Johnson puts UK establishment & Ireland in the firing line

Posted on August 31, 2019


‘Make the most of October: a month of anniversary events, before the bank runs, food shortages and petrol queues start . . .’ (London Review of Books advert as demonstrations erupted in several UK centres)

The decision by British premier Boris Johnson to prorogue (suspend) parliament has caused an uproar throughout Britain and Europe and has thrown into sharp focus the role of the Westminster parliament, the monarchy, the unelected House of Lords and the country’s unwritten constitution. It has also, perhaps even more worryingly, heightened tensions within Northern Ireland and in communities on both sides of the invisible border that separates the “British” north from the Irish republic.

Johnson’s decision was clearly taken in order to cut short any parliamentary debate about Britain leaving the European Union (Brexit) without any agreed deal. His argument is that parliament is supreme; that the governing party therefore has the right to take decisions which, constitutionally, must be rubber stamped by the monarch.

This archaic tradition dates from 1642 and the last time an English monarch opposed the will of parliament. The result was a long and bitter civil war that resulted in the monarch becoming an effective figurehead, compelled to agree to follow the advice of the ministers of the government.

Queen Elizabeth II has been trying to stay out of the Brexit conflict, especially since parliament is so divided and Johnson has no electoral mandate. But Johnson has now put the queen in an invidious position, being obliged by convention to back the executive of parliament which is opposed by an apparent majority of elected representatives.

Court actions and interdicts are now underway, opposition MPs are talking of setting up an “alternative parliament” should this one be shut down and thousands of people have picketed parliament. On Tuesday (subs: September 3) in a desperate last ditch attempt to stave off a no deal Brexit, MPs across party lines will attempt to pass a new law forbidding a no deal Brexit. But this, if passed, could be stymied by the House of Lords.

The media focus, understandably, has been on London and on what one European newspaper referred to as the “peculiar and schizophrenic” British constitution. But ripples and waves of anger, resentment, hope, fear and confusion are coursing throughout these islands with Ireland a prominent feature.

The Irish republic is part of the EU and is integrated economically to a high degree with the six northern counties that are part of the United Kingdom of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, a result of the peace deal signed in 1922 to end the Irish war of independence. Significantly, the UK section of Ireland, along with Scotland, recorded majorities to remain in the EU.

Subsequent events have led to a resurgence of the independence. movement in Scotland and to talk of a possible “Celtic federation” of Scotland and a united Ireland. However, not only is the EU wary of supporting any fragmentation among member states — Spain, with Catalonia and the Basque country being other examples —the depth of feeling among militant unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland poses a real threat.

This is nowhere more evident than in Northern Ireland’s second city, known officially and to unionists as Londonderry and to republicans as Derry. The city has been the scene of some of the worst of the “Troubles” the bitter urban guerrilla warfare waged by loyalist and republican militias with the British army directly involved.

The Troubles were resolved in 1999 with the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement between the British and Irish governments and political parties on both sides. All agreed that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and would remain so until a majority of the people in both the north and in the republic wished otherwise. Should that happen, the British and Irish governments are under “a binding obligation” to implement that choice.

The only party that refused to sign was the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) whose ten members in the Westminster parliament enable Johnson’s Conservative Party to remain in power despite having no working majority. The republican Sinn Féin party from the north also have seven members elected to the British parliament. But because they do not accept the division of Ireland, the seven boycott Westminster.

Last week, a drive through London/Derry, bolstered by informal discussions, clearly revealed signs of increasing tension. Most noticeable was the painting out of the London on Londonderry street signs, although this is a fairly regular occurrence. But now, apparently triggered by Brexit, are the numbers of triple flags attached to the tops of street light poles, with apparent official collusion: the union flag followed by the red cross of England and then the flag of the Protestant Orange Order.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has also re-emerged in the form of the Continuity IRA and the New IRA, and there have been two recent bombings along with what is suspected to be at least one politically motivated assassination. At the same time, the level of integration has grown over the years. Milk produced in the north is processed in the republic, cancer patients from the Donegal town of Letterkenny cross the invisible border to London/Derry for treatment.

However, in a nice touch of irony, the last thing the government of the Irish republic wants or needs at this time is amalgamation with the six northern counties. “Of course we are all committed to a united Ireland,” a member of the Dublin parliament told me. But promptly added: “But not now. We can’t afford it.”

Northern Ireland is, in fact, a drain on the UK economy. The once mighty Harland & Wolff shipyard that epitomised the now faded industrial strength of the north was placed under administration earlier this month and is insolvent. The yard, that built the ill-fated Titanic, once employed 35 000 men and now has a workforce of just 135.

It also provides another example of the level of integration of the north and south of Ireland and of changing attitudes. Once the bulwark of northern, Protestant men, the remaining H&W workers who are fighting to retain their jobs are represented by a woman shop steward, Susan Fitzgerald who hails from the republican capital of Dublin.

This is one example of what Irish writer and columnist Fintan O’Toole last week referred to as “transformational change” where “things that were unimaginable become real, impossibilities are now facts”. Fitzgerald is one case. Even more remarkable was the appointment in September last year of the head of the republican police force, the An Garda Síochána.

The Garda commissioner is Drew Harris a former deputy chief constable in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) whose police officer father, Alwyn, was killed by an IRA bomb in 1989. When he was appointed, justice minister Charlie Flanagan noted that Harris was “an Irishman” who is “not an outsider”.

However, such examples and even the level of integration remain fragile and more cracks and fractures may emerge well before the final Brexit date of October 31 is reached. “Something must be done” is increasingly — and repeatedly — being demanded. But what? When? By whom? And is it possible to establish a formal border between the north and the republic when the line runs down the centre of sone village streets and even cuts across gardens?

Tuesday afternoon may give some indication of what the future may hold. But then again, it may not, and more chaos will ensue.

Posted in: Reports abroad