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Violence littered the streets of Northern Ireland over a period of 12 days between the 29th of March and 10th of April, ceasing after the death of Prince Philip. The seeming sporadic outbreaks are increasingly concerning considering the sectarian divides in the country due to the bloody history of the Troubles and the threat of returning to a similar situation.
Unrest began in Derry/Londonderry on the 29th of March and spread out over the following 12 days as a series of violent altercations between police and rioters reached Belfast, Ballymena, Carrickfergus and Portadown. Though in both unionist and nationalist areas, the initial violence seemed to originate from unionist aggression towards the Irish Sea Border and events surrounding the funeral of Bobby Storey.
A height of the altercations came at the peace wall in West Belfast which divides sectarian communities, unionist Shankill Road and nationalist Springfield Road. A gate between the communities is opened during the day, but shut at night to divide the two residential areas.
On the 7th and 8th of April, the violence of the previous days – which mainly consisted of missiles and petrol bombs being thrown at police officers – swelled in West Belfast. A public bus was hijacked and burnt, missiles and petrol bombs were thrown from both sides of the peace wall and a stolen vehicle was rammed at the gates in an attempt to breach them, though this was eventually unsuccessful.
Police intervened on both nights and soon became the focus of the attacks. As many as 88 police officers have been injured since the 29th of March. In footage of the events, a large majority of the rioters can be seen wearing all black attire and face coverings, however, they appear to be made up of mostly younger people, with police reports noting that children as young as 13 were involved.
This has raised questions about the motivation for the violence and whether it is completely sporadic, whilst there are some concerns about possible paramilitary involvement in planning and goading younger people into action considering the age of the participants and sectarian locations of the events. The Northern Ireland Protocol – a faucet of Brexit legislation that attempts to avoid a hard land border in Ireland- has been one overlying contributor to major unrest in Northern Ireland since early January.
The Protocol protects the 300 mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic from becoming a hard trade border as goods can be transported across without any checks.
However, it has effectively created a trade border in the Irish Sea as numerous goods have to be checked at ports in Belfast and in Larne. This comes after promises in 2018 and 2019 by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the creation of an Irish sea border would not take place due to the possibility of it “damaging the fabric of the union,” a blatant lie considering the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Johnson has drawn a symbolic line between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland even though his past concerns about the border underline the fragility of the Irish situation.
As the current violent reaction suggests, this creates fears for unionists who see the protocol as a betrayal to their British identity and a step towards a united Ireland which they desperately oppose.
Many Northern Irish unionists also feel that this flouts the Good Friday Agreement, which helped to end the Troubles in 1998, a dangerous result of Johnson’s propensity to discard the Irish situation. The funeral of senior IRA member and Northern Chairman of Sinn Féin, Bobby Storey, is also a possible cause for the current violence.
Though the country was in a lockdown at the time, the funeral procession and service – which took place on the 30th of June 2020 – was attended by many more than the 30 person limit imposed at the time. Among those present was Sinn Féin Vice President and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill.
The funeral garnered criticism back in June 2020, however, the following police investigation and Public Prosecution Service decision not to prosecute the attendees, including Ms O’Neill, caused further outrage. First Minister Arlene Foster called for the resignation of Chief Constable Simon Byrn, though he refused.
Sinn Féin defended their actions, claiming that they abided by the rules at the time. However, the apparent, very public flouting of restrictions that Ms O’Neill had previously encouraged the public to abide by, and lack of repercussions has caused both unionist and general outrage. All this is exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the sectarian divide in communities and the threat to a British unionist identity that the Irish Sea Border poses.
But it still brings into question what needs to be done for Northern Ireland to move forward? Right now Northern Ireland requires political reinforcement to quell community tensions. Though the Sea Border is evidently making the unionist British identity seem under threat and causing some community outrage, economically it puts Northern Ireland in an individual situation.
Due to the EU aversion to a land border, Northern Ireland receives many of the trade benefits of the EU single market, whilst still being part of the UK. However, the formation of any kind of border between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland was bound to spark violence, clearly Boris Johnson knew this and his lie further presents an ignorance to the situation.
If the Prime Minister can show his support for Northern Ireland and affirm its status as a valued part of the UK, he may be able to recover some of his lost support and quell the fears that many unionists have of a United Ireland. If the unionist crease of protesting following Prince Phillip’s death says anything, it signifies their value of their own British identity.
However this poses the threat of increasing nationalist tensions which have also clearly been sparked by the riots and may require the political support of Dublin in whatever action London takes to appease both sides. If the PM cannot do this, the Northern Ireland Protocol may need to be revised or scrapped altogether as it dangerously offsets the fragile symbolic power balance between unionists and nationalists, something that many unionist politicians are trying to achieve with article 16 of the protocol.
But right now, the combination of factors has offset the communal balance of the Irish situation and Johnson’s threat to the Good Friday Agreement could be extremely dangerous if immediate action from London and Dublin does not take place. Once this happens, if order is assured, Northern Ireland could be in a valuable economic situation with both their EU and UK economic affiliations.