Ulster loyalists are burning buses and cars in Belfast, thanks to Brexit

Riot activity in West Belfast on April 7. (Peter Morrison/AP)
Riot activity in West Belfast on April 7. (Peter Morrison/AP)

Young people in Northern Ireland have been rioting every night for almost two weeks. Violence that started in low-income Protestant areas in Belfast spilled over to other parts of Northern Ireland, bringing in Catholic youths, as well. Protesters set a bus and cars on fire, and hurled petrol bombs, bottles, bricks and roof tiles at each other over some of Belfast’s peace walls, which separate the two communities.

Targeted by both sides, nearly 90 police officers have been injured in the violence. This type of street violence was common during the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict. But a peace agreement was signed 23 years ago — so why are people rioting again?

Brexit has disrupted Northern Ireland politics

The Troubles pitted Unionists, who are mostly Protestant and want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, against Nationalists, who are mostly Catholic and want to see Northern Ireland united with the Republic of Ireland. After decades of violence, all the major political parties and the British and Irish governments signed a peace deal in 1998. This deal, known as the Belfast Agreement, or the Good Friday Agreement, ended the violent phase of the conflict.

Some unrest is typical each summer during “marching season,” when Unionists in particular commemorate centuries-old events with parades, and tempers flare. However, this new phase involves some of the most intense violence since 1998, highlighting the fragile state of Northern Ireland’s peace.

That fragility — and the associated violence — is mostly a product of Brexit. Britain’s decision in 2016 to pull out of the European Union disrupted the delicate balancing act embodied in the Good Friday Agreement. The peace deal created what political scientist Brendan O’Leary has called “imaginative elements of co-sovereignty” between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. It allowed people in Northern Ireland to identify as British or Irish, carry dual passports and move freely across the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

After 1998, the border was progressively dismantled because it was unnecessary during peacetime when the Republic of Ireland and the U.K. were both part of the European Union. Removing the border also encouraged all-island economic development and minimized the effect of the border issue on the competing identities of Nationalists and Unionists.

Brexit changed all of that. The final deal requires customs checks for goods passing between the U.K. and the E.U. There was no way to impose these checks, and the border infrastructure they require, without upsetting one side to the conflict. Either there would be an effective border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — or an effective border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

In the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement, the U.K. agreed to conduct checks at ports in Northern Ireland on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland that might pass into the E.U. They thus avoided creating a hard land border on the island of Ireland, which would anger Nationalists. But the protocol effectively creates a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. instead. To many Unionists and their more extreme loyalist fringe, this separation is unacceptable. Unionists and loyalists believe that Nationalists used the threat of extremist violence to prevent a land border and win strategic gains in the protocol.

Unionists are lashing out because they fear they are losing

Unionists have claimed they are losing ground in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement, if not before. Unionists were never as enthusiastic about the agreement as Nationalists were, and only a bare majority supported the referendum on the peace deal.

Since then, many believe the agreement’s provisions have been interpreted to benefit Nationalists. Police reforms, for instance, left Unionists feeling that Northern Ireland’s police force no longer had their backs. Symbols of British royalty have been removed from the official insignia of the police and the oath of office. The Union Jack, the U.K. flag, once flew every day at Belfast City Hall but now is permitted on just 18 days a year. The Irish language, which many Unionists associate with a militant Irish identity, has become more common on signs and other public notices.

To Unionists, these symbolic affronts combine with a litany of practical losses. Catholic schools consistently outperform Protestant ones. In 2017, Unionists lost the majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time since Northern Ireland was created 100 years ago; Catholics are likely to outnumber Protestants there very soon. And Unionists fear momentum is building behind calls for a referendum on Irish unification, which the peace agreement requires the British government to initiate when it appears that a majority in Northern Ireland would support it.

Pandemic politics also exacerbated tensions between Unionists and Nationalists, who share power in Northern Ireland’s government under the Good Friday Agreement. Last week, the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland announced that it would not prosecute anyone who attended the funeral of Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Storey in June. This decision helped spark the current violence, because the crowds that gathered included Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and other politicians — and public gatherings were banned at the time. The decision fuels perception among loyalists that the police are biased against them.

The violence will be hard to stop as long as its perpetrators think that it’s politically useful or fear they have nothing to gain from the existing arrangements. During the peace negotiations in the 1990s, leaders on all sides recognized the necessity of helping one another get to the point where they could make compromises because there was no other way out of the conflict. Up to this point, at least, there’s little evidence that politicians on either side are thinking in these ways.

Kimberly Cowell-Meyers is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at American University and author with Carolyn Gallaher of “Parsing the Backstop: Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement in the Brexit Debates,” which appeared in the journal British Politics. Carolyn Gallaher is a professor in the School of International Service at American University and the author of After the Peace: Loyalist Paramilitaries in Post-Accord Northern Ireland (Cornell University Press, 2007).

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