Hard Brexit, hard border, hard men

Photo by Kevin Kosi on Pexels.com

Overlooking the Lunch Lounge cafe on Castlereagh Road in Loyalist East Belfast, three gunmen pose with automatic weapons and offer their unwavering support ‘For God and Ulster’. The mural is a reminder of darker days; the Troubles, when Northern Ireland was riven with sectarian hatred.

Amid the talk of no deal and hard borders, does Brexit really have the power to hand Northern Ireland’s future back to the gunmen?

History shows what would likely happen to any fixed infrastructure on the border. “If something looks like a target it will be treated as such,” says a spokesman for the Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI). A former Special Branch Officer agrees: “Any infrastructure on the border will be a target, without a shadow of a doubt.”

Rancour and division remain in Northern Ireland. The imperfect peace has left “a disappointing variety of normal” compared to the rest of the UK, in the words of one security expert. Certainly levels of violence are down: in 2018 there were 39 shootings and 17 bombings, both down slightly from the previous year, resulting in 50 casualties and two deaths. But while the allure of paramilitary groups has dimmed, as their capability and calling has reduced, they haven’t gone away you know, and the polarisation of politics means they have a greater audience for their messages. Young hot-heads will always listen to war stories.

Such talk is quickly dismissed by locals in the Lunch Lounge cafe.

“Brexit won’t make any difference to us,” says an octogenarian diner buttering a fruit scone. But not everyone is so sanguine. A lot will depend on whether Unionists perceive a threat to the union, says a security source. If they feel disenfranchised, Loyalist paramilitaries could be encouraged to take to the streets.

Those keen on maintaining, and defending, the link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain work in areas of national infrastructure – such as power generation and transportation – to a much greater degree than those with Nationalist sympathies. Concerted industrial action, albeit short of actual civil disobedience, could still cause headaches in Westminster.

Doug Beattie, a member of the Stormont Assembly for the Ulster Unionist Party, describes himself as an optimistic pessimist. Speaking in Portadown, a town once under the spell of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, he expresses support for the teaching of the Irish language, same-sex marriage and abortion. But his sunny disposition soon darkens.

Pointing out that 56 per cent of people in Northern Ireland voted for Remain in 2016, he fears both the DUP and Sinn Féin see advantages in whipping up tensions. “They’ve both done it before,” he says. The DUP play on the sovereignty issue, he believes, and Sinn Féin, a party historically cool towards the EU, senses another opportunity to push for a united Ireland, so gripes about leaving. They may even orchestrate civil disobedience in border towns such as Newry, Crossmaglen and Londonderry so as to agitate for a referendum, he warns.

“If we exit on a no deal basis then [Sinn Féin’s] call for a border poll will really take off. And it’s difficult to say they can’t have it. And if we do it for Northern Ireland, there’s a chance we may have to do it for Scotland. A no deal Brexit could see the breakup of the union.”

The Falls Road in Republican West Belfast holds a totemic position in the history of Britain’s involvement in the Troubles. Locals are wary of outsiders, and the Sinn Féin offices, still sporting the mural to Republican hero Bobby Sands – proclaiming ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children’ – are only accessed after much explanation and the unlocking of doors.

The party says there are only two ways to avoid a hard Brexit on the island of Ireland. First, the north (it does not use the term ‘Northern Ireland’) should be given special status and stay within the EU structures. The second way would be to unite the island after a referendum. Neither are remotely palatable for Unionists.

Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said in a statement to the Telegraph: “Ireland’s people, Ireland’s economy and Ireland’s peace process all need to be protected as we go forward.

“We need to say clearly to the British that if they wish to Brexit then that’s a matter for themselves but any Brexit agreement needs to recognise, understand and protect the people, the economy and the peace process on this island.”

The British government is keen to dampen any speculation of increased security preparation. The PSNI currently grades the threat from Dissident Republicans as ‘severe’ and says the government gave permission for an extra 300 officers to be recruited as a one-off because of the uncertainty around Brexit. Beyond that all the spokesman would say was “it’s a political decision. Everyone’s watching with bated breath”. The army and Northern Ireland Office would not discuss the issue.

However, security insiders suggest that rather than fixed infrastructure or a greater presence by the police or military, the security response to a no deal Brexit is expected to be more subtle. Intelligence-led work by the police, MI5, National Crime Agency and others is likely to increase in intensity, if not visibility. The check points were there to tackle terrorism, says Mr Beattie, “and even then they didn’t work”.

Like the rest of the UK, whichever way Brexit goes there will be people left feeling hard done by in Northern Ireland. The difference is that with the Stormont Assembly suspended for the last two years there are few political mechanisms through which the inevitable issues can be resolved. Border infrastructure in the event of a no deal Brexit is most unlikely, but civil disobedience, with the attendant risk of spiralling into greater violence, is not. Agendas abound, hidden and otherwise, and paramilitaries still lurk. As one security source says: “The devil continues his work in the shadows”.

Defending Brexit

20160725-Fallon_imageIt was pretty sweaty in the House of Commons when I visited last week to attend the Defence Select Committee. As the temperature outside nudged 30 degrees I was glad I’d chosen shorts that morning, but the nuclear-flash of whiteness when my lower legs were revealed was not a pretty sight. Still, I was in better shape than General Sir Gordon Messenger, the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff; the second most senior person in the UK’s Defence hierarchy. The poor chap was trussed up for the occasion in his heavy wool service dress and his shiny flushed cheeks suggested he was wearing an olive-drab steam sauna. When we shook hands my palm slipped straight off his and we ended up gripping each others’ wrists, as if in some bizarre Masonic clinch.

The Vice Chief was there along with the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon (pictured), and Peter Watkins, a senior civil servant and current Director General of Security Policy in the Ministry of Defence, to answer questions from the 11-person committee (you can watch it here). It was the last such session before the summer recess (Parliament next sits on September 5th) and covered a lot of ground including the recent NATO summit in Warsaw, Russia, Chilcot, Brexit and the work of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. Select Committees will never make the list of Top Ten tourist destinations in London, but this one cantered along at a fair old pace, with one or two moments of tension between the panel and the committee.

One such moment was when James Gray, a Conservative, pressed the Defence Secretary about the impact of Brexit on the UK military. He suggested that if Britain is not to be a member of the EU for much longer, “presumably we won’t be taking part in any EU [military] operations?” In response the Defence Secretary asserted that it was in Britain’s national interest “not just to be good Europeans [and] cooperation with the EU is going to remain important to our shared security interests”. There was no intention of withdrawing from the EU’s military missions conducted as part of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), he said, and highlighted the overlapping interests and missions of the EU and NATO. He pointed to the current deployments of Royal Navy ships in the Aegean with NATO and the central Mediterranean with the EU; both operations are tackling people-smuggling networks and rescuing migrants in peril. He also referred to Norway, a non-EU member providing military resources for CSDP missions (most of which are outside Europe) where there are shared national interests, as a possible future model for the UK.

Interest. Mine, yours, national, security; it’s an ill-defined term that can be used to explain a multitude of choices and outcomes. Is our national interest defined by that which is to be defended or that which is to be influenced? And which interests are enduring and which temporary? We expect our politicians and officials to wrestle with these conundrums amid a turbulent world, with limited resources, a paucity of information and, often, a sceptical public.

If the national interest is more towards defending territory, life can be, relatively, easy. The Cold War demanded a fairly narrow definition of security (survival of the country) and limited Defence funding could be poured into heavy metal. But in the modern era, in a complex battlespace that, arguably, extends from the Iraqi desert to the streets of Nice and every environment in between, things are not so clear. Lay on top of that the rise of religious, ethnic or resource-driven conflicts and an array of new actors – Non-Governmental Organisations, criminals, terrorists, Trans-National Corporations, social movements and so on – and policy can quickly be overwhelmed, paralysed and rendered irrelevant. How much Defence is enough? Which issues are exclusively military concerns? And what are the security implications of marginal changes up or down in the Defence budget?

Defence Strategy is never about being right – it costs too much to cover every eventuality – rather, it is to be not so wrong that when the threat finally reveals itself the military cannot quickly adjust to the adversary without losing a lot of people and bankrupting the country. Influencing partners and potential aggressors, therefore, is critical to shaping our interest in any possible future, given the current myriad threats.

So, military resources are also used to influence as far as possible, as a much cheaper way to realise national interests (of course, action also influences in a more immediate and obvious way). The Defence Secretary was keen to point out how, in this chaotic and dangerous world, it is in Britain’s interest to retain and strengthen partnerships. NATO, the 5-Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangement with the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the 2010 military bilateral agreement with France (which is not without its issues, according to Chatham House) and even, notwithstanding Brexit, the EU are all critical channels in this regard.

In closing this part of the Select Committee the Defence Secretary said he saw no reason why Brexit “should inhibit either our cooperation bilaterally or future cooperation on missions in our direct interest.” Militarily-speaking then, the new government of Mrs May intends to continue the policy of Mr Cameron’s: that it is in Britain’s enduring national interest to remain close to our European allies. It seems Brexit will have little impact on future British military posture and engagement with the EU.

When the Vice Chief nodded a goodbye as we left the Palace of Westminster, his eyeballs looked like they’d been poached. I went in search of a cool drink; he headed off in the direction of a dry-cleaners.