Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, that brought desperately-needed peace to my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. The centenary of the partition of Ireland is also just round the corner. Over the past week, loyalist violence and disturbances have erupted on the streets of Belfast, Derry and other cities in Northern Ireland, as a result of political mismanagement and broken Brexit promises. Given that the Union’s most fervent supporters are in the streets throwing petrol bombs and setting a bus alight with the driver inside, the question remains: what is there to show for the hard-earned peace of April 1998?
Dangerous precedents set by Brexit
The uncertainty over the Union is one that has helped trigger the recent unrest, with unionists uncertain of their position in the United Kingdom, faced with a Westminster government who have demonstrated clearly in the Brexit process that they are happy to sideline the smallest nation of the Union. The protests began on Good Friday, and it took five days for Boris Johnson to tweet his concern. The sense of abandonment is palpable. This has been aggravated by the demographic shift in Northern Ireland, with the recent census expected to show for the first time the loss of unionist hegemony that they have enjoyed for a century.
This sense of instability has been a constant throughout the Brexit debacle, including a rocky implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which has kept this part of the UK in the EU customs area. Unionists claim this not only threatens trade but Northern Ireland’s very place in the UK and demand the removal of what they call a “sea border”.
The DUP, who are the principal Brexiteers in Northern Ireland, have been stoking these fears in seeking the removal of the protocol. It was put in place to prevent violent outbursts like the ones we are seeing now, and both the EU and the UK have stated it is not up for negotiation. In insisting on removing the protocol, Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party has given political legitimacy to the unrest they now hastily condemn. Warning signs of growing unrest could be seen back in January, when graffiti opposing the Irish Sea border and reported threats against port workers in Larne and Belfast led to Brexit checks being temporarily suspended. However, this turned out to be pure political theatre: after a DUP minister made the decision to suspend checks, police stated that there had in fact been no credible evidence of threats against port workers.
Party politics and rising tensions
The more immediate trigger to these riots has been the decision of the Public Prosecution Service to not prosecute leading Sinn Fein politicians for attending the funeral of former IRA intelligence chief, Bobby Storey, last June. The funeral drew a large number mourners, violating Northern Ireland’s tight COVID restrictions. The PPS’ decision is now to be reviewed in light of the public backlash. There is very much a sense of injustice in the unionist community, a sense that there is one rule for the republicans, and another for them.
In the wake of the PPS decision, First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster called for the PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to resign. This was undoubtedly a precursor to the current conflict with the police force that the unionist rioters are embroiled in. There are deeper, more dangerous political consequences of this frustration, as loyalist paramilitaries officially “withdraw support” from the Good Friday Agreement, and fringe loyalist activists are calling for the Agreement to be scrapped altogether. In the view of a number of hardline loyalists, ‘peace in Northern Ireland has not been worth the concessions to Irish nationalists.’ This is perhaps the most concerning aspect of the recent violence, that it could be the beginning of the unravelling of the Good Friday Agreement if one or both sides no longer feel like their interests are best served in partaking in it. Northern Ireland knows what it means when violence becomes more attractive than the offerings of peacetime.
In the years following the Troubles, the remnants of terrorist groupings have turned from one criminality to another, principally drugs and smuggling. It is notable that the police were recently successfully in cracking down on criminal gangs in Carrickfergus, one of the predominantly loyalist areas where the recent unrest began. The convenient excuse of objecting to the Northern Ireland protocol obscures the underlying resentment these criminals hold towards stricter law enforcement. The continued existence of paramilitary groupings in Northern Ireland provides an excellent cover for illegality, with gangs profiting from the official, more respectable line of ‘defending the community’.
Although it still remains unclear exactly who is coordinating the violence, there had been signs that senior figures in the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force were in some way overseeing the unrest, although the Northern Irish Police have since confirmed that these paramilitary groups are not orchestrating events. In an effort to calm tensions, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) eventually released a statement on Friday calling for an end to the violence. The statement seems too little too late. The Council’s prolonged silence on the violence will be remembered.
Normalised terror and reckless leaders
At first glance these events could be dismissed as the insignificant work of thugs and hooligans. However, the severity of this week’s unrest has been highlighted by Northern Ireland’s law enforcement, who stated that Wednesday evening’s events were the worst rioting seen in years. On Thursday evening, officers deployed water canon for the first time in six years in an effort to stop the violence. The police also warned protestors that impact rounds would be fired.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that uses plastic bullets as a method of crowd control, something that has been strongly condemned by human rights groups. Their reappearance is an indicator of how serious the situation has become. Yet it took a week for events to get meaningful coverage in the British press, and five days for the British Prime Minister to publicly comment (in the form of a tweet). When violence erupts in one of the four nations of the ‘United’ Kingdom, one that has previously been locked in a decades-long civil war, the central government has an obligation to show its citizens that it will not allow them to suffer again.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this debacle, for me, is that the violence is distinctly unsurprising. If anything happens in Northern Ireland, socially or politically, that displeases one side or the other, the recourse is still violence. We have become desensitised to it. And while we shake our heads, we cannot truly claim to be shocked by it.
The experience of Northern Irish history, from its inception to the present-day, has been one marked by conflict. Too many times violence has been shown as the best means of getting what one side perceives to be justice. The partition of Ireland in 1921 occurred following the mobilisation of unionists in the North against Home Rule (a form of devolution that Irish politicians were seeking from the UK government) in 1912. Unionists set up paramilitary organisations to fight to remain part of the United Kingdom. In ceding to the threat they posed by dividing up the island, the British government sent a fatal signal to Northern Ireland that violence, or the threat of violence, was an effective means of getting what you want. As the centenary of the partition approaches, the legacy of this message threatens to destroy peace in Northern Ireland once more.
For it was this belief, that only violence could change the power balance in one’s favour, that fuelled the three-decades-long Troubles. What is happening today is part of this history of violence in politics in Northern Ireland. The Irish border issue was at the core of Brexit discussions between the UK and the EU. Its significance stemmed from the knowledge that if the situation wasn’t handled carefully, tensions could flare up and violence could return.
Meanwhile, our politicians continue to fuel a historical recourse to violence, as they engage in incendiary rhetoric and tit-for-tat. The famous loyalist mural in Belfast which, over the heads of two paramilitary soldiers, paints the words, “prepared for peace, ready for war”, sums up the mentality that continues to haunt Northern Ireland.
Even as politicians in Northern Ireland made hasty public calls to calm the unravelling situation, political point-scoring could not be resisted by the likes of Arlene Foster, who felt now was imperative, as unionist gang violence erupted, to point out “the real law breakers in Sinn Fein.”
Foster’s remarks are part of the problem. They are part of the unending rhetoric of violence present in Northern Irish politics which has had a deadly cost for its people. One of my earliest memories of the violence and terror present in my Northern Ireland was the murder of police officer Ronan Kerr in 2011. The IRA had planted a bomb underneath his car. He was a Catholic officer at a time when Catholics made up only 30% of the force. To this day, it is the daily ritual of security forces to check under their cars before they leave home. This is another symptom of our numbness to violence, and we cannot let this go on. It also exemplifies how violence as a tactic is ingrained in both communities in Northern Ireland, which is important to stress.
What we are witnessing in the latest wave of violence in Northern Ireland is the backbone of Ulster unionism in turmoil, unsure of where to turn after feeling abandoned by those it pledges loyalty to. Brexit may have destabilised the sense of a European identity for many of us, but the British identity of loyalists and unionists in Northern Ireland has been shaken to its very core by the recklessness of the British government. This comes against the backdrop of a decades-long presence of violence in the political discourse of Northern Ireland, which has normalised threats and terror. While it is encouraging to see many young Northern Irish people making it clear on social media that we do not wish to return to the pain and anguish of our parents, we must be alert to the fact that children as young as 12 are taking part in these disturbances. We must dismantle a culture of violence we never asked for, and in doing so the ease with which gangs can hide behind a so-called patriotic cause will diminish. Our politicians in Stormont need to step up to cool tensions and remove violent rhetoric from their own discourse. Meanwhile, Westminster must give us reason to believe that it genuinely understands the anxieties of the Northern Irish people and will not allow violence to terrorise our lives again. 100 years is a long time for violence to entrench itself in the status quo. These chains of terror must be broken if Northern Ireland is to move on from its wounded past.
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