Posts Tagged ‘Northern Ireland’

The Guardian view on Brexit and the Irish border: alchemy fails again | Editorial

The prime minister has wasted precious time backing fanciful plans that looked unworkable from the start. A change of direction is long overdue

Theresa May’s desire to combine exit from the EU’s customs union with an invisible border in Northern Ireland is not in doubt. The issue is not how much the prime minister wants a solution but whether a solution exists. Without one, Mrs May’s entire Brexit strategy unravels.

Downing Street has been working on technical solutions to this problem, fleshing out formulas described by the prime minister in a speech last month as “a highly streamlined customs arrangement” or “customs partnership”. On Friday, it emerged that those proposals have been flatly rejected by the European commission as unworkable, both from a legal and a practical perspective.

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It’s time to stop believing in these ‘magic’ Brexit solutions

UK’s unlikely proposals to solve Irish border question leaves Brussels wondering if customs union may be most realistic option

From the minute the UK government first proposed its idea last August of maintaining “invisible borders” after Brexit, the convoluted plan was dismissed as “magical thinking” by EU officials. What has changed this week is that the time for pretending otherwise has run out.

First, Downing Street reassurances were rejected on Wednesday by the House of Lords, where peers voted by a majority of 123 to push Britain toward a customs union – arguing it was the only practical alternative to wrecking the Irish peace process with a hard border.

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EU rejects Irish border proposals and says Brexit talks could still fail

Michel Barnier says the UK wants to cherry-pick its terms, and that the EU response is: ‘No way’

The EU’s chief negotiator has said there is still a “risk of failure” in the Brexit negotiations as Brussels again rejected the UK’s proposals to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Michel Barnier said on Friday that a quarter of the work needed to complete preparations for the UK to leave the the EU next March remains to be done, as sources say little progress was made in three weeks of talks to break the deadlock on the vexed Irish question.

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Good Friday Agreement two decades on: how not to fix the Irish border problem

The Irish border issue has proven to be one of the most difficult problems to solve in the Brexit negotiations so far. Katy Hayward responds to recent proposals by Shanker Singham on how to address the issue, arguing that the proposals not only overlook the complex realities of Northern Ireland/Ireland connections, but also ignore the enormity of what has been accomplished in the past 20 years.

The EU Council agreed that the best way to deal with Northern Ireland/Ireland in the negotiations was to kick the can down the road once more. This issue appears to outweigh all others in its sheer intractability.

Into this vexed atmosphere bounces Shanker Singham’s recent article in CapX, with a most appealing title: ‘How to fix the Irish border problem’. Somewhat disappointingly, Singham’s claim to ‘fix’ the problem centres largely on downplaying its existence. He does this on two grounds. First, he emphasises that the Irish border is already an international border and that its openness is exaggerated. He outlines here the type of controls that international borders already have to enforce (rules of origin, VAT payments, veterinary checks etc.). Unfortunately for him, none of these are currently enforced through controls at the Irish land border, which somewhat undermines the force of his argument.

His second claim is that trade across the Irish border is of ‘relatively limited economic significance’. Here he uses figures (I cannot properly call them statistics given that no source or attribution is provided here) to illustrate that sales to Great Britain from Northern Ireland are more important than sales to the Republic of Ireland (four times so, in actual fact).

Can we imagine such a similar point being made of Northumbria or Cornwall? Of course, domestic sales are more important than exports – it would be quite odd if they weren’t. In stressing the importance of Great Britain compared to Ireland, though, Singham ignores several key facts that help explain why customs controls on cross-border trade would be so detrimental.

Northern Ireland’s sales to the Republic of Ireland are worth 14% of its external sales in goods and 39% of its external sales in services – it is by far the most important trading partner for Northern Ireland. And we are not just talking about import/export here; supply chains across the border are highly integrated. How will putting barriers to trade with its nearest neighbour – and effectively enforcing greater dependence on the domestic market (or, to be more precise, the Treasury) – benefit Northern Ireland, even as it tags along in Global Britain’s independent trade policy?

Despite the lack of evidence for all of Singham’s claims, there are a few unexpectedly frank admissions. ‘For there to be no change at all at the Irish border would require the entire UK to be in the Customs Union and Single Market’, being one of them. Another is that, after Brexit, there will be ‘necessary customs and related controls’ across the Irish border. Singham’s ‘fix’, it becomes apparent, in no way addresses the requirement for these controls in the first place – and it is on that requirement that the EU seeks serious proposals.

He offers a bundle of ideas here. He suggests that cross-border traders should be placed into one of two categories: small or large. For the small ones, the idea would be to basically turn a blind eye (which is, in effect, a decision to not enforce a customs border). For the larger ones, there is quite a bit of a burden to be shouldered:

In exporting to the other side of the land border, they would complete all necessary paperwork in their home jurisdiction, submit it to authorities on both sides through a joint platform certifying their goods were safe to be released, rules of origin requirements had been met (or if not, the amount of duty that would be due), and so on, and stating the destination of the goods (for example, the importer’s premises). The consignment would then be sealed to cross the border…Any necessary payments of VAT and import or excise duties would be made afterwards.

This sounds like a border that is far from ‘frictionless’. But perhaps the biggest point that Singham misses is the reason why the Irish border has been prioritised by the EU. It has been prioritised because the Irish border was a ‘problem’ long before the UK decided to withdraw from the EU.

Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Singham mentions the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement but fails to appreciate the full implications of this international treaty. The 1998 Agreement went hand in hand with fundamental change to the constitution of the United Kingdom as well as to the Republic of Ireland. The UK became an internally-differentiated state. The power-sharing Executive and devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland operate interdependently with unique cross-border institutions, both north/south on the island and British/Irish.

Within this framework, north-south cooperation isn’t primarily about trade but about things that matter to people in real terms: road safety, flood risk management, specialised health services, mobile phone roaming. Such practical matters – many of which make sense purely given the geography of the place, with no implications for constitutional sovereignty or identity – are behind the EU’s proposal for a common regulatory area between north and south in a limited number of specific areas.

Singham’s headline claim that ‘there is no inherent reason why physical controls at the Irish border are needed after Brexit’ is essentially the expression of intention to enforce controls ‘behind the border’. Such controls – entailing monitoring, surveillance, on-spot inspections – are ones that would be resented in any part of the United Kingdom. This proposal not only overlooks the complex realities of Northern Ireland/Ireland connections, it ignores the enormity of what has been accomplished in the past 20 years since the 1998 Agreement. His fix, in other words, fixes nothing much at all.

This article first appeared at UK in a Changing Europe & EUROPP. It gives the views of the author, not the position of  LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. 

Katy Hayward is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. She has written a more detailed 8,000-word paper in response to the points Shanker Singham raised, which you can read here.

Book Review: Ex-Combatants, Gender and Peace in Northern Ireland: Women, Political Protest and the Prison Experience

In Ex-Combatants, Gender and Peace in Northern Ireland: Women, Political Protest and the Prison Experience, Azrini Wahidin draws upon the voices of female former combatants in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to challenge the silencing of their experiences both during the Troubles and in the subsequent peace process, with particular emphasis upon their memories of imprisonment. Based on extensive research, this seminal text is a stimulating, intimate and at times poignant read that underscores the crucial role of female ex-combatants both during the Conflict and in peace-building, finds Ashleigh McFeeters

Ex-Combatants, Gender and Peace in Northern Ireland: Women, Political Protest and the Prison Experience. Azrini Wahidin. Palgrave. 2016.

ex-combatants-gender-and-peace-in-northern-ireland-coverFind this book: amazon-logo

Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Azrini Wahidin has carried out considerable research into women’s experiences in prison. In this new pivotal investigation, Ex-Combatants, Gender and Peace in Northern Ireland: Women, Political Protest and Prison Experience, she sets out a comprehensive account of female Republican volunteers’ experiences during and after the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

As conflict studies are so often written from the viewpoint of a masculine norm, this study is highly illuminating and greatly needed. In the reality of the Troubles, these women did not simply play an auxiliary or ‘footnote’ role as is often believed, but rather were ‘every bit as revolutionary as Irish men and their resistance every bit as fierce’ (1). This book presents the reality of female combatants’ active and agential roles to ‘disrupt the silence’ (2) surrounding women’s participation in the IRA. The research navigates layers of political violence/protest, imprisonment and post-conflict reconciliation in order to understand the ‘construction and experience of gender under conditions of struggle’ (2). This is important as gender is a category of experience through which individuals interpret meaning, and its significance intensifies during periods of conflict and social upheaval.

The methodology of ethnographic interviewing allows female former combatants to speak freely of their experiences in their own words; it is upon their first-hand narratives that Wahidin’s academic interpretation is built. The scope of the interview data, alongside the dextrous cultural and political theorising of Wahidin, produces robust and thought-provoking findings that make for compelling reading for students and academics focusing on societies undergoing post-conflict reconciliation, political history, gender studies or transitional justice law as well as for policymakers and government officials.

The book is organised into chapters dealing with the traditional association of women and peace; the (re-)negotiation of gender during war; the context of Northern Ireland’s conflict; women’s involvement in direct political action; the rise and dissolution of Cumann na mBan (the women’s organisation in the IRA); women’s impressions of Armagh prison; their acts of resistance within the prison; the gendered experiences of the no wash protest, the hunger strike and strip-searching; the female former combatants’ attitudes towards the Good Friday Agreement; and finally, the role of ex-combatant women in post-conflict Northern Ireland. These offer a holistic approach to comprehending gender by guiding the reader along a detailed timeline of political activism and struggle, imprisonment and the pathway to peace. Two of these chapters are summarised below.

ex-combatants-gender-and-peace-imageImage Credit: Belfast Mural (CC BY SA 3.0)

Chapter Eight, ‘Parthas Caillte [Paradise Lost]: The Politics of Resistance and the Role of the Gendered Incarcerated Body’, explores the no wash protest and hunger strike in Armagh Prison. The interviews reveal that the women were forced into the dirty protest due to the toilets being locked, rather than as a straightforward reaction to the criminalisation of political prisoners and the removal of special category status in 1976. The testimonies of the women are analysed to show how the practicalities of not washing for the women differed substantially from the men: for example, the women had to cope with menstruation. This became a tool of political struggle as menstrual blood was re-appropriated in their cells to refashion them as sites of resistance. Moreover, Wahidin interprets this re-appropriation as a means to dismantle femininity and ‘reinsert the sexed body into the military struggle from which it had largely been erased’ (159).

In Chapter Nine, ‘The ‘Norms of ‘‘Our Conflict’’: The Use of Strip Searching as Gendered Punishment’, female former prisoners recount the emotional and physical trauma of being forcibly strip-searched. The author records and thoughtfully analyses the first-hand experiences of the women to challenge the official discourse surrounding strip-searching (174-77). The statements reveal lapses in, and the flagrant disregard of, procedure, where the strip-searches were used to humiliate, intimidate and degrade the prisoners rather than as an extreme security measure. One testimony reads: ‘humiliation. I mean it’s about control’ (173). Wahidin’s findings are furthermore important for providing evidence to hold authorities to account for misconduct during the Troubles.

Wahidin determines that gendered expectations of the female body were used against the women to terrorise them into submission: ‘the British Government is using women’s nakedness to tyrannise us’ (172, original emphasis). The researcher deduces that the strip-searching was exploited as a weapon to defamiliarise and alienate the women from themselves in order to ‘break the struggle from within’ (173, original emphasis). The women felt additionally vulnerable as there was ‘a sexual connotation attached to the searches, particularly where women were held down by men to be stripped’ (174). One ex-prisoner likens the experience to ‘being raped’ (186, original emphasis). Wahidin concludes that the strip-searches acted doubly as weapons of war: psychologically by fostering a culture of shame that estranged the woman from their bodies and from their communities, and physically by forcing a self-induced passivity in order to protect the most vulnerable and private of spaces.

There are references to how the strip-searches of the women were different to that of their male counterparts: ‘there is something more psychologically severe […] than it was for men’ (174); ‘you’re anally and vaginally searched’ (179). Wahidin acknowledges that the book makes no claim to cover male experience; however, it does raise questions about how the male political prisoners experienced the strip-searching from a gendered point of view. Did the sexual undertones of the strip-searches apply to the male prisoners as with the females? Wahidin’s research inspires investigation into whether the masculine body experienced gendered punishment in a manner akin to the feminine.

Although the book clearly states that its focus is addressing the ‘lacuna surrounding the role women played in the IRA’ (5), it also encourages and paves the way for the same rich analysis of female Loyalist ex-combatants. The book states that Loyalist women did not suffer as Republican women did with regards to strip-searching in prison (174). Equivalent research in which female Loyalist ex-combatants could voice their own versions of incarceration (by the state for which they supposedly fought) would therefore be highly beneficial to observe whether the brutal treatment of the Republican women was interwoven with gender and political ideology. However, Sandra McEvoy (2009) and Miranda H. Alison (2009) both note the reluctance of Loyalist women to engage with interviews. Nevertheless, Wahidin’s thoughtful interpretation may inspire these women to have their voices heard as well.

Wahidin’s extensive research is a stimulating and at times heart-rending read. It deftly balances the intimate and personal accounts of the women with academic scrutiny in order to help the reader understand the meaning of gendered resistance and the consequences of gendered violence. It avoids the voyeurism of suffering or cloying sympathy by carefully interpreting the meaning behind the women’s words and actions.

What is significant about this research is that it is providing a much-needed foundation for a focus on women’s experiences of political struggle from the perspective of former combatants rather than on women as victims of war or peacemakers. Post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation require ex-combatants and ex-political prisoners to be part of the peace process, and Wahidin’s exploration highlights the neglected role of female former combatants and their gendered experiences of fighting, prison and involvement in conflict transformation. The final chapter puts across the attitude that as these women were part of the conflict, they must also be part of the peace process.

In Ex-Combatants, Gender and Peace in Northern Ireland, Wahidin uses interviews to expose the intimate and poignant accounts of the prison experience through a gendered lens. The book brings to the fore the significance of gender during political struggle, and asks that women not be a footnote, but rather mainstreamed in political reconciliation processes. It is a must-read to understand the integral role that female combatants had during the conflict and that female ex-combatants must have during social transformation for a solid and lasting peace. Wahidin’s work is a seminal text that should be read by everyone studying post-conflict reconstruction and peace-building.


Note: This post was originally published on our sister site LSE Review of Books.

About the reviewer

Ashleigh McFeeters is a third-year PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work. The doctoral research examines the role of the news media in peace-building in post-conflict societies with a focus on female ex-combatants. Her research interests include gendered terrorism, former combatant’s roles in conflict transformation, women and peace-building and the news media and peace/conflict.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Ireland’s open border is more than a symbol. It ensures people can eat | Felicity Lawrence

Dublin is thinking through the consequences of Brexit for real people, but Westminster’s head remains buried in the sand

In Northern Ireland, 56% of those who took part in the referendum on membership of the European Union voted to remain. For the majority, the freedom for people and goods to come and go without checks across the Irish border carries the momentous freight of national identity; it goes to the heart of the peace settlement. The UK government knows this – which is why the prime minister has promised a contradiction, that what will become the border with the EU will remain frictionless, despite also promising, to please Brexiteers, that Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be outside the customs union and single market.

Related: The Good Friday agreement is so much more than a ‘shibboleth’ | Fintan O’Toole

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Brexit: ‘most difficult part is still to come’, warns Barnier

Progress is being made but 'the most difficult part is still to come', EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said  in an interview with European press agencies including EURACTIV's partner Ouest-France, as well as La Repubblica, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Le Soir and El Espanyol.
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