A bomb explosion over the weekend in Derry, Northern Ireland, has been followed by car hijackings. Some fear that this was a response to the tensions around Brexit, and that it may only be the beginning. If there is no deal on Brexit, there may be a hard border between the Republic of Ireland, which is still a member of the European Union, and the British province of Northern Ireland. The “backstop” arrangement, which led to the British Parliament rejecting the proposed Brexit deal last week, could avoid this scenario by removing the need for border controls while a final deal is negotiated. However, the main Northern Irish Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has repeatedly rejected this backstop. A hard border sparks fears of a return to violence in the province.
So is Brexit likely to lead to a return to violence in Northern Ireland? It may be a lot less likely than it seems.
The terrorists haven’t gone away, you know.
As the bomb shows, paramilitaries are still active, including Republican groups (such as the “New IRA,” which reportedly was responsible for the bomb) and Loyalists. The latter have publicly advocated a hard Brexit, putting further pressure on the DUP. It is unlikely that they will go back to terrorism. However, it is certainly possible that Loyalists will lead street protests if talk about reunification of the island of Ireland continues. They have already protested the partial removal of the United Kingdom’s flag from City Hall.
The more plausible threat comes from dissident Republicans. At his inaugural news conference, Drew Harris, the new commissioner of An Garda Síochána, the Irish police force, called dissident Republicans the “biggest threat to Ireland.” Dissident Republicans are political or paramilitary groups such as the New IRA, which left Sinn Féin and the provisional Republican movement over the past three decades in opposition to the peace process.
As recent research by John Morrison, Sophie Whiting, Paddy Hoey and others show, various dissident Republican groups have become increasingly splintered since their formations. Hence, there exists a wide range of organizations, each claiming the mantle of the IRA.
The New IRA is the main Republican paramilitary organization. It emerged as an amalgamation of various militant groups in July 2012; its political wing, Saoradh, was formed in the fall of 2016. In November 2018, I interviewed the new chairman, Brian Kenna, a former IRA prisoner, in Dublin. Asked whether Brexit and a hard border will lead to increasing violence, he responded: “I think it is inevitable. It depends what kind of deal will happen but if there … is a requirement that a physical hard border is established and this physical hard border is manned by British security forces, that increases the opportunity and the motivation for violence in that area, and this will most likely happen.”
The New IRA is not being spurred by Brexit
As Kenna’s statement, as well as various others from activists, shows, the New IRA wants to exploit Brexit for its own aims. However, that is a very different thing from saying that Brexit is spurring further violence. There has been constant low-level violence by Loyalist and Republican organizations since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, as discussed by scholars such as John F. Morrison and John Horgan. These groups are responsible for 70 deaths in the past 21 years; in the past 10 years, they have killed two police officers, two soldiers and two prison warders. As Carine Berberi notes, they are responsible for 10 deaths in 2015 and 2016.
As my research and the existing literature by Berberi, Michel Savaric, Brigid Laffan and others show, these attacks would likely continue, hard border or not. Dissident Republicans see British security force members as a legitimate target, whether they are manning a border post. Their interpretation of Irish history will not be affected by Brexit. At most, border posts would merely add additional targets to the existing ones.
My research shows that even if dissident Republicans are willing to conduct a larger-scale military campaign, they don’t have the resources. They are small, fractious, heavily infiltrated by Irish and British intelligence, and have outdated bombs and weapons. The bomb attack in Derry was the exception rather than the rule, and even it was relatively primitive. The number of sentenced prisoners in the high-security prisons Maghaberry and Portlaoise vastly outnumber the number of active Republican paramilitaries outside. In 2018, only one national security attack by dissident Republicans was reported while 164 arrests were made for all terrorist activity, with 11 people subsequently charged.
A return to large-scale violence is unlikely
Under current circumstances, it is unlikely that we will see a return to high-level attacks from the existing groups in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, dissident Republicans will continue to mount occasional attacks, like the Derry bomb, as they have done for the past 20 years. It is of course possible that if there were a no-deal Brexit and Sinn Féin continued to take a soft political line toward the British government, there could be defections to dissident Republicans. Alternatively, Brexit “could create a majority for a united Ireland” and radicalize Loyalist opinion. For now, these are both unlikely scenarios. Fears that dissident Republicans “could bring new troubles to Northern Ireland” after Brexit are not supported by the current research in the field.
Dieter Reinisch is an adjunct professor in international relations at Webster Vienna Private University and a lecturer at the University of Vienna and Salzburg, Austria. He tweets at @ReinischDieter.