Dozens of trucks have to turn around. Days of delay in Northern Irish ports. Packages from Amazon that don’t arrive. Empty shelves in the Northern Irish supermarkets. Threats to inspectors.
The start of Brexit went far from flawless for Northern Ireland. Under the watchful eye of EU observers, inspectors control British food products arriving in the Northern Irish ports of Larne and Belfast. Since 1 January there has been a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and that has caused a lot of trouble.
The customs border is a consequence of the Northern Ireland Protocol, one of the core agreements of Brexit. The Northern Ireland peace in order to protect it, and agreed that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland therefore continues to follow part of the trade rules of the European Union.
The problems are creating new unrest in Northern Ireland, where there has been a fragile peace between the Catholic and Protestant communities since the 1998 peace agreements. That discontent goes much deeper than empty shelves in supermarkets. Especially the Protestant community feels threatened by the new situation.
In the port city of Larne, which is considered a stronghold of Protestant unionists, threatening texts have appeared on the walls in recent weeks. “All bets are off”. The inspectors in the port no longer felt safe, after which they temporarily stopped the checks.
“You can understand why people are angry,” says Sammy Wilson, who represents Larne’s constituency in the House of Commons. Wilson is a member of the DUP, the largest Protestant Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. “There is now a border across the country to which we belong. This undermines Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.”
Since 2007, the DUP has formed a coalition government in Northern Ireland with the once-sworn enemies of Sinn Féin, the political branch of the paramilitary organisation IRA. That coalition has stood by trial and error, but the differences between the two coalition partners seem bigger this year than ever.
Catholic Sinn Féin campaigned for EU membership in 2016, while DUP is a supporter of Brexit. Sinn Féin thinks the dream of a united Ireland is closer than ever. For the DUP and the Protestant community that is exactly an abomination scenario. They want to stay with the United Kingdom at all costs.
The unionists therefore feel doubly betrayed. They do not trust the EU, but they also blame the British government. Sammy Wilson: “London should never have accepted the border if it wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.”
‘Prepare to return to arms’
Nowhere is this Protestant ‘siege mentality’ as tangible as in the working-class district of Castlemara in Carrickfergus, a town wedged between the ports of Larne and Belfast. On the houses are life-size murals of young men with balaclavas and AK47s in their hands. This is the territory of the Ulster Defense Association, one of the many Protestant paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.
The 55 – year-old Spacer is the local UDA commander in this district. He expresses the deep-seated fear that lives in many inhabitants. “We are sold out by the British government. The European Union only represents the interests of Dublin, which strives for a united Ireland.”
In Northern Ireland, the question is always whether tensions can lead to new violence. The UDA commander is not going to beat around the bush. “I am prepared to pick up the weapons again if necessary. The customs border across the Irish Sea must disappear and there must be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This is the only way to make it clear that Northern Ireland is and will remain British.”
In Northern Ireland, they take this kind of noise very seriously. Behind the scenes there has been a lot of negotiations with the various groups in recent weeks. In late January, the notorious paramilitary leader Michael Stone was released along with four other members of armed Protestant groups. According to the official statement, they were eligible for early release, but Northern Irish commentators see it primarily as a gesture to soothe Protestant unionist feelings.
The action seems to be bearing fruit for the time being. Reach UK, an organisation representing former paramilitaries from the Protestant community, called for “calm and rational talks” last weekend.
But the question is how long that relative peace lasts. Reach UK supports the DUP’s proposal to end the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to eliminate the customs border across the Irish Sea. Dublin and Brussels never agree. Thus there remains a breeding ground for a dormant unrest.