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Thanks to Brexit, the fragile peace in Ireland is under threat

Security expert Tom Clonan writes that a referendum on Northern Ireland may lead to sectarian tensions in the six counties.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

THE REACTION TO Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has been dominated by heated debate on economic and migration issues.

However, Brexit poses equally profound and grave implications for British and European security, defence, peace and stability.

The decision to leave the European Union is the most dramatic political, diplomatic and economic decision of the British people since the end of the Second World War. This is truly an historic moment for Britain, Europe and Ireland.

Brexit weakens the European project

EU referendum Source: Nick Ansell

The EU has always been the world’s most dramatic peace process, reconciling bitter foes within Europe to one another and making coherent their relationship with the wider world.

Brexit fundamentally weakens the European project. It is a pity – though unsurprising – that our public discourse seems fixated on the economic implications of Brexit.

Such considerations are secondary to the more fundamental seismic political shift that Brexit represents.

In terms of Ireland’s own peace process, Brexit represents an existential threat to the political, social and economic dividends of the Good Friday Agreement. As Sinn Féin demands a referendum or border poll on a united Ireland, the fragile peace on this island is further threatened.

In the immediate term, repeated calls for such a referendum may lead to a rise in sectarian tensions in the six counties.

At best, we can expect some serious public disorder and rioting this July as elements within both the loyalist and nationalist communities express their opposition or support for Brexit and ideas of Britishness.

At worst, we can expect to see a return of border controls and a return to a security environment with echoes of the Troubles.

Security issues

In terms of the nuts and bolts of defence and security, Brexit means that Britain will no longer be a member of the European Union’s ‘army’ or Battlegroup system.

The last British EU Battlegroup will be on standby for Brussels from July to December of this year. It normally consists of troops from Britain’s Joint Rapid Reaction Force – from elite units such as the 3rd Commando Brigade or the 16th Air Assault Brigade.

Incidentally, Irish troops from our own Defence Forces will serve in this British EU Battlegroup having just returned from a joint training exercise on the Salisbury Plains in England. Ironically perhaps, Irish troops will also serve on standby for the last six months of this year in Germany’s EU Battlegroup.

Pan-European army

EU referendum Source: Nick Ansell

While the EU’s Common Defence and Security Policy (CSDP) will probably stumble on without such pivotal British support, Brexit means that Germany and France will become the primary drivers of European CSDP. That is not good news.

Germany and France have always been in the vanguard of support for a pan-European army. Britain has acted as a counterweight to this questionable impulse and the British have always been the strongest link in the chain that binds the USA and NATO to European regional and global strategic interests.

For the last number of years, the United States has shifted its strategic, foreign policy and military attention towards Asia in a development known as the ‘Asia Pivot’. During this period, the US expects Europe to shoulder more of its own regional security responsibilities.

In this context, the loss of Britain from the EU is highly significant. It now means that France is the only EU member state with permanent representation at the UN Security Council.

It also means that France is the only EU member state with nuclear weapons and a standing army capable of meaningful combined joint operations beyond its borders.

As a consequence, as of Friday morning, France and Germany are now the primary definers of the EU’s regional and global defence and security priorities. In the context of a resurgent, expansionary and highly aggressive Russia, Brexit will further fragment the EU’s ability to mount a coherent and capable response to Russian interventions in the Baltic States and Balkan region.

Divide and conquer

Russia WWII Remembered Russian President Vladimir Putin Source: AP/Press Association Images

For his part, Vladimir Putin will take full advantage of Brexit to further Russia’s interests and influence in central Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

In the classical mode of ‘divide and conquer’, in the coming years Putin will exploit to the maximum the rise of nationalism among European Union member states along with the rise of right-wing politics and calls for similar exit referenda within Europe.

In this context, we can expect to see further destabilisation within the Baltic and Balkan states as hybrid propaganda and covert military or black operations are mounted against vulnerable EU member states.

This strategy has worked for Russia in Ukraine and will likely be employed against other European states dependent on NATO and a weakened EU to shore up their fragile security status.

Russia will also continue to exploit the European Union’s failure to make meaningful interventions in the Middle East and to consolidate its sphere of influence and strategic power in the region with powerful allies such as Iran.

The European Union’s arrogant and brutal treatment of refugees from the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa has also played into the hands of regional dictatorships, police states and anachronistic monarchies throughout the Middle East and Gulf States.

Ironically, the EU’s appalling failure to deal effectively and humanely with the refugee crisis – along with its blind adherence to so-called austerity policies – may well have contributed to the decision of British voters to opt out of the European project.

At such a time of great flux and international transition and crisis, the next US president will play a pivotal determining role in how Europe navigates the grave political, defence, economic, climate and refugee crises that confront us in the next decade.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. He is also an Independent candidate for Senate-TCD Panel. You can follow him on Twitter here.   

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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