09 maggio 2022 16:18
Four months ago, British diplomat Jonathan Powell, one of the strategists in the peace talks for Northern Ireland, raised the alarm: the Good Friday agreements, which in 1998 put an end to thirty years of violence in the region, they were at risk. “What worries me is political vandalism. It seems that they do not care in the least about the damage they are doing to the fragile Northern Irish political balance ”.
“They” are Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government, who have never shown any regard for the thin and fragile peace agreement concluded a quarter century ago by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Powell, then his chief of police. staff, they have. Indeed, there are many doubts that Johnson understands this.
For the first time in Northern Ireland’s 101-year history, the May 5 elections awarded the majority of seats to Sinn Féin, a Catholic and “nationalist” party that would like to unify Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, the nation that occupies the rest of the island.
The result unsettled the three political parties that had so far divided the votes of the (once dominant) Protestants, but it did not surprise them. The higher birth rate among Catholics had already produced a Catholic majority in the country’s schools. At this point it is possible that the overtaking also occurred at the level of the general population.
The leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, did not succumb to the temptation to talk about a referendum on unification, limiting herself to more concrete issues. Party leader in Dublin, Mary Lou McDonald (who could become the next Prime Minister of the republic), sent a message to Belfast saying: “Don’t be afraid. The bright future awaits all of us ”.
But the truth is that many people in Northern Ireland are scared, and not just Protestants. Twenty-five years of peace were not enough to forget the previous thirty years, marked by what was essentially a civil war in which people who lived a few blocks away considered themselves enemies and sectarian attacks and murders were on the agenda. day.
It is too early to bet on a peaceful transition to a unified Irish republic free of sectarian divisions
The old fears and hatred of the past are clearly waning among people born after 1998 (and even some of the older population), but many believe it is still too early to bet on a peaceful transition to a unified Irish republic and devoid of sectarian divisions.
A handful of fierce “loyalists” (Protestants) would be enough to blow up the whole process, also because even today there is no shortage of hidden weapons and explosives. The militants would eventually succumb anyway, but only after years of violence and a new wave of fear and resentment.
Unfortunately it is possible that Northern Ireland is really getting close to such a scenario. According to the Good Friday agreement, in fact, any government in the country must present a division of powers between a “prime minister” and a “deputy prime minister” from the ranks of the two major parties. No government can be formed without this guarantee.
In this case “vice” is only a detail, because the two offices have the same power. The problem is that for Protestant hawks this represents an unbearable downsizing. For this reason, the Democratic Unionist Party, the main Protestant party, refuses to accept the post of “deputy prime minister” in a deliberate act of sabotage.
The rules stipulate that in the event of the impossibility of forming a government, a return to the polls within four months. If the new elections did not produce a different result (and why should they?), It would return to “direct government” from London, that is to say, the rule prior to the Good Friday agreements. At that point it is foreseeable that even the most extremist Catholics would mobilize.
None of this is inevitable, but the British Nationalist Party’s grand project makes this scenario much more probable. The big project is of course Brexit, which automatically required the restoration of a real border between Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, still part of the European Union.
The Good Friday agreement had magically made that border invisible, without the need for customs controls or passports. In this way nationalist Catholics could claim to already live in a united Ireland while loyalist Protestants could argue that “power sharing” did not mean real change. But when the UK left the European Union, that sleight of hand stopped working.
To keep the border invisible, Johnson had to move it across the Irish Sea, leaving Northern Ireland within the EU customs union. Today customs controls are carried out on board ships and planes from the UK to any point on the island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland.
Loyalists feel betrayed and abandoned, and they are right. Secretly, most British politicians have long wanted to “unload” the Northern Irish, so unification will sooner or later be inevitable. The problem is that at this moment, when the generational change is not yet complete, the march towards unification could produce a last wave of violence.
(Translation by Andrea Sparacino)