Britain’s March 29 deadline for leaving the European Union is creeping ever closer.
Despite repeated attempts at a vote, the British government appears no closer to reaching compromise, with sources close to Prime Minister Theresa May conceding that they are likely to lose the “meaningful vote” on her Brexit deal scheduled for January 15. May was previously forced to call off a vote on her Brexit deal in December when it became evident she would lose.
While the British government remains paralyzed, businesses, and government services are themselves beginning to prepare for the increasingly likely possibility of a “no-deal” scenario. According to The Guardian, a thousand officers in England and Scotland are being given additional public order (i.e. riot) training for possible deployment to Northern Ireland, in case of a no-deal Brexit.
The reinforcements are seen as necessary because Northern Ireland is historically the U.K.’s most troubled region, as well as the region which would be most directly impacted in the wake of a no-deal Brexit, as it is the only part of the U.K. that shares a land border with another EU country (the Republic of Ireland).
The region is also the center of a centuries-old divide between Catholic Nationalists, who align themselves with Ireland, and Protestant Loyalists, who align themselves with the U.K. During the 20th century, this tension resulted in the Troubles, a 30-year conflict which resulted in nearly 4,000 deaths and 50,000 injuries. While the scale of the violence has died down since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, simmering tensions remain. Bomb threats and rioting are a regular occurrence.
A no-deal Brexit could reignite the conflict. A key part of the Good Friday Agreement peace deal was keeping the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland open. During the Troubles, this border was heavily militarized by the British Army in an effort to keep out Nationalist paramilitaries like the IRA (Irish Republican Army). The dismantling of the border watchtowers and the de-mobilization of the British Army who used to patrol the border was seen as a historic triumph; a peaceful compromise after decades of violence.
The no-deal scenario would re-instate this hard border. Such a move could be interpreted as a slap in the face for Northern Ireland’s Catholic population and lead to a resurgence of paramilitary activity, especially bearing in mind that Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU.
“The last thing we would want is any infrastructure around the border because there is something symbolic about it and it becomes a target for violence dissident republicans [Catholic nationalists],” Chief Constable George Hamilton of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) told The Belfast Telegraph. “Our assessment is that they would become a target because it would be representative of the state and in their minds fair game for attack.”
Complicating things further is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a far-right Northern Ireland political party aligned with the Protestant population, which adamantly supports a “hard border.” The DUP are also currently propping up May’s slim majority in Parliament, but are also currently refusing to back her Brexit deal since May’s current agreement on the border is too favorable to the EU and Nationalists.
The end result, like all things Brexit-related, is a massive headache with no obvious solution. While the politicians in Westminster continue to bicker, the March deadline creeps ever-closer, with minimal thought given to the Irish border mess, despite the repeated warnings of the PSNI.
“There’s a feeling that as regards the Troubles and the conflict, Northern Ireland is sorted and we don’t need to worry about it,” Hamilton told the Sunday Times last September. “Actually we’re working flat out 24/7 to keep a lid on it.”