Why Tensions in Northern Ireland Have Reignited

Young people exchange projectiles through the Peace Gate on April 7, 2021, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Northern Ireland is experiencing its worst unrest in years, after seven straight days of demonstrations that left 74 police officers injured and led the White House to appeal for calm. The violence has been concentrated in unionist, predominantly Protestant communities, and may very well continue into the weekend, casting a dark shadow over the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of intermittent war, on April 10, 23 years ago.

Parties on both sides of the political divide told Intelligencer Friday morning that there are two causes for the explosive protests on the streets of Belfast and other cities. First, many unionists are angry with the way that Brexit has been imposed upon them. The Northern Ireland Protocol, negotiated by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government in London, has meant the erection of new trade barriers earlier this year. And the more immediate cause for the violence, the spark that ignited an already unstable compound, was the announcement that members of Sinn Féin — the nationalist, predominantly Catholic party associated with the IRA — would not be charged for attending a funeral in apparent violation of COVID lockdown rules. But drug-dealing paramilitaries could also be involved, taking advantage of young men, restless and economically disadvantaged after a year of the pandemic, to flex some muscle.

Many observers in Belfast have pointed to the South East Antrim UDA as a possible instigator, and residents said that if the main loyalist groups had been involved, things would have escalated much more quickly. The right-wing UDA, or Ulster Defense Association, was active in the “Troubles” that rocked Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the 1990s, and its various brigades are now categorized as terrorist organizations by the United Kingdom.

A spokesperson for the Ulster Unionist Party said there was also genuine anger among “ordinary, decent unionists” at the way that Northern Ireland had been sidelined in the implementation of Brexit, for which he blames the leadership in London, politicians in Brussels, and the government in Dublin. “It seems they have taken a calculated risk to annoy the unionist community by putting up a regulatory border, in the hopes that nothing would happen,” he explained. “Unfortunately, something happened.”

Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, after some unionist leaders campaigned against leaving the European Union. Overall, the political situation in Ireland since the 2016 vote has seemed to tilt in favor of the nationalist community, and even raised the possibility that the island could reunify. Sinn Féin is now the largest party on the island of Ireland — though the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) controls the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the southern Republic is led by the center-right Fianna Faíl Party — and has been leading calls for a vote to end the partition that was put in place in 1921. Many unionists were dismayed by the election of Joe Biden, whom they saw as sympathetic to the republican cause. May 3 is the 100th anniversary of the division of the island, seen as an insult to many nationalist Irish Catholics ever since. But for much longer than that, the point of “loyalism” was always to be loyal to the crown and the government back in England. If, as many feel, London has turned their backs on them, their entire community has been set adrift.

All of the major political movements in the British Isles have come together to condemn the violence, while they trade accusations. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned,” and called for dialogue, while Jonathan Caine, former Northern Ireland adviser and Conservative member of the House of Lords, said it was “grossly irresponsible” to blame Brexit. The DUP leader of the Northern Ireland Assembly reiterated her call for the police chief to resign over the funeral affair, after she received intense criticism for tweeting that the “real law breakers” were in Sinn Féin, over video of (apparently loyalist) men throwing Molotov cocktails at a moving bus. One source familiar with the republican political forces in Ireland said that unionist leaders needed to unequivocally condemn the violence, rather than in engaging in the kind of “wink wink, nudge nudge,” discourse that inflames tensions and “will have negative consequences for everyone.”

On Thursday, Sinn Féin members went to republican neighborhoods near the site of the unrest to try to encourage them to stand down and avoid any retaliatory demonstrations. The situation in Belfast became much more volatile when the demonstrations spread to the famous Shankill Road, a unionist stronghold just blocks away from the largely Catholic Falls Road, the site of the famous Bobby Sands mural. Locals and authorities are deeply worried that the unrest could lead to an accidental death, as happened in April 2019 in Derry.

Why Tensions in Northern Ireland Have Reignited