Opinion

Lord Frost is playing chicken with the EU over the NI Protocol. What happens next?

As the deadline looms for a solution to one of the UK’s biggest Brexit sticking points, Northern Ireland not only faces rising discontent and uncertainty, but a real fear it could return to its troubled past

EU Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič has been at the centre of negotiations with the UK's David Frost. Image: Pietro Naj-Oleari/ European Parliament/Flickr

The fallout over post-Brexit arrangements for Irish Sea trade, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, is not just the legislative headache for Boris Johnson’s government it has been painted as. 

It has far reaching consequences that includes the potential to set back a still emerging and fragile post-conflict society to a very dark place. 

Last month, Brexit minister Lord David Frost declared the trade deal, that keeps NI aligned with EU rules, as “unsustainable”. 

He said the nation may have to trigger Article 16 if there is no “significant change from Brussels” by December. 

In response, EU commissioner Maroš Šefčovič said there would be “serious consequences” if Downing Street suspended the post-Brexit deal.  

While the British press focused on a potential UK-EU ‘trade war’, little was mentioned of what was happening in Northern Ireland

In November alone, buses have been hijacked and set alight on the streets, public transport services cancelled, and street violence has erupted – twice – at community interfaces. 

Last week, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), the political wing of the paramilitary UVF, withdrew its support for the deal that brokered peace – the Good Friday Agreement. 

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson said that there was “no basis for unionist support” for the Belfast Agreement, which he was involved in negotiating in the late 1990s. 

Violence and sectarian tensions alone, no matter how confined, should never be taken with a pinch of salt when it comes to Northern Ireland. 

And the heightening and very public discontent of loyalists should not be either. 

In scenes reminiscent of 1980s Belfast, four masked men boarded, hijacked and burned a bus on the outskirts of the city last week. 

Days before, another bus driver was held at gunpoint in Newtownards, Co Down, before his vehicle was hijacked and torched. 

A group calling itself the ‘Protestant Action Force’ – which in the past has had links to the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force – said it was responsible. 

The gang said it carried out the act to mark the passing of a DUP deadline at the start of the month for resolving the Protocol issues, a deadline the unionist power-sharing party later backtracked on. 

The attacks – the fourth on public transport this year – led to the cancelling of bus services across the capital city and all-round condemnation from politicians across the political divide. 

The same week, disorder broke out at a west Belfast community interface following a protest against the ‘Irish Sea Border’. 

Both nationalist and loyalist youths were involved in the violence, that saw police attacked with missiles and fireworks. 

It echoed what ignited there, and on other streets in Belfast and Derry, at Easter. 

It started on April 7, three days before the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. A bus travelling close to the peace divide in Belfast was hijacked and then petrol bombed by loyalist youths. Years of extensive cross-community work was then put at risk when battles erupted between the loyalist enclave of Shankill Road and the Irish Republican stronghold of Lanark Way.  

Rival gangs used Molotov cocktails, fireworks and masonry in an orgy of destruction. Eventually the padlocked steel doors of the peace gate were prised open and the disorder continued long in the night. 

Scenes like this had not been witnessed on the streets of the Northern Irish capital for a long time, and  brought back painful memories for many of the Troubles, where over 3,000 people lost their lives.   

There is a genuine fear that the escalating violence will break Northern Ireland’s fragile peace and bring about a return to those dark days. Although chaos and disorder has not been completely consigned to history in Northern Ireland, the relative calm which settled after the Good Friday Agreement convinced many residents that a return to the horror of those years must never be allowed to happen again.  

Perhaps that is why much of the media in Britain gloss over the recent discontent and disorder. 

But this is a position that Northern Ireland has never been in before in post peace times. 

Outside of the local press, little acknowledgment has been given to the firmly held belief that paramilitaries, including the criminal UVF and UDA, have played a part in orchestrating some of the serious violence and disorder. 

The same criminal gangs, whose representatives met with Westminster in May over the Protocol, signed up to peace 23 years ago but have continued to carry out murder, racketeering and extortion in their own communities. Now with a melting pot of Protocol uncertainty, street violence and the pulling of support for the life-saving Belfast Agreement, the question will there be a consequence? Let’s hope it’s not peace. 

Patricia Devlin is an investigative journalist. @trishdevlin 

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