16 December 2019

Boris Johnson, the Backstop and (north) Irish extremism

Monitorul Apărării şi Securităţii

The UK Parliament’s Chamber of Commons voted (04.09) a law which obliges the Government to not withdraw the United Kingdom from the EU without an agreement. Despite all this, the problem of the “backstop” remains the greatest barrier towards a “disciplined” Brexit. Maintaining an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is seen by many of the island’s and the EU as the guarantee of protecting the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. At the same time, Northern Ireland’s police already states that the activity of Irish extremist groups has grown recently.

Image source: Mediafax

The history of the backstop

After Brexit, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will become the only land border between the UK and the EU. At the same time, it is one of the most sensible borders in the world, as the region went through decades of political and religious violence. At that time, the UK established observation points, control towers and mobile police and army posts in order to control Irish republican extremism. The period of violence ended through a peace agreement signed in 1998 known as the Good Friday Agreement. Through this agreement, the UK agreed to demilitarize the zone and to decommission all elements related to the security infrastructure. Through the same agreement, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland committed to “closely collaborate… as partners in the European Union”. The fact that both states were EU members allowed for the border to remain open.

During Brexit negotiations, both the UK and the EU convened on the fact that no new physical checks or infrastructure should be added in the area. Despite this, the United Kingdom specified that it wishes to leave the single market and the EU’s customs union and continue an independent trade policy, different at least with regards to tariffs and import/export standards. If both sides apply different regulations and customs rules, then a check is necessary, even if it would not be made at the border, but inside the two states. Even in these conditions, the 500 km border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Irelands represents a formidable challenge.

Recently, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that he would want the backstop included in the economic treaty, and not the political one.

Potential actors in a negative role in the post-Brexit period

The interim chief of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s (PSNI) anti-terrorist force, Barbara Gray, warned that Brexit could become a motivating factor for extremists in the case of a disorderly withdrawal.  “We will be prepared and we will be very ready for any potential upsurge in violence that may happen after Brexit,” said Barbara Gray, adding that “anything that brings the border issue into question in Northern Ireland brings tension”.

PSNI is attempting to counteract the potential threat from several dissident groups. The “New Irish Republican Army” (New IRA) is the largest group which could pose such a threat. The recent attacks on police in Fermanagh and Lurgan indicates the fact that the group Continuity IRA (CIRA) is also a potential threat. At the same time, PSNI officers consider that the “Arm na Poblachta” (ANP) and the Irish Republican Movement (IRM) are also possible threats for national security.

As in the period before the Good Friday Agreement was signed, security forces (police and the army) will be the main targets of Irish extremists, because they will be perceived as the main force of instating a “physical” separation between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Negative consequences in the field of security

The main threats are as follows:

  • the growth in the activity of Irish extremist groups and terrorist attacks, especially the IRA and CIRA;
  • the increase in organized crime activity: drug and weapons trafficking, goods and people contraband, etc.

The extremist-terrorist activity

After the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the violence decreased in intensity and frequency, but did not stop for good.

As the potential date of the UK’s withdrawal draws closer, the unending negotiations and the British PM’s sudden changes of heart, corroborated with the recent liberation of a “key” member of the CIRA, who is an expert in weapons and explosives, increase the danger of terrorist actions. Furthermore, at the beginning of September, a masked man sent a message to the Swedish state televisions claiming that he represents the CIRA and the organization is responsible for the Wattlebridge bombing in mid-August. At the same time, the self-claimed CIRA representative also said that the group is currently re-organizing and re-supplying with weapons.

The video posed significant questions within the PSNI, as its information showed that CIRA had not been active in Fermanagh for several years, and that the recent attacks in the area were generated by the IRA.

Therefore, security forces in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are re-thinking their anti-terrorist strategy for the following period.

Most probably, in the period which will immediately follow Brexit, Irish extremis attacks will target elements of technical security and monitoring infrastructure at the “British border”. After the video surveillance systems will be sabotaged, additional human forces will be needed to protect them. The personnel destined for protecting the infrastructure will become a target of Irish extremists. This is how the cycle of violence begins again. The spiral of violence could grow immediately after Brexit, after the installation of new electronic surveillance elements, be it video systems or others operated by personnel.

Another target for Irish extremists could be the security forces from road checkpoints installed to verify the documentation of vehicles and of transported goods.

Illegal trafficking and contraband

In case of a Brexit without an agreement, smugglers will profit from any loopholes in the border’s security system, any price, levy or taxes difference. Smuggling was a business when the United Kingdom had a controlled border with the Republic of Ireland. A hard Brexit could generate a resurgence of contraband with common goods, but also drugs and weapons. As in the past, a part of the smugglers who offer their services to Irish extremist groups to supply them with weapons, explosives and other materials necessary to carry out violent actions, could start doing it again.

Money has no smell, be it the British Pound or the Euro in the Republic of Ireland.

Time will not wait anymore

The solution for the problem of the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border must have a personalized design and durability in its exploitation, because the memories of the period of violence are still alive among the Irish. Any attempt to copy the models offered by the Swedish-Norwegian or French-Swiss borders will be doomed to fail. From this perspective, time is not on the side of politicians, and for the police and anti-terrorist forces from both Irelands, finding an adequate solution is literally a life and death situation.

As Brexit closes in, it is possible that we will be the witnesses of an increase in the activity of Irish extremist groups. Later, even if the solution found for the border dividing the two Irelands will be successful, we cannot expect a total elimination of the activity of Irish extremist groups. In their beliefs, the “presence” of the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland is the reason for their existence and action, and re-establishing border and military surveillance posts will only offer new opportunities to act.

For the moment, the terrorist alert level in Northern Ireland is set at high.

Translated by Ionut Preda