I was walking one day at the height of the Troubles in the 1970s with a friend in South Armagh close to the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. My friend, who was from the area, commented that it had great potential for tourism and was not as dangerous as people imagined “though you have to keep a look out to trip wires.”
He was referring to real physical trip wires attached to giant roadside bombs which made South Armagh the most dangerous place for British soldiers in the whole of Northern Ireland. This era has long gone and the 300-mile-long land border that snakes between the North and the Republic has ceased over the last twenty years to be a place of bombs and fortifications.
But issues relating to the Irish border, the partition of Ireland, the Irish Sea trade border so disliked by unionists, are still political trip wires capable of detonating a small or large crises. Yet Conservative Party politicians have been extraordinarily cavalier about the way they deal with the Irish border, careless when Brexit in 2016 reopened the question of Irish Partition and uncaring again when Boris Johnson persuaded a credulous Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that he would never allow a new sea border in the Irish Sea.
Now the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is threatening to unilaterally scrap key parts of the Northern Ireland protocol. The move will be regarded sceptically in Northern Ireland as a bit of Union Jack waving aimed at bolstering Truss’s patriotic credentials – and hostility to the EU – in the event of a Conservative leadership contest. In practice, the government in Westminster will be encouraging the DUP to be intransigent about entering the Executive until the protocol is dropped.
This is somehow supposed to save the Good Friday Agreement because public opinion in Northern Ireland is against it, despite the fact that 54 of the 90 newly elected members of the Northern Assembly accept the protocol as it is. The DUP put opposition to the Protocol at the heart of its election campaign. But this did not do it any good at the polls where there was a sharp fall in its vote share.
Sinn Fein won 27 Assembly seats and polled 250,388 first-preference votes compared with the DUP’s 25 seats and 184,000 votes. Sinn Fein can now claim the post of First Minister in any new Executive in the unlikely event of the DUP failing to veto its formation.
The election reflects the changing balance of power between the nationalist and unionist or, put more crudely, between Catholics and Protestants, in favour of the former. But it is possible to exaggerate the extent of the transformation. The change is primarily psychological and symbolic, though it is also a blow to unionist morale. Much of the decline in the DUP vote can be explained by many of these going to the even more right-wing Traditional Unionist Voice party. Sinn Fein success was in large part a consequence of unionist divisions.
One struggle was over who holds power within Northern Ireland where, in the first half century of its existence, Catholics were second class citizens in an Orange state. That sectarian state has been long dead even though many unionists never accepted this.
The second struggle is over the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and the legitimacy of the state as a whole. Brexit made partition an international issue for the first time. It is this smouldering dispute that Truss and the British government are threatening to prod into life – though with what degree of seriousness it is impossible to say. The British government may be happy to have permanent friction in its relations with the Republic of Ireland and the EU, but not with the US with Joe Biden as president.