IT’S official: There’s one rule for the Irish and another for the English. I’ve just spent the annual ‘celebrations’ of the Battle of the Boyne in Ulster, as I did last year.
The differences were subtle on the one hand and blunt on the other. Last year, July 12 passed off with the normal bonfires and marches but no violence. This year, though, the flames were accompanied by petrol bombs, vehicle hijackings and gunfire.
This bluntness continued with so-called Loyalists dancing round their fires to music that made appalling claims about the Pope and encouraged the genocide of Roman Catholics. But here’s the point: In the UK such musicians would be prosecuted for hate crimes and gunmen hunted down remorselessly whilst in Northern Ireland a blind eye is turned.
It cuts the other way, of course. Remember how Theresa May, as Home Secretary, agonised over and then forbade the use of plastic bullets during the 2011 London riots whilst, simultaneously, they were being fired in volleys in Belfast?
Now, the subtlety of this unsubtle situation comes on the back of both dissident Republicans and Loyalists knowing that even a hint of violence will send Westminster’s snowflakes running for their safe spaces.
The very idea of a return to bloodshed in the Province makes inexperienced, risk averse, Tory ministers flinch whilst luring them even deeper into the thrall of the DUP.
But it’s not just the extremists on both sides of the community who understand what a powerful lever brutality can be: Cynical elements in both Dublin and Brussels realise it too.
And that’s why the Brexit border debate is the best show in town for it gives malcontents’ anger a focus and Michel Barnier a shillelagh with which to thump Mrs May. Last year the bonfires lit by ‘Loyalists’ were topped with IRA and Irish flags: this year they’ve suddenly been joined by the sickly stars of the EU.
I believe that Britain’s timid handling of the Brexit debate has allowed Europe to exaggerate the perils of the Irish Border issue. For instance, I am told that in late 2017 agreement had almost been reached to draw a customs’ border down the middle of the Irish Sea.
Effectively, EU suggestions that a ‘hard’ border between Eire and Ulster would jeopardise peace meant that Westminster was willing to cast Ulster adrift, condemning folk from Londonderry to Larne to stay within Europe, despite the electorate’s wishes.
Apparently, only the outrage of the DUP stopped such treachery. If Brexit is about sovereignty, that cannot be achieved by tearing the fabric of our own country apart in the process.
No, a tougher face must be shown to Brussels which demonstrates that we properly understand our realm and will not be swayed by threats. And the Government has a huge advantage here – a media which behaves with uncharacteristic restraint when reporting violence in Northern Ireland. Look hard and you’ll see that low level, rarely successful terrorism continues on a daily basis: But you’ll have to look hard.
Whether it’s responsible reporting or simply ennui, the terrorists seldom get the publicity they want which must be infuriating for them and bad news for Brussels. David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, fully understood this. I trust Dominic Raab, his successor, does.
That said, ‘hard’ border infrastructure and personnel would certainly be attacked by extremists – it would be just the totem they need to reinvigorate their cause. Yet there are cleverer ways of monitoring the movement of people and goods than checkpoints, passport controls and guards.
First, the Common Travel Area agreements where Irish and British citizens can move with minimum identity checks across each others’ borders works well and has its origins long before Brexit. The CTA is an important plank of the Good Friday Agreement and Brussels must not be allowed to meddle with it.
But it’s the movement of goods which is more problematic. Obviously, taxes need to be collected, but the suggested 10 mile ‘exclusion zone’ either side of the border and clever use of advanced technology has been derided by Brussels.
Such a scheme would underline the very light touch which has been applied to smaller businesses on or near the border since April 1998 and which has worked. It also relies on the centuries old, unique give-and-take of Anglo-Irish relationships. Why would European nosepokers understand such things?
Our Government has made some sensible and workable solutions to the Brexit border issue, but it has got to have the courage to see them through. Physical courage will be needed to face down the small number of thugs who are gagging to fight about something – anything – and moral courage to square up to Brussels bullies. But courage is in short supply in the corridors of cower these days. Perhaps the simplest and most effective piece of advice for Mrs May and Karen Bradley, her invisible Northern Ireland Secretary, is to show some.
Patrick Mercer OBE is a former Conservative MP and soldier who served in Northern Ireland.