Given The London Centrist’s student dominated readership, I can imagine very few people reading this article can remember a time when Northern Ireland dominated the headlines. The fact that I asked myself over Easter weekend why unrest was resurfacing, when well within our parents’ lifetimes such events wouldn’t have even made the news, is testament to the success of the Irish peace process before the turn of the century. However, there is a real risk that unionists (loyalists), who consider themselves increasingly marginalised, will act upon their fear that Brexit will become a catalyst for Irish unification.
There has now been almost been a week of violence in Northern Ireland. On Friday night, youths in loyalist areas of Belfast and Derry threw fireworks, bricks and bottles at police; Saturday saw three cars set on fire and thirty petrol bombs thrown on the outskirts of Belfast; Sunday night culminated with clashes of fifty people with police in two different towns outside the country’s capital; and lastly, Monday saw masked loyalist bands waving flags march through the streets of Portadown and Markethill in the Amargh province. In total, fifty-five officers have been injured and ten arrests made in the violence so far, and it is expected to continue.
These confrontations have been triggered by the verdict announced last week to not prosecute members of the Sinn Féin political party, which champions Irish republicanism north and south of the border, for breaching coronavirus restrictions when they organised a 2,000-person funeral for the former leading IRA figure, Bobby Storey, during the first lockdown. The fact that Michelle O’Neill, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and ‘party leader’ of the Sinn Féin in the north, attended the funeral reflects how deeply loyalist (unionist) and republican (nationalist) antagonisms lie, and how the political system remains inextricably linked with cultural and historical identity. Whilst some have dismissed the confrontations as minority mob violence organised by ex-paramilitary Unionist groups, the sentiments behind their actions, a perceived marginalisation of predominantly Protestant unionists, has been echoed across the country and its political establishment ever since the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement.
Barely 24 hours had passed after the 2016 Brexit referendum before the Sinn Féin party called for a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should unite with the Irish Republic. After all, 56% of Northern Irish voters, in a similar vein to Scotland, voted to remain in the EU. Yet such calls have intensified as the practicalities of Brexit have revealed themselves. The Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreement tried to avoid a hard border within Ireland, now a border between the EU and the UK, that would damage the Irish peace process by defying the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The British solution, however, has infuriated Unionists. By placing Northern Ireland under the European Union’s single market and customs rules, the protocol has created a regulatory border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain. Given Unionists fought 30 years for independence, in a conflict which claimed 3,500 lives, it is unsurprising they feel bereaved.
Even Northern Ireland’s first minister, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, called for the government in Westminster to suspend the protocol, evidence that the sentiments seen over the weekend aren’t isolated to the political fringe. However, some have argued Unionists have little to fear because even generous polls report only 42% of the public are in favour of uniting Ireland, a long way off the 50% required in the polls for the Secretary of State to grant a referendum. Yet on the other hand, the last election returned nine nationalist MPs to Westminster from Northern Ireland, compared with eight unionists, while the 2021 consensus is widely expected to reveal that Catholics, predominantly nationalist, will outnumber Protestants, predominantly unionist, in Northern Ireland for the first time in its history. Even more pressingly, the combination of this electoral success and changing demographics could mean that Sinn Féin might take over the Democratic Unionist party as the largest party in the Northern Irish assembly in next year’s elections, which would enable the nationalists to take the position of first minister and push for a referendum with the support of a “democratic imperative”. If Northern Ireland bares any similarities to Scotland, we can be confident that nationalist calls for a referendum will only escalate, and they’ll be here to stay.
To conclude, a return of violent conflict between paramilitary unionists and nationalists seen in the Troubles is incredibly unlikely, almost implausible. But the political climate in the Northern Irish assembly and public remains radioactive, and the Sinn Féin funeral verdict has exposed the vulnerabilities and fear of unionists in the wake of a Brexit agreement which emphasises their European rather than British identity. Ireland’s situation falls into a pattern: one where Westminster’s neglect of political and cultural complexities in the devolved nations has emboldened nationalist groups – in particular Nichola Sturgeon’s SNP, Adam Price’s Plaid Cymru, and now Michelle O’Neill’s Sinn Féin – in the pursuit of their aims. Boris Johnson will have to change his tune, and stifle growing resentment, if he’s to avoid the break-up of the United Kingdom defining his political career.