Brexit is fuelling tensions in Northern Ireland

Changing political dynamics in Northern Ireland are causing anxiety in unionist communities.

Protesters are seen at the 'peace wall' gate into Lanark Way as protests continue in Belfast, Northern Ireland on April 7, 2021 [Reuters/Jason Cairnduff]

Last week’s rioting in Northern Ireland caught the attention of the world. The spectre of people setting fire to buses, hurling petrol bombs and engaging in running battles with the police in Belfast brought back disturbing memories of the violence associated with “the Troubles”, the conflict that scarred the region for 30 years between the late 1960s and late 1990s.

Perhaps the most depressing element of this story is that the protagonists were largely teenagers, from loyalist (unionist) communities – those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. These youths are often referred to as “ceasefire babies” – that is, children born after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was enacted, putting an end to the violence.

A range of factors has been mooted in explaining the renewed surge in tensions. The most commonly cited reason is the unhappiness of the unionist community with the Northern Ireland Protocol attached to the Brexit agreement. That agreement provided for Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and single market of the European Union while protecting its constitutional status as part of the United Kingdom.

Despite continued reassurances from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson that there would be no disruption of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland after Brexit, the first quarter of the year has seen significant new barriers to trade emerge. Many unionists feel betrayed by London as the “Irish sea border”, which Johnson promised would never materialise, is now an active presence in their lives. That sense of anger and frustration is being felt in the streets. It may be somewhat inchoate and even exaggerated but it is nevertheless palpable across unionist communities.

At the same time, nationalists led by Sinn Féin, the leading Irish republican party, are talking up the prospects of achieving a united Ireland and demanding a “border poll” (referendum) within the near future. A broader conversation on what a united Ireland might look like is under way in both the north and in the Republic of Ireland and this has had the predictable effect of instilling anxiety in unionist communities.

Brexit has thus brought the return of a familiar, and for many unwelcome, form of “identity politics” to Northern Ireland, one that has proved extremely unsettling to a still-fragile political and constitutional order.

Where the Good Friday Agreement accommodated both British and Irish identities within a broader consociational political framework, Brexit has encouraged a revival of identity polarisation, interpreted as a zero-sum game where a “win” for nationalists is perceived as a “loss” for unionists.

And within unionist communities, there is an especially strong feeling, encouraged by political leaders, that nationalists are winning every battle and are closer to achieving a united Ireland than ever before. For example, the prospect of an Irish Language Act, which would give the Irish language equal status to English in Northern Ireland, is presented not just as a win for nationalists but as a further nail in the coffin of cultural and political unionism. This comes at a time when political demography is pointing, tentatively, for the first time towards a nationalist majority in Northern Ireland.

Many commentators have pointed out that the young people rioting have little or any knowledge of the Brexit Protocol and associated constitutional issues. Rather they point to specific factors within some loyalist communities to explain the febrile atmosphere on the streets.

For one thing, these communities have experienced little or no “peace dividend” over the last 23 years. Poverty and deprivation linked to educational under-achievement and high unemployment scars both nationalist and loyalist areas of Belfast. These are “sites of grinding, multigenerational poverty”, according to Professor Colin Coulter, who has spent almost three decades studying these communities. The neighbourhoods that were the most deprived during the Troubles remain the most deprived areas within Northern Ireland.

Within some loyalist areas, however, these problems are compounded by the menacing presence of paramilitary gangs engaged in drug dealing and various forms of extortion and racketeering. Recent successes enjoyed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in cracking down on some of these groups are cited as one reason for the confrontation with police.

Loyalist thugs have literally suborned teenagers from their communities into direct confrontation with the police as a way of hitting back against law enforcement. These children are thus enjoined to “earn their stripes”, as one respected commentator, Dearbhail McDonald, put it in the Sunday Independent. Such paramilitary groups, McDonald argues, are also threatened by the prospect of the introduction to Northern Ireland of Unexplained Wealth Orders, already in use in Great Britain, aimed at individuals and groups engaged in criminal activity who cannot account for their wealth.

Loyalist ire at the PSNI also derives from the decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Féin politicians who defied COVID-19 regulations to attend the funeral of Bobby Storey, a former operative of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), in June 2020. The first minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) called for the resignation of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne after the public prosecutors decided not to pursue prosecutions against the Sinn Fein representatives. Foster blamed senior police officers for “facilitating” the funeral.

Whatever the nuances informing the legal position around prosecution decisions, it is clear that the anger of the wider unionist community about this issue contributed to a ratcheting up of sentiments against the PSNI and was exploited by some loyalist forces determined to wreak havoc on the streets.

Beyond the relatively confined terrain where last week’s events played out, it is clear that unionism is experiencing a deep and profound crisis.  The DUP campaigned for Brexit on the basis that a United Kingdom outside of the European Union would make a united Ireland much more difficult to achieve. In fact, the opposite has happened and a united Ireland is now being discussed in a way that scarcely seemed possible prior to 2016.

Next year, will see new elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is very possible that this election will see Sinn Féin win the largest number of seats for the first time. That would mean that the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’ Neill, would become first minister in the new Northern Ireland Executive (government), with the leader of the DUP (current First Minister) Arlene Foster, effectively “demoted” to deputy first minister in the complicated constellation of shared power put in place by the Good Friday Agreement.

The symbolism of unionism’s main enemy – Sinn Féin, indelibly associated in unionist minds with IRA atrocities – leading Northern Ireland might be too much for Foster and other unionist leaders to accept. But if unionists are unprepared to serve in an executive headed by Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland could be in for renewed political turmoil.

The elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly will be followed in 2024 by the first vote on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Under the terms of the Brexit agreement, the Assembly will have to vote on whether or not to accept the continuing operation of the Protocol. Should unionists decide to boycott this vote, the entire legitimacy of the Protocol will be in question. The timing of any potential Scottish referendum on independence – likely also to be held in 2024 – may well act to further destabilise Northern Ireland’s politics.

In short, last week’s violence on the streets of Belfast can be attributed to both proximate and localised causes on the one hand, and to the more generalised tensions that characterise inter-communal relations in the wake of Brexit. Past traumas continue to weigh heavily on current politics in Northern Ireland and that is unlikely to change as the twin challenges of managing the Protocol and interdicting violence preoccupy attention in Belfast, Dublin and London in the years to come.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.