In 1992 the Associated Press distributed a newspaper report examining the United Kingdom’s then practice of using “human shields” to protect its military and paramilitary installations in the north-east of Ireland. By the late 1980s and early ‘90s the British Forces had concluded that the construction of fortified bases and checkpoints on requisitioned property in the middle of dense civilian housing, schools and hospitals, greatly impeded or deterred potential insurgent attacks by the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army. One consequence of this was the establishment of new bases or the repositioning of old ones in the contested “border” zone of the UK-administered Six Counties where the British Army and the RUC, the counter-insurgency police, were particularly vulnerable to assault.
In one typical case, a frequently targeted military checkpoint in County Armagh was withdrawn from an isolated position south of the town of Newry and rebuilt closer to the Irish nationalist enclave, adjacent to a Roman Catholic school and associated housing. When challenged about the construction efforts senior government minsters in Britain implicitly justified the use of “human shields”, laying the blame for the threat to civilian areas on the “terrorists”. As one spokesperson for the ruling Conservative Party in London indicated, the onus was on the guerrillas not to target installations sited among the civilian population, not on the “security forces” to remove those installations to locations where civilians were out of harm’s way.
I posted the AP article last week in relation to the more extreme – and hopefully unlikely – dangers that could emanate from the possible imposition of a “Brexit border” between the north-east of Ireland and the rest of the country, and it drew considerable comment on certain fora. The primary criticism of the piece was based on the widespread belief that the British do not want a return to a “hard border” around the Six Counties, and will avoid any actions – the establishment of custom posts, the selection of “approved” border-crossings, the destruction of “unapproved” roads and bridges, and so on – which could spark a renewed conflict in the UK-occupied region. However the statements and leaks coming from the government of Ireland, and senior politicians north and south, have indicated that Britain has offered no firm proposals to ensure that an open border and unrestricted travel between the two islands will be maintained. Beyond the supposedly reassuring if actually vague sound-bites being made in public my sources tell me that in private the representatives of the United Kingdom are actively avoiding any commitments, pushing all detailed discussions down the line. A line that apparently grows longer with every meeting.
For the slow-learners or eternal optimists out there, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, has made her position on Brexit quite explicit. There is no place for Ireland’s “soft border” or “soft reunification” in her clear declaration of nationalistic intent at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham:
“Brexit means Brexit – and we’re going to make a success of it.
Because Britain is going to leave the European Union.
…the negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union are the responsibility of the Government and nobody else. I have already said that we will consult and work with the devolved administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, because we want Brexit to work in the interests of the whole country.
But the job of negotiating our new relationship is the job of the Government. Because we voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom, we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom. There is no opt-out from Brexit. And I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious Union between the four nations of our United Kingdom.
The final thing I want to say about the process of withdrawal is the most important. And that is that we will soon put before Parliament a Great Repeal Bill, which will remove from the statute book – once and for all – the European Communities Act.
The authority of EU law in Britain will end.
…there is no such thing as a choice between “soft Brexit” and “hard Brexit”.
Whether people like it or not, the country voted to leave the EU. And that means we are going to leave the EU. …that means we are going, once more, to have the freedom to make our own decisions on a whole host of different matters, from how we label our food to the way in which we choose to control immigration.”
Official Ireland‘s hope that the United Kingdom would acknowledge that the pro-EU Six Counties are a place apart and should not be subject to the xenophobic whims of the UK is clearly based upon wishful thinking. From the Irish Times:
“The Government will seek a “legal recognition of the unique status of the North and the circumstances on the island” as part of the arrangements when Britain leaves the European Union.
…Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan gave the clearest signal yet that the Government is seeking a special status for Northern Ireland as a solution to the threat of a hard border on the island.
Today the Government will decide to set up an “All-Island Civic Dialogue”, to be held in Dublin on November 2nd, which will involve political parties, civic organisations, trade unions, business groups and non-governmental organisations from North and South.
Mr Flanagan also stressed the need for the Brexit negotiations to take account of the Belfast Agreement, under which all citizens in the North are entitled to an Irish, and therefore an EU, passport.
“The Good Friday Agreement is a document that is going to have to be on the table at the negotiations,” he said.
Mr Flanagan has been engaged in intensive diplomacy with his EU counterparts in recent months and he said the “unique position” of the North was “appreciated”. However, senior officials say it will be a considerable challenge to transform that into a legally binding agreement that recognises a special status for the North.”
A more uncharitable if coldly realistic analysis would suggest that absent a serious threat to its national security the United Kingdom has every intention of tearing up several aspects of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a two-tier peace deal that required an all-party agreement in the north-east and an international treaty between the nation states of Ireland and Britain. If that involves the reimposition of an “international” boundary line on this island, one of concrete and barbed wire, then the British government is certainly positioning itself to make such a necessity more palatable to its people. As the Guardian reports:
“Plan for UK military to opt out of European convention on human rights
Controversial plans for the military to opt out from the European convention on human rights (ECHR) during future conflicts will be introduced by ministers, to see off what the prime minister described as an “industry of vexatious claims” against soldiers.”
The hope and expectation is that London will see common sense, and heed good advice from Dublin, Brussels and Washington, in the coming months and will leave the invisible border as it is, at least as far as the Six Counties’ region is concerned. That is one thatch that does not need any pike-stirring.