to 1921, when the United Kingdom partitioned Ireland into the largely Protestant Northern Ireland and the largely Catholic Southern Ireland. A year later, Southern Ireland became the ‘Irish Free State,’ but most of Northern Ireland’s residents remained committed unionists, despite a strong, organized Catholic minority that favored Ireland’s unification. When the Republic of Ireland gained full independence in 1949, Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, a status that continues to this day. The IRA began an armed struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.

Throughout the worst of the political violence in the 1970s and the 1980s, Sinn Féin emerged as the political arm of the IRA. Though Adams (pictured aboveclaims that he was never a member of the IRA, there were always strong links between the two organizations, and Adams has never apologized for advancing the IRA’s political interests.

Adams surrendered to police on Wednesday in connection to the re-opening of the investigation, and they held him in custody through the weekend, going so far as to obtain a court order in request of an additional 48 hours to interrogate Adams. He was released earlier Sunday without charge — for now.

Former IRA leader Brendan Hughes accused Adams of having organized and ordered the killing on suspicion that McConville was a British spy. Hughes died in 2008, but made the claim to a Boston College historian compiling an oral history of the Troubles. Hughes strenuously broke with Adams after the Sinn Féin leader accepted the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, so his accusations must come with some amount of skepticism — he’s also been dead for six years, making his charge against Adams problematic from an evidentiary point of view.

Shaun Woodward, a British Labour MP and former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, argues in The Guardian that Adams’s arrest highlights the need for a way to address the atrocities committed during the Troubles in a manner that doesn’t jeopardize the future of Northern Ireland’s government and what’s still very much an ongoing peace process:

South Africa dealt with its past through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I can already hear the politicians screaming no, but that’s to be expected: the thing is to take the argument directly to the people. Nor is it for outsiders to choose whether this model could work for Northern Ireland. What is clear is that we need something that allows justice to be seen to be done, without crippling the peace process or simply avoiding the issue. Without a mechanism that is both fair and based on quasi-judicial principles, it is impossible to imagine that Northern Ireland will ever successfully move out of the clenched jaws of its grisly past.

So what does this latest development mean for politics in Northern Ireland and in the southern Republic of Ireland?

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Adams’s arrest could derail 16-year peace in Northern Ireland

The 1998 ‘Good Friday’ agreement largely brought the sectarian violence to an end, and Adams now leads Sinn Féin as a force within both Northern Ireland, where the party sits on the Northern Ireland Executive — it largely governs alongside its rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and other parties. Sinn Féin holds four ministries, the DUP holds five ministries, and three other parties hold another four ministries. Adams’s colleague McGuinness has served as the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland since 2007. Continue reading What’s going on with Gerry Adams and the Northern Irish police?