Sinn Féin, Brexit, and COVID-19: A Storm of Uncertainty on the Island of Ireland

The island of Ireland is currently facing a confluence of events that could result in a resurgence of the type of violence that occurred during The Troubles. The startling rise of Sinn Féin, a republican leftist political party, along with the threat of Brexit to the balance Northern Ireland has found between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, present several fault lines along which old tensions and violence might again erupt. The arrival of the novel coronavirus, with the chaos it could unleash on the already struggling healthcare systems on the island, only adds additional concern to an already uneasy situation.




England and Ireland have a long and complicated history. In 1494, England gained control of the Irish Parliament, and it was decreed that all English laws must be followed. In 1534, England left the Catholic Church and became a Protestant nation, while Ireland was overwhelmingly Catholic. The British began authorizing Protestant plantations in Ireland, hoping to gain more social and political control. The Ulster Plantation was the most successful, concentrating Protestants in the northeast of the island, in the area that is present-day Northern Ireland. After a civil war, the Republic of Ireland gained independence from Great Britain in 1921, with twenty-six counties making up the Republic, and the remaining six constituting Northern Ireland, which remained in the United Kingdom.[1]


In the late 1960s, there was rising resentment among Catholics as to how they were treated in the predominantly Protestant North. In 1968, a civil rights march protesting the fact that Parliament was dominated by unionists (those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK) was violently stopped by the Northern Irish police force. Riots broke out across the region, and a low-level guerilla war carried on until a peace agreement was reached in 1998. This period of violence is known as The Troubles. In Northern Ireland alone, 3,387 people were killed and over 47,000 were injured. These statistics do not include casualties in the Republic of Ireland or in England.[2]


The conflict was divided along ethno-nationalist lines. Catholics were usually republicans (or nationalists), who wanted Northern Ireland to join the Republic. Protestants tended to be unionists, and favored Northern Ireland remaining a part of the United Kingdom. Though the British Army was involved, the main combatants were paramilitary groups.[3] The most effective republican groups were the Provisional IRA (IRA) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Powerful unionist groups were the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Red Hand Commando (RHC), Ulster Defense Association (UDA), South East Antrim UDA (SEA UDA).[4]


T



he Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, ostensibly brought The Troubles to an end. A political power-sharing scheme between unionists and republicans was agreed to. Hard borders between the North and the Republic were removed, thanks in large part to both the UK and Ireland being members of the European Union. While there is still occasional violence, the security and terror situation across the region has dramatically improved. The paramilitary groups officially disarmed in the mid-2000s, and have stated that the war is over.


According to an assessment commissioned by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in October 2015, the main paramilitary groups that operated during The Troubles are still in existence. Even if they have officially declared a cease-fire, many are still recruiting and are fairly prominent, operating as ‘community’ political organizations. Many are now involved in other criminal activities such as smuggling, extortion, and drug trafficking, as a way to make money and ensure the community fears and respects them. The report states that the risk from dissident republicans (republicans who do not observe the ceasefire) is the most likely source of terrorism in Northern Ireland, and historically that has been true. According to the report, dissident groups such as the New IRA, Óglaigh na hÉireann (loosely translated as Soldiers of Ireland), and the Continuity IRA typically launch at least a dozen attacks a year, usually on Northern Irish police forces.[5] In more recent years, however, research has shown that unionists are now committing most of the paramilitary attacks, becoming the greater threat to national security.[6]


Though the report notes that the paramilitary groups are still in existence, they don’t have much individual control over their members as they did during The Troubles. There is already a level of unsanctioned behavior occurring, usually community intimidation, but occasionally there is a murder.[7] As a result, given the political, social, and economic uncertainty that the Island of Ireland is currently facing, I believe it is likely that a hardline member of one of these groups, from either side of the conflict, could go further. Many members trained and operated in paramilitary groups, or were raised by someone who had. The resources and the institutional knowledge of how to commit an act of terror exist in all these groups, and the fact that the organizations are still structurally intact means they could easily ramp back up into full operation.[8] Many paramilitary groups also have access to weapons, even though officially they are disarmed.


Currently, Brexit appears to be the most likely catalyst for a return to violence. In 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Northern Ireland, however, voted to remain. Under the deal negotiated by Boris Johnson’s government, there will be a ‘border’ created in the Irish Sea, where goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will undergo customs checks. In four years, the Northern Irish government can vote on whether they wish to continue the arrangement. This means that there is effectively a border inside the United Kingdom, but not one between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This could lead to a rise in unionist violence, as unionists are very protective of NI’s ‘British’ identity. Under the current plan, Johnson’s Brexit deal will not be voted on by Northern Irish constituents until it has been in place for four years. Unionists could feel abandoned by the United Kingdom, like they’re losing political say, and perceive Northern Ireland as being forced into a more united Ireland. This could manifest in lone wolf terror attacks against republican lawmakers, supporters of Johnson’s bill, or stations where customs checks take place. Border guards and checkpoints were major targets during The Troubles. Because many individuals who might turn to terrorism will have grown up during a time of violence, it stands that tactics and targets from The Troubles would be used again. In addition to the lone wolf threat, unionist paramilitary groups might capitalize on a sense of fear and betrayal, and begin recruiting in earnest again, perhaps with the intent to return to violence instead of operating as political organizations.


The UK and the EU are supposed to negotiate a full trade deal by December 2020, which could change the situation in Northern Ireland. Lawmakers across Europe have no desire to return to the violence of the late 1900s, and though the situation is complicated, there could be a solution found that will be more acceptable to unionists. However, due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, full talks are on hold, and it is unclear when they will begin again, though both governments still want to achieve a deal by the end of the year.[9] These delays could further agitate unionists, but as the island develops more coronavirus cases, the short term chance of a terror incident should decrease.

The Republic of Ireland had its general election on February 8. The left-wing republican party Sinn Féin, with its historic links to the IRA, won the popular vote, unnerving traditional Irish politics. Either Fine Gael (center right) or Fianna Fáil (center) have been in power for most of Ireland’s history. But many citizens feel these parties are out of touch - a refrain often heard during the campaign was “we just need change.”


At various points during and after the election, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil said that they would not consider entering a coalition with Sinn Féin, due to their past relationship with the IRA. Though the IRA’s Provisional Army Council (PAC) used to oversee both the IRA and Sinn Féin, it is unclear how much, if any, influence the PAC currently has over Sinn Féin. It is generally agreed that the leadership of the groups are committed to uniting Ireland “by political means.”[10] After the election, the Irish chief of police, Drew Harris, said that he, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and MI5 all believe that the PAC oversees Sinn Féin.[11] Sinn Féin accused him of trying to undermine their chances of forming a government before they had even started. Though many Irish voters may be uneasy about Sinn Féin’s connection to the IRA, they were willing to take the chance in the hopes that a different approach would find solutions for the housing and healthcare crises the country is facing.


On March 26, it was announced that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have agreed to form a coalition government together, with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar continuing to act as caretaker until a new Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) is elected. Though they still need 8 seats to form a government, both parties are confident they can do so, especially with COVID-19 threatening to further destabilize the country if a government is not agreed to. However, this coalition leaves out Sinn Féin, who won the second-highest number of seats. If they are blocked from the government in this dismissive way, the 25% of the country that voted for Sinn Féin (and the 10% that have begun supporting them since the election) could feel alienated and distrustful of the other major parties.[12] Hardline republicans, and especially dissident republicans, will see this as a coordinated effort by the Irish establishment to block proponents of Irish Unity from power. This could cause them to pursue coordinated terrorist action against the Irish state in retaliation.


In Northern Ireland, as dictated by the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are currently governing under a power-sharing agreement. The current agreement follows three years of political stalemate between Sinn Féin and the DUP, during which the government didn’t sit. In this time, the Northern Irish economy slowed, and no permanent ministers were heading essential departments, only caretakers. So long as Sinn Féin is not in the coalition, unionists in Northern Ireland will probably not return to violence. However, as support for Sinn Féin appears to be increasing steadily, and at a rather rapid clip, this is a situation to keep an eye on. It might unfold over the next few years, but if current trends continue, it seems inevitable that Sinn Féin will be a member of a governing coalition in the Republic within the decade. Sinn Féin is in favor of a vote on whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland.[13] If republicans are in government in both the North and the South, unionists might react violently in order to prevent the North from approaching this monumental step.




Economically, Northern Ireland was already the weakest of the 4 UK economies, and was showing signs of further slowing, but in the face of Brexit and COVID-19, the next year is expected to be particularly difficult for the region.[14] Starting from The Troubles and continuing today, Northern Ireland is dependent on London for economic help. It was a major industrial region, but now looks to tourism and the entertainment sector for a large portion of its revenue. These industries have been hit hard in the wake of the novel coronavirus. The healthcare system North was already struggling before COVID-19 arrived. In December, nurses went on strike due to nurses in NI getting paid less than in the rest of the UK. This has led to significant vacancies across the healthcare system - around 2,800.[15] In part, this was caused by the political stalemate in the North - there had been no Health Minister for 3 years.


The Republic suffered the worst recession in Europe during the 2008 financial crisis, which led to strict austerity measures to get the economy back on track.[16] As a result, public service professionals who are now proving vital - doctors, nurses, and police - are at a minimum, and public health services, though not as stretched as in the North, are understaffed.[17] In the recent general election, healthcare and housing were the most important issues. Hospitals in the Republic have been closing, despite a growing population. The Republic has taken drastic measures in regards to closures due to COVID-19, which is expected to affect the North’s economy as well, considering the amount of border crossings businesses and individuals do on an average day.


The Counterterrorism Group monitors global terror activity, including the IRA and dissident republican groups. We will continue to monitor the situation in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland closely, including monitoring social media websites where terrorists spread ideology and discuss tactics. The Northern Irish and Irish police forces are also working tirelessly to detect and stop terror incidents, and have stopped several republican plots in the past months. Dublin, London, and think tanks that study the island are also aware that the uncertainty caused by global events could trigger a return to violence, and are monitoring known threats. As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds around the world, the intelligence community is carefully watching how it will affect terror groups and plots.


The situation on the island of Ireland is in flux. The past few months have been full of surprises that threaten to undermine the peace achieved with the Good Friday Agreement. The politics of London and Dublin could easily provoke either unionists or republicans into rogue acts of terror to express their disagreement. If either group feels a sustained sense of disenfranchisement, the paramilitary structures that are still in place could return to large-scale violence. COVID-19 presents a new challenge to the region. It is making the world pause, and could give paramilitary groups and individuals a moment to regroup, outline demands, and strategize ways to achieve them.

________________________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1] Map of Ireland by CIA World Factbook licensed under Public Domain. [2] “Conflict Archive on the Internet.” CAIN Web Service, March 29, 2020. https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/ni/security.htm#04 [3] Army Observation Post by Public Records Office of Northern Ireland licensed under Flickr. [4] “Assessment on Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland.” United Kingdom Government Publishing Service, March 27, 2020. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/469548/Paramilitary_Groups_in_Northern_Ireland_-_20_Oct_2015.pdf [5] “Assessment on Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland.” United Kingdom Government Publishing Service, March 27, 2020. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/469548/Paramilitary_Groups_in_Northern_Ireland_-_20_Oct_2015.pdf [6] “Brexit Could Spark a Return to Violence in Northern Ireland.” Foreign Policy, March 29, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/01/22/northern-ireland-paramilitary-violence-brexit/ [7] “Assessment on Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland.” United Kingdom Government Publishing Service, March 27, 2020. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/469548/Paramilitary_Groups_in_Northern_Ireland_-_20_Oct_2015.pdf [8] “Brexit Could Spark a Return to Violence in Northern Ireland.” Foreign Policy, March 29, 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/01/22/northern-ireland-paramilitary-violence-brexit/ [9] “Full Brexit talks on hold amid coronavirus outbreak.” BBC News, March 27, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-51935677 [10] “Assessment on Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland.” United Kingdom Government Publishing Service, March 27, 2020. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/469548/Paramilitary_Groups_in_Northern_Ireland_-_20_Oct_2015.pdf [11] “Sinn Féin still overseen by IRA, says Ireland police chief.” Financial Times, March 29, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/058e757a-54c3-11ea-90ad-25e377c0ee1f [12] “Irish Leaders to Quicken Coalition Talks as Virus Spreads.” Bloomberg News, March 28, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-03-05/irish-leaders-set-to-quicken-coalition-talks-as-virus-spreads [13] “What does the Irish election result mean for Brexit?” The Guardian, March 28, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/10/irish-election-result-brexit-sinn-fein-coalition-boris-johnson-eu [14] “Northern Ireland’s economy is threatened by more than Brexit.” The Irish Times, March 29, 2020. https://www.irishtimes.com/business/economy/northern-ireland-s-economy-is-threatened-by-more-than-brexit-1.4009296 [15] “Core reasons behind an ailing health system in Northern Ireland.” The Irish Times, March 29, 2020. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/core-reasons-behind-an-ailing-health-system-in-northern-ireland-1.4119759 [16] Government Debt in Europe by Spitzl licensed by Wikimedia Commons. [17] “Ireland’s calm before the surge.” The Straits Times, March 29, 2020. https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/irelands-calm-before-the-surge

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