Conflict Alerts # 361, 14 April 2021
In the news
On 7 April, rioters hijacked and torched a bus and hurled petrol bombs at police in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. This marks the seventh night of continuous rioting on the streets of the Northern Irish capital that has currently left 90 police officers injured, according to a news report in the BBC. In the sporadic rioting that began in March, violence has spread from the loyalist areas of West Belfast, as hundreds gathered on each side of the 'peace wall' separating the loyalist Shankill Road and the nationalist Springfield Road. Clashes between the two communities and police occurred near the wall, built to prevent further violence between the two groups after three decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.
Issues at large
First, the post-Brexit tensions. Since the start of 2021, tension was brewing when post-Brexit trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK came into effect. Preserving peace in Northern Ireland without allowing the UK a back door into the EU's markets through the 500km UK-Irish land border was one of the BREXIT talks' challenges. The arrangement eventually designed to retain Northern Ireland and Ireland as an open land border, saving the peace process built on the 1998 Good Friday accord. However, the BREXIT divorce deal did lead to a few customs and border checks on some goods, a remainder on the consequence of a violation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. This created a sense among both the unionists and loyalists of an unequal arrangement as against the rest of the UK.
Second, the hardening of the Irish sea border as larger discontent. As land border remained open, control and check were imposed on the Irish sea that led the unionist group to distrust the UK government. Posters and graffiti have marred the walls in Belfast, calling for "No Irish Sea Border. Ian Paisley, Jr, a senior MP of Democratic Unionist Party, which supports BREXIT but opposes the Irish sea border, said in late January that discontent over the new arrangements was so great that some sections of the unionist community were "starting to sense they are sitting on a powder keg." While the causes for the violence are multifaceted, "there has been this brewing fear on the Unionist side that they are not as British as people in Birmingham," writes Feargal Cochrane, author of Northern Ireland: The Fragile Peace.
Third, intra-sectarian political differences. The riot comes against the immediate backdrop of worsening relations between the leading parties representing the unionist, loyalists and the nationalist groups. The seven nights of violence were sparked by a decision from Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service not to prosecute 24 high-ranking members of Sinn Fein, the party, who had breached COVID-19 regulations by attending a funeral for Bobby Storey, a prominent member of the Irish Republican Army. However, it is noteworthy that the violence has unfolded around working-class Unionist areas of Belfast close to the coast, indicating this riot is still not a uniform sentiment across Northern Ireland.
Fourth, distrust against the UK and return of old rivalries. The introduction of the Internal Market Bill during the Brexit transition period and its subsequent dropping has resulted in a deep trust deficit between the British government and groups in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland's population is divided between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists. More than two decades after the Good Friday Agreement peace deal brought the sectarian "Troubles" to an end, old rivalries and the question of political equality amongst the groups are ensuing in post Brexit scenario.
A change in the Northern Ireland protocol could probably be the next challenge for the Johnson government. At the beginning of March, Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary groups informed the British Prime Minister that they would not back the Belfast Agreement again until the Northern Ireland Protocol was amended to ensure uninterrupted trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. If the riot continues, it remains to be seen whether historical precedents repeat themselves to spiral the violence throughout the North.