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Brexit reality stokes fears for the peace in Northern Ireland

Reuters

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The deep anger among some pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland over post-Brexit trade barriers that cut it off from the rest of the United Kingdom is emblazoned along the road from Belfast to the mainly Protestant port town of Larne, write Padraic Halpin and Guy Faulconbridge.

Posters demanding “No Irish Sea Border”, “Scrap NI Protocol” and “EU Hands Off Ulster” cover much of the 35-km (20-mile) route, their opposition to the new trading arrangements emphasised by the flying of Britain’s Union Jack flag every few lampposts.

A dispute between Britain and the European Union over the implementation of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol - designed to prevent a “hard” Irish border - has raised fears that the outrage it has caused among some caught in the middle could spill over into violent protest in the coming months.

“The only thing that gets any results in this country is violence or the threat of violence,” said Alex, a 72-year-old Larne resident who described himself as a “proper unionist”. He declined to give his surname.

“We are part of the United Kingdom, we were born British, we live British and we will die British.”

The British-run region remains deeply split along sectarian lines, 23 years after a peace deal largely ended three decades of bloodshed. Many Catholic nationalists aspire to unification with Ireland while Protestant unionists want to stay in the UK.

Preserving that delicate peace without allowing the United Kingdom a back door into the EU’s single market via the border between Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland was one of the most difficult issues of nearly four years of tortuous talks on the terms of Britain’s exit from the bloc.

The protocol aimed to solve this by keeping Northern Ireland in both the UK’s customs territory and the EU’s single market.

However, the subsequent disruption at Northern Irish ports to trade in everyday goods such as cheese originating in Britain since the UK left the EU’s orbit on Dec. 31 mean the matter is far from settled.

Unionists say that, in its effort to avoid border checks between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland and so allay nationalist concerns, the Brexit deal has instead cut them off from the rest of the UK with an effective border in the Irish Sea.

‘STRENGTH OF FEELING’

Many unionists say they feel part of their identity is being erased.

This month, Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary groups - who killed Catholics during the years of violence in what they saw as retaliation for Irish Republican Army (IRA) aggression - said they were temporarily withdrawing support for the 1998 Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement.Slideshow ( 4 images )

While they pledged peaceful and democratic opposition to the Brexit deal, the groups, which include the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commando, warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a letter “not to underestimate the strength of feeling”.

David Campbell, chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents the views of loyalist paramilitaries, said a “Pandora’s box” of protest and political crisis would be opened unless the EU agreed to significant changes to the deal.

He said unionist anger was running at the highest level since the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, which gave Dublin a consultative role in Northern Irish affairs and prompted mass protests and a rise in loyalist violence.

“The current leaderships of the loyalist organisations are under extreme pressure from, let’s just say, the young Turks who perhaps see an opportunity to go to war on their terms,” he told Reuters.

Britain acknowledged the depth of feeling on Friday, when Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said unionist disillusionment with the deal could put the province “in quite a dangerous place in terms of stability”.

HEIGHTENED TENSIONS

The loyalist groups’ statement needs to be taken seriously, said Billy Hutchinson, a former Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) prisoner who is now the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), a small loyalist political party with links to the UVF.

While Northern Ireland voted 56%-44% to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, many unionists, who largely backed Brexit, thought it would enhance their Britishness, according to Hutchinson.

Johnson’s government had pledged there would be no new barriers to trade within the UK.

“If there hadn’t been a pandemic, I’m absolutely confident that people would have gone on the streets,” said Hutchinson, who served 15 years in prison for the murder of two Catholic half-brothers in the 1970s.

“If the political parties on the unionist side don’t try to head that off by giving them some sort of hope, some sort of leadership, then you will have violence.”

Few believe the region will return to the bombings and tit-for-tat killings of the “Troubles”, the period that left more than 3,600 people dead. The loyalist groups, though not formally parties to the 1998 accord, endorsed the peace deal and decommissioned their weapons in the years that followed.

RETURN TO THE STREETS?

However, a repeat of the 2013 protests, when petrol bombs and guns returned to the streets of Belfast after a vote by local councillors to end a century-old tradition of flying Britain’s flag from City Hall, is seen as a distinct possibility.

Although the unionist anger is aimed mainly at London, outnumbered nationalists in towns such as Larne fear they could be the target if demonstrations turn ugly, according to James McKeown, a local councillor for the largest pro-Irish party, Sinn Fein, formerly the IRA’s political ally.

McKeown grew up in Larne but in 1998 his family were told by police to leave after their home was repeatedly shot at and petrol bombed. He moved to nearby Carnlough, a picturesque, mainly Catholic village where the Irish flag flies in the harbour.

“Unfortunately in towns like Larne, there is always that element of tension. Has it heightened it? Yes it has,” McKeown said. “There are a lot of people on both sides of the community apprehensive and fearful about where we could go from here."

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UK sends two navy boats to Jersey after France threatens blockade

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The Mont Orgueil Castle is seen behind an island flag at Gorey Harbour in Jersey, in this February 26, 2008 file photo.  REUTERS/Toby Melville

Britain is sending two navy patrol boats to the British Channel Island of Jersey after France suggested it could cut power supplies to the island if its fishermen are not granted full access to UK fishing waters under post-Brexit trading terms, write Richard Lough and Andrew Macaskill.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged his "unwavering support" for the island after he spoke with Jersey officials about the prospect of the French blockade.

Johnson "stressed the urgent need for a de-escalation in tensions," a spokesperson for Johnson said. "As a precautionary measure the UK will be sending two Offshore Patrol Vessels to monitor the situation."

Earlier, France's Seas Minister Annick Girardin said she was "disgusted" to learn that Jersey had issued 41 licences with unilaterally imposed conditions, including the time French fishing vessels could spend in its waters.

"In the (Brexit) deal there are retaliatory measures. Well, we're ready to use them," Girardin told France's National Assembly on Tuesday (4 May).

"Regarding Jersey, I remind you of the delivery of electricity along underwater cables ... Even if it would be regrettable if we had to do it, we'll do it if we have to."

With a population of 108,000, Jersey imports 95% of its electricity from France, with diesel generators and gas turbines providing backup, according to energy news agency S&P Global Platts.

Jersey's government said France and the European Union had expressed their unhappiness with the conditions placed on the issuance of fishing licences.

Jersey’s external relations minister, Ian Gorst, said the island had issued permits in accordance with the post-Brexit trade terms, and that they stipulated any new licence must reflect how much time a vessel had spent in Jersey's waters before Brexit.

"We are entering a new era and it takes time for all to adjust. Jersey has consistently shown its commitment to finding a smooth transition to the new regime," Horst said in a statement.

The rocky island sits 14 miles (23 km) off the northern French coast and 85 miles (140 km) south of Britain's shores.

The French threat is the latest flare-up over fishing rights between the two countries.

Last month, French trawlermen angered by delays to licences to fish in British waters blocked lorries carrying UK-landed fish with burning barricades as they arrived in Boulogne-sur-Mer, Europe’s largest seafood processing centre.

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Brexit barriers in focus as Northern Ireland's DUP kicks off leadership contest

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Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) Edwin Poots makes a statement to the media outside Stormont Castle in Belfast, Northern Ireland June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

Northern' Ireland's biggest party was set for its first ever leadership election after its Westminster chief Jeffrey Donaldson threw his hat into the ring, promising to focus on the divisive issue of post-Brexit trade barriers.

Donaldson will stand against Edwin Poots to lead the Democratic Unionist Party at a time of heightened instability in the British province and unionist anger over the installation of a customs border in the Irish Sea.

Both Donaldson and Poots, Northern Ireland's agriculture minister, stopped short of making detailed campaign promises. But Britain, Ireland and the rest of Europe will be watching for any hardening of stances on Brexit or social issues including abortion that could alter the political balance ahead of elections next year.

The DUP currently leads Northern Ireland in a power-sharing government with its Irish nationalist rivals Sinn Fein.

Donaldson or Poots will take over the leadership from Arlene Foster who announced last week she was stepping down as Northern Ireland's First Minister at the end of June, bowing to pressure from party members unhappy at her leadership. Read more

Her departure has added to instability in the region, where angry young pro-British loyalists rioted in recent weeks, partly over the barriers that they feel have cut them off from the rest of the UK.

"I will develop and swiftly implement an agreed programme of meaningful reform and clear policy direction on key challenges like the protocol," Donaldson said in a video announcement, referring to the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Like Foster, Donaldson, 58, is a former member of the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party. He was part of the negotiating team that stuck a deal to prop up the government of former British Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017.

Once the DUP's support was no longer needed, May's successor Boris Johnson broke the party's "blood red line" and agreed to erect the trade barriers.

Poots, 55, is one of a number of DUP ministers who have protested against the Brexit arrangements by refusing to attend meetings with Irish counterparts established under the 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.

Poots, a young earth creationist who rejects the theory of evolution, announced he was standing last week.

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Statement by Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič following the conclusion of the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement

EU Reporter Correspondent

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European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič warmly welcomes the ratification of the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement, which will now be fully applicable as of 1 May 2021. This comes after an overwhelming vote of consent by the European Parliament on 27 April and subsequent Council decision today, thereby concluding the ratification process. The EU and the UK will exchange letters to that effect.  

"The ratification of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement is good news for European citizens and businesses. It provides a solid foundation for our longstanding friendship, co-operation and partnership with the United Kingdom on the basis of shared interests and values.

"In practice, the Agreement helps avoid significant disruptions, while protecting European interests and upholding the integrity of our Single Market. It also ensures a robust level playing field, by maintaining high levels of protection in areas, such as climate and environmental protection, social and labour rights, or state aid. Moreover, the Agreement includes effective enforcement, a binding dispute settlement mechanism and the possibility for both parties to take remedial measures.

"Democratic scrutiny will continue to be key in the implementation phase of the Agreement in order to ensure faithful compliance. Unity among EU institutions and member states will remain a cornerstone during this new chapter in our EU-UK relations." 

Vice President Šefčovič reiterates that the European Commission looks forward to a strong, constructive and collaborative partnership with the United Kingdom, based on mutual trust and respect. We have far more in common than that which divides us. He will reach out this week to Lord David Frost, co-chair of the EU-UK Partnership Council, to prepare the launch of its work, including the work of Specialized Committees.  

Finally, the Commission will continue to work tirelessly for joint solutions so that the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland in particular, is also fully implemented and works for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.

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