Free Derry corner, Northern Ireland

Jenny Ryder
Staff Writer

Theresa May and the Brexit campaigners have jumped yet another hurdle in their crusade to take Britain out of the European Union as the House of Commons have overwhelmingly voted in favour of giving the Prime Minister permission to trigger article 50 and start the process of exiting.  Fears among EU citizens living in the UK have heightened by the failure of an amendment designed to protect their status as legal residents.  Additionally, the initial concerns from businesses regarding trade have not necessarily been cured by the release of the Brexit White Paper, which promises to, “forge ambitious free trade relationships across the world.”  Uncertainty has plagued all discussions surrounding Brexit, but nowhere is that uncertainty more daunting than in Northern Ireland.  Here, the ever present fear of sectarian violence reemerging over the border has been heightened by a breakdown of the Stormont Parliament.

With only 3% of the overall population of the UK, Northern Ireland voted alongside Scotland to remain in the EU.  While the broader issues of the referendum debate remained important, Northern Irish voters also had particular fears regarding the impact of Brexit on their shared border with the Republic of Ireland.  In 1922, the Anglo-Irish Treaty established the six counties that constitute Northern Ireland.  Today, these six counties contain the highest population of Protestants and Unionists on the island.  This area remained part of the UK while the other 26 counties became an independent state.  If they leave the European Union, then this will also be the only land border within the United Kingdom.  The problem is that currently no passports or immigration documents are required to cross the border.  Indeed, at the moment it is hardly noticeable when one crosses in and out of the North.  This was not always the case, however.  The memories of armed British forces and watchtowers along the border are still within living memory as the sectarian tensions known as the Troubles only ended in 1998 with the Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement.

The rationale for re-introducing a hard border is theoretically simple.  With immigration control central to the Brexit campaign, the option of leaving an unchecked EU border within the UK presents obvious concerns.  The integration between North and South in terms of economics cannot be overstated as over 14,000 people commute across the border daily for work.  Trade is another concern as goods often cross multiple times in the process of manufacturing.  The White Paper published by Downing Street has used the Common Travel Area, a pre-EU agreement between the UK and Ireland, to assure residents of both countries that long standing ties between the nations will remain in place.  However, there are legal concerns over what the EU will allow, and moreover there is general uncertainty over what the extreme anti-immigration advocates will accept.  There are many questions over the feasibility of a hard border which the Irish ambassador to the UK dubbed, “invisible.”

The security issues that would arise from a hard border are also a source of concern.  The Northern Ireland police federation has warned against such a measure saying that it, “would make sitting ducks of Northern Ireland police.”  The relationship between police and nationalists (those who wish for a united Ireland and to leave the UK) is often tense.  There were high numbers of civilian casualties in the Catholic and Nationalist communities during the crackdown on Provisional-IRA terrorism.  This was further exacerbated by the 38 year involvement of the British Army and by special forces units, known as the B-Specials, who were particularly prone to harassing the nationalist community.  Following the Good Friday Agreement, the police force was restructured to be more inclusive of both communities.  If the police were to be employed to enforce an already-contentious border, the fear is that this imagery would fuel violence, resistance and restart the bloody conflict.

This uncertainty is exacerbated by the current political climate ailing Stormont, the center for devolved government in Northern Ireland.  Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Parliament in Stormont shared power between nationalists and unionists to ensure that no community was excluded from policy decisions.  The results of this have been largely successful, with the Unionists usually holding the position of First Minister and the Nationalists in position of Deputy First Minister.  However that arrangement was shaken when Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, the Deputy First Minister, resigned his position in protest of a poorly executed renewable energy scheme on the part of the First Minister, Arlene Foster.  This resulted in the suspension of the Stormont Parliament, since the idea behind power-sharing requires both positions to be filled.  With a snap election scheduled for March 2, the lack of a Stormont government to shape the outcome of the Brexit-strategy is a cause for concern.  There is historical precedent of Westminster misunderstanding or underestimating the reality of the Northern Irish problem, with Margaret Thatcher being a particularly unpopular figure among Irish nationalists both north and south of the border.  Without a government in place to advise the Prime Minister, many fear that the implications of a hard border will not be fully articulated.

So what then are the possible solutions?  The option of maintaining the soft border is ideal but relies on the co-operation of the British and Irish governments, as well as approval from the broader European Union as a whole.  With many member states out for blood, the will to punish the UK may overwhelm the situation and limit the options available to avoid conflict.  Another proposition has been to introduce a border on mainland Britain only, as this would be easier and cheaper to enforce and would avoid the problems associated with a land border.  However, there is a risk that Unionists in Northern Ireland would view this as a betrayal, being fiercely protective of their status as citizens of the United Kingdom.  A more drastic option would be to allow Northern Ireland to remain in the EU because it voted in favour of staying, but this would create issues with Scotland and the feasibility of a United Kingdom half in and half out of the EU.  Now that Parliament has supported the right of the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50, it looks as if any legal challenge to Brexit stemming from Northern Ireland or Scotland will not be valid.

Nothing reignites conflict as quickly or as bitterly as a fearful population and an uncertain future.  While this is obviously somewhat of a worst-case scenario, it is also not nearly as unlikely as Theresa May and others in Downing Street would like to believe.  Until Stormont regains its voice in British politics, and until the real negotiations begin, an uneasy peace will be temporarily maintained. In this instance both Unionists and Nationalists have the will to find a manageable solution, but the bigger players have to be willing to put aside their grievances and co-operate.  A hard won 20 year peace is what is at stake.

Image by Giuseppe Milo

April 26, 2014

Each week Prospect’s editors select one travel photo to be featured on our website. For a chance to have your photos displayed here, send your submissions with captions provided to [email protected].

A narrow roadway snakes along Slea Head, the westernmost point of the beautiful Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland.

By UCSD student Logan Ma


By Rebecca Benest
Staff Writer

On April 18, Irish police found four rhino heads missing from a museum in Dublin. Although this may seem to be an obscure crime, the heads, when sold on the black market, are estimated to sell for $650,000 all together.

The rhino heads are not going to be used as a wall ornament. Instead, they will be harvested for their horns, which, in all likelihood, are going to be powdered-down and sold for their alleged healing properties. This type of crime has become increasing popular throughout the UK, with a large swell in robberies having occurred in 2011. Police have yet to make any arrests, but many link the crime back to a group of Irish travelers.

This incident is more than a museum robbery—rather, it is part of the reason for why rhinos are becoming endangered along with other commonly harvested animals, such as elephants. Beneath the surface of a successful museum heist lies a much larger-scale trade ring fueled by the large demand for illegal powdered horn destined for alternative Asian folk medicines markets.

The four missing heads are the most recent in a long line of similar robberies. In August 2011, “Rosie the Rhinoceros” was taken from Ipswich Museum in England. Rosie was only the most famous victim of the several similar incidents around that time, which, according to the European Police Office (Europol), all lead back to the same Irish traveller gang.

The robbery last week was different, however, which makes the situation all the more ironic. The National Museum of Ireland, which held the rhinos, were worried about the demand for the horns—and because of that, decided over a year ago to take the rhinos off of their original display and keep them in the less secure storage area. The lower levels of security in the storage spaces might have been a contributing factor to the success of the robbery.

The Irish travellers, also called the Pavee, or Gypsies, are largely accused for more than just taxidermist horn-napping. EUROPOL claims they are also heavily involved in drug trafficking, money laundering and other such crimes. They are also said to have a wide presence throughout South Africa, China, Australia, and much of the rest of the world . Nevertheless, nothing has been proven against them, and Martin Collins, a representative for the travellers at Pavee Point, insists there is no evidence. “I would suggest here that it’s downright irresponsible for Europol or anyone else to make these kinds of statements, unless they can be substantiated,” he said.

Collins’ statement is not unfounded, as police have previously jumped to conclusions in accusing the travellers of various crimes. They are subject to a wide array of prejudice and discrimination throughout Ireland and the rest of Europe, inciting further racial hatred of the group.

Personally, I am most intrigued by the question of the horns themselves: are their medical properties legitimate, or only an unfounded claim resulting in the potential extinction of an entire species? Although the powder is probably most often heard of for its use as an aphrodisiac, in reality, it is used for a variety of purposes. Meanwhile folk medicine very clearly does not include aphrodisiacal properties in that list. This list does, however, comprise of solutions to a wide array of troubles, including an antidote to poison, a sedative, a cure for typhoid, dysentery, smallpox, hemorrhages, drug overdoses and a charm to cure devil possession while warding away evil spirits.

Many of these properties are traced back to the fact that rhino horns are composed mainly of keratin, a protein with many sulfur-based amino acids, which can have a reaction to alkaline poison. This is probably what led to the claim that the horns can cure or detect poisons. In 1990, a study was done in Hong Kong, which found that the horn powder could alleviate fever in rats, but only in large doses, much larger than anything you would receive from a traditional medicinal specialist. Other than this, the claims are completely unproven, although they still pervade many Asian cultures.

Besides its medicinal uses, the rhino horns are hunted for other reasons. In Yemen, the horns are used to make the handles for Jambiya, knives coveted by Muslim men as a sign of manhood, honor, and devotion to their faith. The Jambiya handles are often intricately carved and studded with jewels as well.

More recently, a new use for the powder has been discovered and has gained popularity: a cure for hangovers. In Vietnam, the powder has become more expensive than cocaine, and is mixed with water to detoxify the body and prevent a hangover the following day.

Regardless of the potential or legitimate effects of the powder, rhinos are disappearing quickly and the killing needs to be stopped in order for them to remain as a species. A variety of measures, including bans and extensive security actions, are being enforced all over the globe to accomplish this goal.

One group, WildAid, uses familiar faces to spread their message. World-renowned basketball player, Yao Ming, is now seen among others on television screens and billboards all across China, hopefully making a change with this simple slogan: “When the buying stops, the killing will too.”

Photo by KitL Kat