Iain Begg, Professor at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science, discussed with Sputnik the current social unrest in Northern Ireland. Professor went deeper and spoke in detail about the history of the conflict between nationalists and unionists, and suggested possible solutions to the conflict. In his view, there are compromises that some sides are going to have to take to limit the damage that’s done.

Sputnik: According to the media, one of the main reasons for the current social unrest  is Northern Ireland’s new trading arrangements under the protocol. How much does this disagreement really contribute to the destabilizing situation in NI?

Iain Begg: I think it’d be fair to say that the Brexit trade agreement lit the fuse for what’s happening, but it’s building on decades or even centuries of animosity between the two sides in Northern Ireland: the Protestant majority and the Catholic minority. It’s worth recalling that it is nearly 100 years since Northern Ireland was first created as a result of the giving Ireland this independence and the Protestants in Northern Ireland objected to that, which is the reason we have Northern Ireland in the first place. We then have to go back as well to what’s called the Good Friday Agreement, or Belfast Agreement, which tried to settle all the troubles that we saw in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s onwards. That peace agreement brokered by the Americans, signed up to by the European Union and held by both sides, Ireland and Britain, required that there be no border in Ireland. And as soon as you say that there could be no border in Ireland, you have a problem, which is that once the United Kingdom is outside the single market and the customs union, you need a border somewhere.

And the decision in the agreement for withdrawal and subsequently for the trade and cooperation agreement between the UK and the EU was, in effect that nobody says it in formal terms, to create a border within the United Kingdom, in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the larger island. To begin with they thought this could be done relatively straightforwardly with only minimal restrictions. But the experience of the first three months of Brexit has been that it does create problems for Northern Ireland: food supply; Amazon refusing to deliver. And that has irritated the unionist side in Northern Ireland. And the clue is in the word “unionist.” It wants to be part of the United Kingdom. The Unionists don’t like the idea that there’s now, in effect, a border, however minimal, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which they want to be part of as part of the United Kingdom. So, it’s one of these impossible tangles. You need a border, but you don’t want to either in the Irish Sea or in Ireland. So what do you do? And this has been something that’s caused friction in the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. For Russian viewers, this is a bit like trying to deal with the Chechens.

Sputnik: One of the reasons for public anger in NI was that Sinn Féin members were not charged over for attending Bobby Storey’s funeral, despite lockdown measures. Will the standing of Sinn Fein (which won second place in Dáil Éireann in the 2020 elections), change?

Iain Begg: There’s two different things to say on this. First is that funerals in Northern Ireland have always had a very strong political significance. There are many occasions where funerals have been attended by one or either side in a way which irritates the opposite side. The agreement to go to the funeral a few days ago was because a prominent, some would say freedom fighter, others would say terrorist on the nationalist, the Republican side has died. And therefore, Sinn Fein members felt they ought to attend because it’s part of the tribalism of Northern Ireland to attend. So that’s one side of it. And the other side of it is that, had they not done so, Sinn Fein would have lost face with their nationalist community. It’s almost a political obligation on them to attend. So on the contrary, it will strengthen the Sinn Fein members, even though it causes friction with the Protestant majority, and some would say with the new overall government of Northern Ireland, which itself is designed to be power sharing between the two sides.

People walk past graffiti saying ‘Sandy Row, British till we die’ in Belfast, Northern Ireland, March 6, 2021. Picture taken March 6, 2021. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Sputnik: Let’s talk a little bit about the Northern Ireland protocol. What changes do you think should be made to the protocol to help satisfy both sides, the unionists and the nationalists?

Iain Begg: Well, there are four possible solutions. Solution that’s in place is the border in the Irish Sea. Another solution would be to have a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. But that’s ruled out by the Good Friday Agreement, even though because Britain is no longer the part of the European Union, it would be normal to have the border on Ireland. The third solution is to have unification of Ireland. But there the problem is that you are never going to persuade the unionist majority in Northern Ireland to agree to that. It’s is the reason Northern Ireland exists in the first place, dating from 100 years ago. And the forth solution will be Britain to stay inside the European Union single market, in which case you don’t need a border. And all of these solutions are uncomfortable. You need to choose at least one of them not to happen or you have an impossible way out. So, the most likely way of resolving it is for an attempt to minimize the nature of the border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, make it so limited that you barely notice it. But instead, what’s happened is the Northern Ireland people have recognized that there are real problems of paperwork, of supply, of foodstuffs, other things coming from Great Britain. So, that’s why they have become more and more concerned about it. There is no easy solution. 

Sputnik: What is the likelihood that the UVF or IRA or similar banned organizations will become active again in the near future?

Iain Begg: Well, some would say they never stopped being active. They were just suppressed or decided to take a pause. They probably still have their stocks of arms hidden away somewhere in the remote parts of Northern Ireland. So, there is a risk of re-inflaming the conflict in a way that nobody wants. And that’s why the big political imperative, not just for the UK. It’s not a UK internal problem exclusively.

© AP Photo / Peter Morrison
An Irish Republic Army (IRA) mural on a wall in west Belfast, Northern Ireland, Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2006.

It’s also a problem for Ireland. And because it’s a problem for Ireland, that is a problem for the European Union and it’s a problem for the Americans because they are guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, which means that there is no border in Ireland. And once again, there isn’t a single best solution. There are compromises that some sides are going to have to take to limit the damage that’s done.

Sputnik: According to statistics, approximately 358,900 Republic of Ireland passports were issued to UK residents from 2017 to 2020. This represents almost 12 percent of all Irish passports issued in the past four years. What is the reason for this spike?

Iain Begg: It suits British citizens who would like to retain a formal connection to the European Union. That’s the only explanation. It was revealed even a few days ago that the famous spy writer, John Le Carré, just before he died, took out Irish citizenship because he objected to Brexit.

Sputnik: So, the only reason they are issuing this passports is that they objected to Brexit?

Iain Begg: The Irish been willing to do it. And the citizens who requested are those who want to retain a connection to the European Union, which they would otherwise lose because of Brexit. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re for or against Brexit. They just want to retain the European link.

Sputnik: How strong is the desire for independence from the UK among Irish citizens, given the long, recently concluded Brexit process?

Iain Begg: We have to be very precise in the way you phrase that question, because there are three kinds of Irish citizens. First, there are those in what the country is now called Ireland, and they are, in theory, romantically in favor of a single Ireland. But they are also suspicious of the people in Northern Ireland, who they regard as different and dangerous for the coherence of Ireland itself. And then in Northern Ireland, you have two very strongly split communities, the Protestant community and the Catholic, or unionist and nationalist if you take religion out of it. And they really don’t speak to each other. They try to cooperate, but they have very different political ideologies and wishes.

Sputnik: Will the sentiment for the unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland intensify? 

Iain Begg: Well, this is where you have to go back into history, why Northern Ireland was created, which was because the minority of Irish people in Northern Ireland did not want to be part of Catholic Ireland. This was the result of the 1922 agreement that created Ireland. That’s still the case.

You have to recognize as well that many of the people of Protestant religion – I say religion, it doesn’t mean they’re they go to church every week, but they’re labeled as being like this – are settlers who came from Scotland. So, they have a different mentality, a different tribal allegiance from the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, which is traditionally Catholic and is in favor of a single Irish state.

You don’t easily mix the two.

Sputnik: How far do you think local unrest can go? 

Iain Begg: I think we don’t hope it will diminish. But what it needs is a fresh look at the arrangement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, because this sense that the agreement that Boris Johnson has made is alienating Northern Ireland or separating it from Great Britain is one which the Unionist community, Protestant community in Northern Ireland does not like. That’s once again why the word unionist is significant, they favor the British Union. They don’t want an Irish union, and you keep coming up against the same dilemma again and again, it’s a minority in the whole of Ireland, but a majority in Northern Ireland, which wants the status quo. It wants to be a full part of the United Kingdom in the same way as the Welsh, the Scots and the English.

The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.