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Major and Blair were right about Brexit and Northern Ireland

Former prime ministers Sir John Major (left) and Tony Blair walk across the Peace Bridge in Londonderry - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The slow comeback of normal life is wonderful, it does tend to feel as hollow as a leftover Easter egg when also coming back rapidly is tension in Belfast and Derry.

“It has been a gloomy week on the sunlit uplands of sovereign Britain,” is how this column starts every week, but how can that be so now, with family get-togethers, non-essential shops and pints in the sunshine all coming back? The answer is that while the slow comeback of normal life is wonderful, it does tend to feel as hollow as a leftover Easter egg when also coming back rapidly is tension in Northern Ireland.

While mainland police are occupied with protecting statues and exonerating themselves over the Sarah Everard vigil, their counterparts in Belfast and Derry spent Easter dodging petrol bombs and bricks. Welcome back to the bad old days.

A police officer walks behind a police vehicle with flames leaping up the rear after violence broke out in Newtownabbey, north of Belfast, in Northern Ireland – Credit: Photo by PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images

The Brexiteer DUP claims all this is in response to a failure to charge leading Sinn Fein members for breaking Covid-19 restrictions at a funeral in June 2020. Perhaps, then, it was a high regard for PPE that saw so many rioters covering their mouths and noses with masks during incidents at Newtonabbey, Sandy Row and Carrickfergus, all in or around Belfast, as well as in Derry’s Waterside.

It’s just possible, though, that young Unionists took to the streets not because of an unpunished outbreak of social distancing but because they are tired of being Brexit collateral damage, and frustrated with being lied to.

The DUP supported Boris Johnson when he promised them “unfettered trade” with the rest of the UK, claimed that any new customs forms could be “put in the bin” and pledged that a trade border down the Irish Sea would happen “over my dead body”. But border controls, red tape and the prime minister remain very much alive, as do the threat of further food shortages and job losses. No wonder loyalists, inflamed by DUP rhetoric, seem to be feeling a little less loyal as a result.

The whole horrifying mess puts you in mind of what two former prime ministers predicted in early June 2016 on a visit to Ulster University. While Sir John Major warned a Leave vote would mean “you would end up with having border controls and customs checks”, Tony Blair said leaving the EU “would put Northern Ireland’s future at risk. It would be deeply damaging and a reckless cause.”

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster speaking in Co Fermanagh in Northern Ireland blamed ‘malign’ criminal elements for whipping up young people involved in recent violence across parts of Northern Ireland – Credit: PA

At the time, the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds called this an “irresponsible… attempt to scaremonger and unsettle people and destabilise the situation in Northern Ireland”, adding “of all the claims that have been made about the threats to the UK if we were to leave the EU, I find this claim that Northern Ireland’s political stability is going to be undermined one of the most depressing and disappointing.”

Last week Dodds popped up to blame Johnson for selling Northern Ireland out. “It is a matter of regret that the prime minister did not stick to his guns,” he wrote.

MORE: DUP MP launches legal action against government over Brexit

It would be a matter of far deeper regret if, as a byproduct of Dodds’ gullibility and Johnson’s bad faith, the paramilitaries soon decide they were wrong not to stick to theirs.

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