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Northern Ireland: what’s happening, and why does it matter?

Image: a police officer walking behind a police van on fire in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, via AFP.

In the last few weeks, the streets of Northern Ireland have been troubled by violence. Shocking scenes have emerged of a bus being petrol bombed and children as young as 12 and 13 from loyalist communities engaging in conflict both with the police and with republicans. Much of the violence has focused around the so-called “peace gates” in Belfast, but over the last week it has spread to other towns and cities, such as Newtownabbey and Derry/Londonderry. The scale of the unrest has caused some experts to warn of the potential return to the “dark days” in the country, and the rupture of the hard-earned and fragile peace that was established by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Before I continue, I should probably introduce myself. I was born in England, and have lived my whole life in East London and in East Yorkshire. However, my mother’s side of the family are Ulster Protestants from County Donegal, my mother herself being born in the beautiful city of Derry/Londonderry, and I have visited the country every summer (the only exception being 2020). I am immensely proud of my British, Irish and Northern Irish identity, and for many years have had a keen interest in the history and politics of Northern Ireland. Growing up in England has allowed me to approach political issues in Northern Ireland from a more removed, nonpartisan perspective, whilst also opening my eyes to the shocking ignorance of many in England concerning Northern Irish affairs (former Secretary of State Karen Bradley’s surprise on learning that “nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties, and vice versa” springs to mind), as well as the lack of attention they are given by the mainstream media.

Growing up in England has allowed me to approach political issues in Northern Ireland from a more removed, nonpartisan perspective, whilst also opening my eyes to the shocking ignorance of many in England concerning Northern Irish affairs.

So why has violence broken out now? Tensions have been simmering amongst unionist and loyalist communities as a result of Northern Ireland’s perceived separation from the rest of the UK; a direct consequence of Boris Johnson’s Brexit agreement. Despite Theresa May’s assertion that a trade barrier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland was an idea that “no British prime minister could ever sign up to”, in the Northern Ireland protocol Boris Johnson has done exactly that. The realities of empty shelves in Northern Irish supermarkets and increased friction in trade have exposed Johnson’s lies to unionist politicians, to whom he made repeated promises of “unfettered access” to UK markets for Northern Irish businesses and consumers throughout both his leadership bid and general election campaign in 2019.

The other key short term trigger of violence amongst loyalist communities was the decision by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) not to prosecute leading Sinn Fein politicians, including the Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, for an apparent breach of Covid-19 restrictions as a result of their attendance of the funeral of IRA’s former head of intelligence Bobby Storey last summer, an event often paralleled with Dominic Cummings’s Durham safari in England. In a country where mistrust of the police is widespread and an “us vs them” mentality is often present, such a decision proved too much for some loyalist communities to stomach.

The response from the government in Westminster has been as outrageous as it has been predictable. After six nights of violence and six days of burying his head in the sand, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis finally announced late last week that he would be travelling to Northern Ireland to hold cross-party “crisis talks” in a bid for peace. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has continued to resist calls to hold a summit with Stormont party leaders, despite both the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney and US President Joe Biden expressing their concern regarding the situation and its potential to escalate. Whilst it is to be expected that government activities are to be scaled back during the period of national mourning following the death of HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, it is a case of gross negligence on the part of Boris Johnson and the Conservatives to continue to ignore the presence of violence in a constituent member of the United Kingdom which they have been elected to represent.

it is a case of gross negligence on the part of Boris Johnson and the Conservatives to continue to ignore the presence of violence in a constituent member of the United Kingdom which they have been elected to represent.

Beyond the immediate need for peace, what long term solutions can be offered? The Democratic Unionist Party has been vocal in its opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, but is yet to provide any workable alternative. The only alternatives that currently exist are a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, an unthinkable and impractical proposal, or moving Great Britain back into the single market and customs union, an idea dismissed by Boris Johnson and not currently being pushed by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. Nationalist politicians have also been accused of trying to exploit the challenges posed by Brexit in an attempt to further the case for a united Ireland, further increasing tensions between communities. Rather than focus on a game of political one-upmanship to the detriment of the people of Northern Ireland, the UK and EU must both show they are seriously committed to making the protocol work and maintaining peace on the island of Ireland, whilst the Stormont parties and politicians also have a responsibility to avoid further fuelling tensions with both their language and their actions.

Beyond Brexit, however, the underlying challenges faced by many “left behind” loyalist communities, some of whom have among the lowest rates of educational attainment in Europe, will continue to increase the threat of conflict and unrest for as long as they remain ignored. A lasting peace can only be ensured in Northern Ireland if both sides work together to address the challenges they face, and commit to peace and compromise in order to facilitate a move away from the tribalism that has dominated so much of Northern Ireland’s 100 year history. The violence of these last few weeks should serve as a stark reminder to all concerned of both the fragility and the importance of peace in Northern Ireland. The active involvement of the governments of both John Major and Tony Blair helped ensure this peace, and the Johnson government must recognise that this is not an issue that can be resolved by bluster, bad jokes or ignoring the problem entirely. If these tensions are not resolved quickly, the real threat of further violence and unrest hangs over the country, particularly as the marching season, already an often volatile period in the Northern Irish calendar, looms ever closer.

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