Will Brexit Rejuvenate Sectarian Violence in Northern Ireland?

Last month, the people of England and Ireland mourned the death of David Trimble, the British politician best known for brokering the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended most of the paramilitary violence that had plagued Northern Ireland for three decades. Through the 1990s, the peace process, spearheaded by leaders like Trimble, allowed Northern Ireland to transform from a land of bombings, shootings and kidnappings to a mostly peaceful nation. This transformation was very intentionally depicted in the 2021 film Belfast, which shows colorful idyllic scenes of present-day Belfast before switching to black and white photography to tell the story of a family caught in the violence of the city’s August 1969 riots. The film’s two lenses emphasize that conflict-ravaged Belfast is permanently a thing of the past, a belief held by many in the region.

However, the withdrawal of Britain from the EU has stoked tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and made the area a hotspot in the slow and convoluted Brexit process. The central disagreement in the area revolves around where the customs border between EU-aligned Ireland and the independent UK should be drawn. Because a hard Irish border would sever Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland and provoke Irish nationalists, Brexit negotiators have opted to avoid one at all costs. Instead, they created the Northern Ireland Protocol, which set up a customs border through the Irish Sea. In effect since 2021, this line has divided Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, but allowed the seamless Irish border to remain invisible.

THE ULSTER REACTION

This move has enraged many Ulster loyalists, who believe that Britain has taken a first step in cutting its troublesome province loose and leaving it to be subsumed by Ireland proper. This projection may be a bit extreme, but the move has set up a formidable barrier between Northern Ireland and Britain. Temporary border control posts have been constructed in all of Northern Ireland’s ports of entry, and checks on goods entering Northern Ireland have threatened to hamper trade between the two countries. Meanwhile, imports and exports have continued to move freely across the Irish border.

The issue has re-energized a previously lethargic radical Loyalist movement, culminating in violent riots in Belfast, Derry and Carrickfergus early last year. The riots, which injured 88 police officers, were Northern Ireland’s worst in nearly a decade. Shortly after, graffiti appeared in a Northern Irish port threatening customs officers, leading the government to indefinitely suspend inspections of all “products of animal origin” due to security fears. However, most of the Irish Sea border dispute has been a political and bureaucratic struggle, not a “low-level war,” as the Troubles of the 20th century are often described. Northern Ireland’s Unionist agriculture minister halted work on permanent border control posts in the country’s ports and ordered border staff to stop new hiring customs officers, both of which were required by the Northern Ireland Protocol.

It is clear that the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the Irish Sea Border in particular, stand on uneasy ground. Many prominent Irish and English leaders, including David Trimble himself, have called for an abolition of the agreement. Boris Johnson, the outgoing Tory prime minister, has a complicated and wavering history on the issue. Early in negotiations, he pledged that he was “one million percent committed” to avoiding an Irish Sea border, but then allowed the creation of one in the Protocol. In 2021, he threatened to invoke Article 16 of the protocol to prevent the implementation of the border. In June of 2022, his Tory government introduced the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would unilaterally remove Britain from several important obligations under the protocol. Irish nationalist and EU politicians and reacted negatively to what they perceived to be Britain reneging on its treaty commitments.

THE FUTURE OF THE PROTOCOL

When the protocol expires in 2024, the British Isles will likely find themselves between the same rock and a hard place that they did when the Protocol was first introduced. If Britain is to remain outside of the EU, and Ireland within it, there must be a border between them. The remaining question is where that border will leave Northern Ireland, and how the country’s residents will respond. Overall, it would be an unfair exaggeration to herald strife around the Protocol as a return to the grim days of the Troubles. Most of the fight has been carried out in the negotiation rooms of Thornton Manor and No. 10 Downing, not in the impoverished city streets of Derry and Belfast. But politics and armed struggle are still inextricably linked in the region. Many Loyalist and Republican parties have paramilitary connections, or “radical wings.” If political backsliding and discord create an impasse, it is only a matter of time before conflict reaches the ground level.

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