Britain sees loyalist violence as option for Brexit breach

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A return of loyalist violence in the north of Ireland could help Britain wriggle out of its international treaty obligations in regard to the border and the Good Friday Agreement, according to its Attorney General.

AG Geoffrey Cox has delivered his latest legal advice to help convince unionists and racist Tories to support the current Brexit deal and its ‘backstop’ provisions, which are intended to prevent a remilitarisation of the border.

Cox’s new advice may be enough to squeeze the deal through parliament after it was rejected by British MPs last week. Amid a mounting sense of crisis in London, other divisions at Westminster also saw them reject a crash Brexit, and seek an extension to the Brexit deadline, currently set for March 29, until June 30.

In a desperate gambit, Cox has now claimed that Britain could legally resile from the ‘backstop’ provisions, intended to prevent a remilitarisation of the border, if they are considered by London to have a “socially destabilising effect on Northern Ireland”.

Such a ‘destabilisation’ in the north of Ireland would facilitate the British government to trigger Article 62 of the Vienna Convention, he argued, which allows international treaties such as the Brexit deal to be broken in “exceptional” cases.

That appears to suggest that loyalist violence, or merely disturbances similar to the flags protests of 2012, could be used as a pretext for Britain to abandon the backstop and restore spy-posts and other military infrastructure to the border area.

The idea that loyalist paramilitaries could play a role in reinforcing the partition of Ireland appears to have won favour with the DUP, who remain closely allied with loyalist hardliners across the north of Ireland. DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds has described the discussions as “constructive”.

However, Cox’s legal advice received criticism from other quarters. Some commentators noted that it would actively encourage loyalists to use violence to achieve their goals, while other legal experts pointed out that by advising of the idea, Cox had already ruled out that it could be considered ‘exceptional’ or ‘unforeseen’, as required under the Vienna Convention.

One hardline unionist politician has already warned that the border through Ireland could be “maintained by the gun”. In a Facebook video late last year, loyalist pastor Barrie Halliday said “men and women... paid for that line to remain where it is by laying down their lives. It was defended by the gun and will be maintained by the gun.”

Brexit has also been linked to a degree of social destabilisation and violence in Ireland already. Last week, a series of package devices were sent from Ireland to Britain, including two posted to military recruitment offices. None of the devices exploded, but they were claimed in the name of the New IRA, their first parcel bomb attack in five years. The same organisation in January detonated a large car bomb at Derry’s courthouse, without causing injury.

Discussions between the DUP and the British government are to resume on Monday ahead of an expected third Westminster vote on the Brexit deal next week. Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard has called on the DUP and Tory Brexiteers to step back from the “cliff-edge” of a “crash-out”.

“After yet another week of chaos in the British Parliament with ministerial resignations and bizarre and delusional votes, the north of Ireland is still facing the possibility of being dragged out of the EU and over an economic cliff edge in a no-deal Brexit,” he said.

“There is no such thing as a good Brexit but crashing out with no deal would have dire economic consequences for the north.”

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