Brexit Chaos: Growing Division and Civil Unrest in the UK
Discussion of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union has dominated British politics and media since the referendum in June 2016, but almost three years on, there remains a significant number of obstacles, uncertainties and disagreements which have created division both in Parliament and amongst the population.
Political and economic debate has been filled with speculation from both sides about the short and long-term impact of Brexit after the UK leaves but there have already been a number of observable effects across the country, as individuals and organisations come to terms with what the future may hold.
What is evident now potentially provides a warning of what is to come, both in terms of public attitudes and how various organisations and institutions will be reshaped as the UK’s relationship with the EU, and the rest of the world, takes another form. This post will look at a number of issues that have been provoked by the ongoing Brexit process in the context of recent incidents, which are indicative of the potential threats to security and business.
Civil Unrest: A Divided Nation
The divides across British society have widened and deepened while public disillusionment with the political establishment has grown further since the vote to leave the EU in June 2016. Public demonstrations from both pro- and anti-Brexit protesters have shown how such a controversial subject has mobilised individuals to vocally promote their views. London, Manchester and several other UK cities have seen protests so far this year, particularly at significant moments like in the build-up to specific votes in Parliament. Despite many feeling apathetic about the state of politics in Britain, it is clear that some are still active on their side of the Brexit divide and are committed to promoting their beliefs, or venting their frustrations, to the public.
Figure 1: Brexit-related activity in London. Credit: Intelligence Fusion 2.0
One particular incident that demonstrated the current prevailing toxicity of political engagement in the UK was on 7 January, when Conservative MP Anne Soubry was aggressively harassed outside Parliament by pro-Brexit activists. The confrontation displayed the level anger felt by some in the Brexit debate and the potential threat to public figures. The murder of Labour MP Jo Cox prior to the referendum vote in 2016 was an extreme case but also a stark reminder of the danger politicians face and the violence that exists in British political debate.
Figure 2: Brexit protest in Manchester. Credit: Intelligence Fusion
Northern Ireland Border: The Unavoidable Issue
The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been a significant focus of the political discussion on Brexit, largely due to it being the only area where the UK is physically connected by land to another European state (excluding Gibraltar). Currently, as both the UK and Ireland are EU member states, the border is barely noticeable to those who cross it, allowing for the frictionless movement of people and goods. However, if the UK leaves the EU with an agreement, or no deal at all, the situation at the border could become problematic if circumstances change for people and businesses who need to able to travel between both countries.
The political and social complexities of the border issue have a deeper and longer-term historical relevance in the region, with the sectarian conflict that dominated most of the last century and the tensions that remain today between unionists and republicans, Protestants and Catholics. Since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998, which brought a framework for relative peace to the country, the population of Northern Ireland has gradually moved toward creating a more cooperative and peaceful future. While paramilitary violence from dissident republicans and loyalist groups still occurs, it is at a far lower level and more contained than it was during the Troubles era. The relevance of this context to the current situation at the border is that parts of the GFA rely on notions like a demilitarised border and cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
A ‘hard border’ outcome of Brexit would be completely unacceptable to nationalists, who view physical installations and checks at the frontier as a sign of intervention from British security personnel. This has led to claims from several sources, including chairman of the republican political party Saoradh, that Brexit serves to help dissident republicanism by fuelling violence against what is perceived as ‘British occupation’.
In several recent incidents, it has become evident that the border region on both sides has been used by dissident republicans to stash weapons and explosives which have the potential to be used by the movement. Two caches were found by Gardai in February near Omeath, south of the border, with further sources indicating New IRA members have been observed by security services visiting arms dumps in the north. Not only does this show the organisations are active but also that they contain members from the Troubles era who are able to locate places where weapons were kept and supposedly ‘put beyond use’ during IRA decommissioning. The fact that this issue affects both Northern Ireland and the Republic emphasises the importance of close cooperation and a good relationship between both countries, something that Brexit currently appears to threaten.
Figure 3: Dissident arms caches found on the border. Credit: Intelligence Fusion 2.0
For some time, cross border cooperation between Gardai and Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) has been a critical factor in improving security in the region and deliver effective actions against extremists. This partnership has also been important in tackling organised crime, with a number of operations in late 2018/ early 2019 featuring both agencies and targeted criminals operating both sides of the border.
Trafficking of illicit and counterfeit goods is a prevalent enterprise for gangs but has faced a strong crackdown from authorities. A ‘hard border’ would make it more difficult to move goods if checks at the frontier are implemented but could be harder for police to manage if action between officers on both sides becomes less coordinated. Meanwhile, the British government’s published no-deal contingency plan indicates that smuggling could thrive, with the combination of steep tariffs on agricultural products while not applying checks at the border.
Again, the number of different paths that could be taken by the process means multiple outcomes are possible and is indicative of the lingering uncertainty, but in many scenarios that alter the current state of the border, it is evident problems could arise.
Figure 4: Cross-border operations carried out by Gardai and PSNI. Credit: Intelligence Fusion 2.0
Residents on both sides of the border strongly oppose anything that will disrupt their way of life and bring back the securitised atmosphere that was prevalent during the Troubles. Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the 2016 Referendum with a 56% majority, and the anti-Brexit protests in the region continue to reflect the local opposition and the concerns regarding the significant impact a dramatic change could have to the lives of many citizens.
Figure 5: Anti-Brexit protest on Irish border. Credit: Intelligence Fusion 2.0
An Uncertain Future for Business
Economic and business security is also under threat as various sectors face uncertainty and disruption if a suitable course of action is not taken, particularly in the case of a withdrawing without a deal. On 26 February, two Northern Irish fishing boats were impounded by the Irish Navy in Dundalk Bay after alleged breaches of fishing regulations.
At the time, Northern Ireland vessels were banned from fishing inside the Republic of Ireland’s six-mile limit; a situation emerged since the collapse of the so-called Voisinage Agreement in 2016. While the Irish parliament has since voted to restore rights to vessels from the North, fishing industry representatives have claimed that there is already a ‘hard border’ in the Irish Sea, which could therefore be a sign of the problems to come if the situation on land is not well managed.
Some of Northern Ireland’s largest businesses have joined the voices against a ‘no-deal’ scenario in an open letter written to MPs, suggesting that leaving the EU without a deal would “result in significant damage to our export markets, supply chains, consumer spending power and the region’s competitiveness”. The signatories include aerospace firm Bombardier, Norbrook pharmaceuticals and Graham construction group, amongst others.
Figure 6: Two Northern Irish fishing boats detained by Irish Navy. Credit: Intelligence Fusion 2.0
Companies from many sectors have announced alterations or prospective changes to their operations in the UK in response to the uncertainty surrounding the future of the UK and the implications of the country no longer being a full member state of the EU. In many of these announcements, which included Honda’s decision to close its Swindon production site, job cuts at Jaguar Land Rover and Flybmi entering administration, it has been made clear that a number of economic factors, beyond Brexit, have led to businesses reducing or relocating their activities from the country.
Nevertheless, it is evident that leaving the EU will shift the dynamics of the UK’s economic relationships and the global view of the country in terms of what it can offer the business community. For example, the chief executive of Northern Irish agri-tech company Devenish has stated that the lack of progress and uncertainty regarding Brexit had been frustrating, with even a ‘commercially favourable’ exit costing the company around £1.7million next year.
While the UK’s exit is still pending, the relationship with the EU has been strained at best and consequently led to trepidation from businesses when it comes to future commitment and investment in the country, as it is unclear what form a future partnership will take.
Speculation and uncertainty are defining characteristics of Brexit at this time, even with the deadline now less than a month away. Politically, there are a number of potential options and paths to be taken but while an outcome that satisfies Government, Parliament and the population remains unseen, it is becoming increasingly unlikely the process will be concluded in the near future. What remains sure is that the UK faces a continuing period of unrest and uncertainty while the process continues towards ensuring a satisfactory exit from the EU for the UK. How this will be achieved is far from obvious at this time and while the Government will take steps to maintain order and business continuity, the disruptive nature of the Brexit process will bring challenges and insecurity across a number of areas.
Intelligence Fusion are closely monitoring the Brexit developments, alerting and advising our clients of anything that may potential disrupt their day to day operations or the security of people and assets across the globe.
If you’d like to better understand the varied threats your business faces in the lead up to, and after, the UK’s departure from the European Union, book your free consultation with one of our team today.