Brexit Could Spark a Return to Violence in Northern Ireland

Republican and loyalist paramilitary groups are using the U.K.’s departure from the EU as political cover to reignite their once-dormant campaigns of terrorism.

An Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) mural in North Belfast, Northern Ireland.
An Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) mural in North Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Oct. 19, 2019. Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

The conflict in Northern Ireland was thought to have ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The Troubles—as the conflict is known colloquially—was a low-level ethnonationalist war fought between militant republicans (who strove to unify Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland) on one side and militant loyalists (who wanted to preserve the union between Northern Ireland and Britain) on the other.

The conflict left more than 3,600 people dead, mostly at the hands of republican paramilitaries such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and their loyalist counterparts in the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force. When the Good Friday Agreement went into effect, the bulk of those organizations ceased to operate, but a few small splinter groups continued to wage low-level campaigns of violence.

Splinter groups are common in post-conflict settings, and they typically wield outsized influence, because, even if an all-encompassing political settlement is reached, the infrastructure for terrorism is still readily available. Paramilitaries usually retain access to at least some weapons, and the institutional memory of intelligence techniques, operational security, and critical skills like bomb-making and surveillance detection is passed on. Politics plays a role, too.

Splintering often occurs after a political settlement forces a reexamination of tactics, when one faction of the group chooses to pursue its aims by constitutional means and the more extreme elements continue to believe that only violence can achieve their objectives. This was largely the case in Northern Ireland after 1998.

For those reasons, even after robust disarmament and demobilization—as well as the rollout of reconciliation programs—splinter groups remain a serious concern. In some cases, they have gone on to become more violent than their parent organizations, especially if they can capitalize on changed political and socioeconomic circumstances and attract new recruits willing to resort to violence.Brexit seems to have given Northern Ireland’s constellation of splinter groups a new political edge.

This isn’t always the case, however. Some groups will shed their political function and transition to criminal activity, leveraging the coercive capabilities they acquired in combat to profit from black markets and illicit economies. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, several paramilitaries in Northern Ireland have become involved in a range of criminal activities— including smuggling, extortion, and drug trafficking.

But Brexit seems to have given Northern Ireland’s constellation of splinter groups a new political edge, enlivening terrorist campaigns that were once considered dormant. According to a recent report from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2019, there was an increase in paramilitary violence from the previous reporting period. There were 67 victims of paramilitary-style assaults during that period, up from 51 the previous year. A November 2019 report from the Independent Reporting Commission reinforced those findings, saying that “although there has been a downward trend in the frequency of paramilitary style attacks and shootings and bombings since 2009/10, the number of deaths linked to paramilitary organisations and the number of paramilitary style attacks carried out between 1 October 2018 and 30 September 2019 increased.”

When Northern Ireland voted by a slight majority for Remain in the 2016 referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union—a result largely driven by pro-EU Irish nationalists—nationalist politicians across Ireland used the result to push for a referendum on Irish unity, and there were fears that the possible construction of physical infrastructure along the border after Brexit could antagonize republican paramilitaries and rekindle their campaigns of violence.

Recent events give credence to that fear. In January 2019, the New IRA—a recent paramilitary group formed after the amalgamation of a series of smaller groups—was found responsible for detonating a car bomb outside the courthouse in Derry city, where the group is most active. That April, members of the group shot and killed the journalist Lyra McKee during a night of intense rioting in Derry. Although republicans expressed regret for the killing, it led to overwhelming national and international condemnation. More recently, in January 2019, the New IRA kidnapped and shot a 15-year-old boy in the Creggan area of Derry.

Irish and EU negotiators were acutely aware of the security threat posed by a potential hard border, and their main priority throughout the Brexit negotiations was to ensure that the withdrawal agreement would not lead to a hard border in Ireland. That was the rationale behind former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s backstop proposal (which was defeated three times in Parliament), as well as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recently approved arrangement that stipulates that Northern Ireland will technically remain part of the new U.K. customs union but that it will be aligned with the EU regulatory framework. That arrangement has mostly quelled nationalist concerns.

But many unionists see Johnson’s deal as a betrayal. Unionists largely voted Leave in the Brexit referendum, and although many of them preferred a withdrawal agreement that left a soft border in Ireland, they were absolutely opposed to any deal that treated Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Johnson deal’s arrangement will mean that goods passing between Northern Ireland and Britain must undergo customs checks in the Irish Sea, creating a clear distinction between these two constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Unionists are almost universally opposed to this arrangement, and they have organized several protest events across the country, with some loyalist paramilitaries hinting at a possible return to violence.Irish and EU negotiators were acutely aware of the security threat posed by a potential hard border.

For unionists, this is part of a longer process of political and social regression. Unionist politicians lost their majority in the north’s devolved assembly in 2017, and they recently watched their influence in the U.K. Parliament evaporate, losing two of their 10 seats and their status as kingmakers who kept May’s government in power; Johnson, who enjoys a large majority, no longer needs their support. Nationalist politicians have been the primary beneficiaries in both cases, and research shows that Catholic nationalists might soon make up the majority of the population at large in Northern Ireland, suggesting these trends will continue.

All of this, from the unionist perspective, is a sign of a broader loss of social status, a change that they feel is most outwardly manifested in disrespect for Protestant unionist cultural symbols and traditions. Their response was put on international display in 2012, when the Belfast City Council announced it would no longer fly the Union Jack every day of the year. Unionists took to the streets in force, staging protests and riots that gripped Northern Ireland for months. Taken in this context, unionists saw Brexit as a way of preserving Northern Ireland’s place inside the United Kingdom, and Johnson’s withdrawal deal was the ultimate betrayal.

After years of focusing almost exclusively on criminal activity in Protestant working-class areas, loyalist paramilitaries, like their republican counterparts, are beginning to take on a sharper political focus. Although they have not committed the types of high-profile attacks that republican paramilitaries have, nor have they been as vocal about their opposition to political change, they have been at the center of the unionist protest meetings held across the country since the deal was announced in October 2019. Moreover, research suggests that the rising number of paramilitary-style attacks in Northern Ireland are driven more by loyalist activity, suggesting that they now pose a greater security risk than do republicans.

Johnson’s Brexit deal did settle some of the most vexing issues, but much remains uncertain for the future of Northern Ireland. Despite the deal envisaging no border in Ireland, it is still possible that a post-Brexit U.K.-EU trade deal could implement one anyway. Nationalists know the possibility is real, and they are using the uncertainty to keep pressure on the governments in both Dublin and London for a unity referendum. None of this even considers the fact that Northern Ireland is yet to feel the economic impact of Brexit, and if Brexit does bring economic strain to Northern Ireland—or worse—it could lead to political instability.

As always, the paramilitaries will watch these developments closely, and they will act in a way that they feel best serves their longer-term interests. The threat from paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland has grown since Brexit, and an increasingly uncertain post-Brexit future means their shadows will loom large over the coming months and years.

Jason M. Blazakis is a professor of practice at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, director of its Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center. From 2008 to August 2018, he was director of the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism Finance and Designations. Twitter: @jason_blazakis

Colin P. Clarke is a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center and an assistant teaching professor in the Institute for Politics & Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. Twitter: @ColinPClarke

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