How Brexit, Covid And Politics Are Fueling Violence In Northern Ireland

Despite the snow and the cold weather, this past Easter weekend has been very hot in some parts of Northern Ireland. Since Good Friday - a historic day for Northern Ireland’s fragile peace process - mobs have taken control of streets in the areas of Belfast and Londonderry. We are on the sixth consecutive night of street violence and disorder. In addition to loyalist pride parades, several local incidents paint a picture of a general discontent that culminated in attacks on law enforcement.

Rioters throw stones, bricks and petrol bombs, and on Wednesday night a bus was hijacked and set on fire. The outcome is dramatic: 55 agents have been injured after coming under attack from rioters. The situation has seriously worsened in just a few days, to the point that the prime minister Boris Johnson has condemned the events. Writing on Twitter, Mr Johnson said: "I am deeply concerned by the scenes of violence in Northern Ireland, especially attacks on PSNI who are protecting the public and businesses, attacks on a bus driver and the assault of a journalist. The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.”

If you are not aware of what is going on in Northern Ireland, rest assure you are not alone. The media coverage of the riots has been very poor and sparse, leaving many doubts and obscuring what is fueling the violence and who is behind it. 

Credit photo: AP Photo/Peter Morrison

Part of the problem is explained by the dynamics caused by Brexit, which has separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK with a commercial border in the middle of the sea. Because Northern Ireland stayed in the EU's single market after Brexit, customs checks are required on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The post-Brexit trade deals, put in place since January 1st 2021, have caused problems and disruptions in the trading of goods, including food supplies and online deliveries.

Today's problems in Northern Ireland are reminiscent of the Troubles of the past, or the ethnic-nationalist conflict that began in the late 1960s and ended in 1998 with the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement. The abolition of a border between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom was indeed a key element of the Good Friday peace deal, which brought an end to decades of violence between loyalist and republican paramilitaries.

But perhaps more importantly, ulster loyalists, the political movement for maintaining Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, have experienced growing discontent in the past months. They are angry and argue that post-Brexit trading arrangements have created barriers between the region and the rest of the country. They believe that the new rules cut Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of Britain and thus threaten their British identity. 

As explained by Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast, "Unionists feel betrayed by the British government and feel that Northern Ireland’s place in the union is very much under pressure as a result, so that sense of insecurity definitely raises the stakes.” 


However, Brexit is not the only catalyst for the violence. According to the Times, the straw that broke the camel's back was something else. The riots started after the political decision on March 30th to not prosecute 24 leaders of the Sinn Féin Irish nationalist party for violating COVID-19 restrictions as they attended the funeral of Eamon McCourt, a former leading figure of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). 

In the words of Owen Polley, from the Telegraph, “In its eagerness to appear progressive Sinn Féin was among the most zealous champions of lockdown in Northern Ireland. The law at the time, which its ministers helped create, dictated that only ten mourners could attend a funeral. In her role as deputy first minister, Mrs O’Neill accused those who gathered in large groups of "killing people", while, as a republican leader, she posed for selfies at an enormous extravaganza organised to celebrate the life of a terrorist thug.” 





Brexit divisions and lockdown fatigue have probably been the trigger for the violence in Northern Ireland. But something to keep in mind is the uncertainty that all this brings to the future.  

Indeed, elections for the Stormont Parl will be held next year. According to forecasts, Sinn Féin could beat the Democratic Unionist Partysurrendering supremacy to the nationalists after almost 100 years. Also in 2022, the results of the census will be published, and there’s a huge chance that Catholics could overtake the Protestants for the first time in the last three hundred years.

This could, and probably would, trigger a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland, which then divorce from London in order to marry Dublin.


Credit main photo: Peter Muhly/AFP 

Written by Miriam Tagini 

Follow Miriam on Twitter and Instagram 

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