Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 396, 16 June 2021

Northern Ireland: Belfast protest marks return of the Irish question
Sourina Bej

In the news
On 10 June, the Greater Shankill Coalition group organized a protest in west Belfast against the Northern Ireland protocol over the Irish sea. According to reported news, the united Ireland banner, displayed on the nationalist side of the peace wall, was burned and more than 3,000 took part in the parade. The continuous riots and protests in Northern Ireland assumed centre stage at the G7 summit in Cornwall, the UK.

On 14 June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson in responding to a warning from French president Emmanuel Macron, said, Northern Ireland is part of "one great indivisible United Kingdom." At the summit, the US president, Joe Biden, urged the UK to settle its rows with the EU. The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, also said he had raised the issue in his bilateral meeting with Boris Johnson, emphasizing Canada's role in forging the Good Friday Agreement.
Issues at large
First, the significance of the Good Friday Agreement in maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. Ending the sectarian violence, the Good Friday Agreement established devolution of power in Northern Ireland from London and also reset Northern Ireland's external relations through an open land border. Internally, through a power-sharing method between both Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists majority, the treaty offered dual citizenship to the population. Brokered by the Clinton administration, the US support in giving voice to the Irish Catholic minority led to episodic peace. But with the UK's severed ties with the EU, the conflict between the two groups has emerged while the majority of unionists are pushing against the strong call for unification.

Second, tensions in Northern Ireland as BREXIT fallouts. With post-BREXIT trade barriers, preserving peace in Northern Ireland without allowing the UK a back door into the EU's markets is a challenge. Tensions returned when the open border, as lettered in the Good Friday Agreement, was bypassed to harden the Irish sea border instead. This has created a sense of alienation among both the unionists and loyalists of an unequal arrangement as against the rest of the UK. While the causes for the protests are multifaceted, the ethnoreligious identity has taken precedence as many unionists have come to rationalize the BREXIT a step to see them "not as British."

Third, intra-sectarian political differences as triggers for protest. Since March multiple protests have been organized to highlight loyalist opposition to the protocol. The month of April witnessed the peak of violence when rioters hijacked and torched a bus leaving 90 police officers injured. Clashes between the two communities have occurred near the 'peace wall,' built to prevent further sectarian conflict but it comes against the immediate backdrop of worsening relations between the unionist, loyalists, and the nationalist groups. It is but noteworthy that the violence has unfolded around working-class Unionist areas of Belfast and not yet a uniform sentiment across Northern Ireland.

In perspective
First, the issue of overlapping conflicts. BREXIT has brought to the fore unresolved identity conflicts and staggered peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. Second, the issue of an alternate power-sharing agreement. Along with the BREXIT treaty, the UK could also be propelled to consider a power-sharing arrangement to continue preserving peace in Northern Ireland. For long, the UK has refused a suggested agreement like Switzerland that would remove all border checks and veterinary declarations for British food entering Northern Ireland or the EU. However, that could probably do little to address sentiments of sectarian hatred.

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