Northern Ireland deja vu: They’re burning buses again

Apr 16, 2021

Since Easter, our newspapers and television screens have been showing us images from Northern Ireland we thought were a thing of the past: a bus being burned, children pelting police with rocks, young men in balaclavas hurling Molotov cocktails. A few years ago we would have taken no notice. But now these images seem incongruous – what’s going on? Didn’t the Good Friday Agreement fix the problem?

In just over a fortnight about 90 police officers have been injured in the rioting taking place mostly in loyalist areas of East Belfast, Derry and County Antrim. However, bad memories flooded back when the street violence escalated to sectarian rioting in the interface areas along the peace walls between the Falls and Shankill Roads in west Belfast, the scene of the rioting in 1969 at the start of the Troubles.

Although there have been sporadic outbursts of violence in the 23 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) on 10 April 1998, the latest unrest has been on a scale not seen in recent years. The last time police deployed water cannon against rioters was six years ago.

Early reports blamed criminal gangs while some suggested it was idle youth engaged in early-season recreational rioting. Many commentators point to increasing frustration over delays, shortages and red tape as a consequence of Brexit and, in particular, the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), which has effectively imposed a customs and regulatory border between Britain and Northern Ireland. Unionists claim the NIP places Northern Ireland’s constitutional position in the UK at risk. The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson said that the NIP had ‘stripped away [unionists’] sense of Britishness’.

Sceptics countered that the NIP does not affect the rioters’ day-to-day existence and that 13-year-olds do not get angry about customs forms. Cynics smelt a rat, suggesting that unionists who want the NIP to be scrapped or renegotiated had hatched a Baldrick-style ‘clever plan’ in the belief that once the international media carried images of rioting and burning buses their grievances would be taken seriously.

In March another layer of unionist resentment was added when the Northern Ireland Prosecution Service revealed that it would not prosecute Sinn Féin leaders over a breach of COVID regulations in June 2020 at the funeral of former IRA intelligence chief Bobby Storey. At the time unionists regarded the funeral parade as provocative and offensive; the decision not to prosecute is seen as giving Republicans a free pass to break the law.

Whether the recent violence is the result of criminal activity, young men behaving badly, a spontaneous outburst of frustration, or an organised campaign is yet to be determined. It might disappear as quickly as it arose or it might continue to grow as the weather warms, bringing more people out onto the streets. Whatever the cause of the recent violence and whatever happens over the next few weeks, those graphic images remind us that the peace which the GFA brought to Northern Ireland is fragile.

After 23 years the GFA has still not achieved a reconciliation between the two communities. More than 90 per cent of Northern Ireland’s young people are still educated in segregated schools and more than 90 per cent of social housing in Northern Ireland remains segregated. Meanwhile, unionists cling to their desire to remain part of the UK and nationalists cling to their desire for a united Ireland. Hardliners on both sides are prepared to engage in violence if they see their position being undermined.

Common membership of the European Union enabled these discordant aspirations to be massaged away. Brexit, however, has removed that balm. To preserve the peace, the UK and the EU in October 2019 agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement to include the NIP so as to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. Boris Johnson signed off on the Withdrawal Agreement, including the NIP, and took it to the people in the general election of December 2019, which he won in a landslide with the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’.

It is worth remembering that Theresa May had tried and failed to get Brexit done when parliament repeatedly rejected her proposed Withdrawal Agreement, which included a border in the Irish Sea as a ‘backstop’ in the event alternative arrangements could not be agreed upon. The main unionist party in Westminster, the Democratic Unionist Party, which then held the balance of power, helped frustrate May’s plan. She resigned and Johnson took over on the promise he would get a better deal with the EU. Delegates at the DUP conference cheered the new prime minister when he promised there would be no barriers between different parts of the UK. But, as we know, he sold them down the river when he agreed to the NIP. May’s backstop became Johnson’s frontstop.

This history is worth recalling so as to put in perspective the current wailing and gnashing of teeth that is going on in the unionist community over the threat which the NIP poses to the union. Rather than acknowledging their own incompetence in letting Johnson get away with it, many unionist politicians blame the Irish government and the EU for imposing the NIP on the people of Northern Ireland. The delays, the shortages, and the escalating red tape are seen as retribution rather than the logical consequence of Brexit.

If the current violence is merely an expression of frustration over the NIP, why now? The text of the NIP has been available since October 2019. Anyone reading it would have known exactly what would happen. Then was the time for unionists and loyalists to take to the streets. And, indeed, members of the DUP did read and understand it – eventually. In fact, they voted against it in parliament in 2020 when they realised they had been conned – but then it was too late.

If unionists were prepared to look beyond the NIP’s perceived threat to the union, they would see it has many advantages for the people of Northern Ireland, as I argued in ‘Ireland and Brexit: Time to NIxit? – Part 1: A Question of Identity’. In an opinion piece in the Irish Times, Michael McDowell recently observed:

“Instead of seeing the advantages of being simultaneously part of the EU and UK economies, the very minor (and easily remedied) inconveniences in respect of trade between Britain and the North have been blown up into an existential threat to unionism itself.”

So, perhaps Baldrick was right after all. But you do not have to go that far. For, it can certainly be argued that in the weeks before Easter unionist politicians recklessly used inflammatory language to attack the NIP in order to regain street cred with an increasingly disillusioned constituency. By framing the NIP as a threat to the union, they all but ensured that hardline loyalists would come out onto the streets. The Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group of loyalist organisations, has denied that any of its constituents were responsible for organising the violence. And, so far, the LCC has not endorsed the rioting, which is a good sign.

Time will tell whether this outbreak of violence was a passing event or the start of a new wave of civil unrest. Talks are taking place at the moment to iron out the blips in the implementation of the NIP. While that might remove some of the irritants, there are no plans to renegotiate the NIP, let alone scrap it as the DUP insists.

The best one can hope for in the short term is a toning down of unionist rhetoric and a return to the status quo ante – until the next time. For the big question will still remain: how does Northern Ireland move beyond the fragile peace of the GFA to a lasting peace that can only be achieved with a reconciliation between the communities?

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