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16 Apr 2021

Union

Recent weeks have seen Northern Ireland thrust back into the global spotlight for all the wrong reasons, with images being shared of petrol bombs being thrown, buses being hijacked and set alight, and police officers being injured in the riots.

There has been much said about the root causes for the riots, but no single reason can explain these scenes.

Rather, a complex web of elements, many of which have been active undercurrents within unionism and loyalism for some time, have intermeshed with developments in relation to Brexit and politics in Northern Ireland. Put simply, unionists and loyalists are angry, and the reasons for this are understandable.

The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is one contributing factor. In symbolic and practical ways, its operational requirements have established a distinction between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, striking right to the heart of so many fears and anxieties that were already present in the community.

Further, the option of placing a border on the island of Ireland was vehemently opposed during the Brexit negotiations.

This has fuelled a perception that the Brexit deal panders to nationalist concerns, places unionist interests as secondary, and advances an argument that the EU (and Ireland’s role within it) is to blame.

An obvious difficulty arises in that this overlooks the fact that the arrangements currently in place were negotiated and agreed by the UK Government.

This in itself has been a contributing factor. Unionists feel betrayed: by Boris Johnson for the Brexit deal agreed, and by unionist political leaders for not preventing the Protocol.

From every angle, unionists and loyalists have had reason to perceive the community as under threat and to have little remaining incentive to trust in political leaders.

Nowhere have the consequences of this been more evident than in the working-class areas where the recent riots have been heavily concentrated.

However, the transition from feeling these sentiments to expressing them in the ways we have witnessed in recent weeks is not one that happened by accident.

It has been suspected that members of paramilitary and criminal organisations have had a role in orchestrating the riots, these groups being particularly active in the areas where tensions have been greatest.

We have also seen images of adults goading and encouraging the young people who have been at the forefront of much of the violence. Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister, Naomi Long, has described the situation as being tantamount to child abuse.

For this generation, who have only ever known a post-Good Friday/Belfast Agreement Northern Ireland, the battle being fought is one that is simultaneously steeped in issues of the past and entangled in fears about the future.

In a present epitomised by a lack of trust, opportunity, political leadership and perceived attacks on cultural identity, this makes for a destructive nexus.

Such is the extent of the issues that the idea of a positive future has become lost, and that makes their manipulation into violence all the easier.

Recent developments in Northern Ireland have also played a part in bringing matters to a head. In June 2020, over 2,000 people, including leading Sinn Féin figures, attended a funeral for the senior IRA figure, Bobby Storey, at a time when Covid-19 restrictions permitted only 30.

The decision published in March that no prosecutions would be pursued saw unionist leaders call for the resignation of the Chief Constable, Simon Byrne.

While this decision from the Public Prosecution Service is now under review, the reasoning behind the initial stance has served to (further) diminish trust in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and add to sentiments that a two-tier policing system operates favouring nationalists and republicans.

Despite unionist leaders emphatically clarifying their support for officers (their anger being directed specifically at the Chief Constable), the PSNI have been the target of much of the recent violence. Appropriately, the rule of law was the focus of an emergency debate held in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 8 April to discuss the riots.

At a time when unity is needed, the debate did not quite succeed in projecting this. While the Executive produced a joint statement on the matter, the debate showed where cracks remained between the parties.

Despite unanimous condemnation of the violence, finger-pointing abounded, requiring the Speaker to intervene with a reminder of the need for positive leadership and the power of words in the sensitive climate.

The response from the UK Government has also been a cause for concern. It took five days for the Prime Minister to publicly acknowledge what was happening in Northern Ireland’s capital, and it was 8 April before the Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, returned to engage in discussions with the political parties and community representatives. At the time of writing, there are no indications of plans for further actions.

In a vacuum of political leadership and trust, other elements will inevitably seep in. That is what has been seen in Northern Ireland, and reversing it will not be easy.

Community and religious leaders have attempted to stymie the unrest, but this can only go so far without political unity and backing at all levels.

Recent nights have been quiet, but this is largely due to the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, which has seen the UK enter a period of national mourning. Gatherings planned for the evening after this was announced were cancelled, although some unrest did still occur.

There was little by way of sympathy from elsewhere in the UK for these skirmishes. But in its own way, this has shone a light on the fact that the riots are not solely about unionism or identity or the community’s place within the UK – there are much wider socio-economic, historic and political dynamics to this. These existing issues have only been exacerbated by Brexit, the Protocol arrangements, and local politics.

23 years after the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, the importance of political leadership remains as strong as ever.

The activities seen in recent weeks have been roundly condemned in Northern Ireland, however, the fragility of the current situation cannot be underestimated.

How this is handled will set the tone not only for the summer marching season – which is often a flashpoint for tensions – but also for the Assembly election in 2022, and in the years ahead as the UK adjusts to life outside the EU.

By Dr. Clare Rice, Researcher at Newcastle Law School, Newcastle University.

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