Sinn Féin funeral procession under lockdown angers unionists. Irish Sea trade barrier undermines assurances from Boris Johnson. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Botched Brexit deal reignites Northern Ireland tensions

Youths set fire to the gates of the peace wall at the Springfield Road/Lanark Way interface in Belfast, Northern Ireland, last week.
Youths set fire to the gates of the peace wall at the Springfield Road/Lanark Way interface in Belfast, Northern Ireland, last week.
Credit: Charles McQuillan / Getty Images

New Troubles

Northern Ireland: In 1983, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) masterminded an escape from Maze Prison, a maximum security jail in which British authorities detained members of paramilitary groups during the Troubles, the 30-year conflict over the fate of Northern Ireland that finally ended with a peace accord in 1998.

Maze was regarded as escape-proof, until 38 IRA prisoners used smuggled guns and knives to force their way out, marking the biggest jailbreak in British history.

One of the leaders of the escape was Bobby Storey, who had joined the IRA as a teenager and served his first jail term as a 17-year-old in 1973. “We shafted Maggie Thatcher,” he once said of the jailbreak, which earnt him heroic status in the IRA. A staunch supporter of Gerry Adams, the longstanding president of Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing, Storey became the IRA head of intelligence and helped to encourage hardliners to support the peace process in the late 1990s.

Last June, Storey died, aged 64, after an unsuccessful lung transplant.

Despite a lockdown in Belfast due to the Covid-19 outbreak limiting gatherings to 30 people, the funeral and its procession attracted about 2000 supporters, including leading figures in Sinn Féin such as Adams, party president Mary Lou McDonald and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill.

The funeral crowds prompted a public backlash, including from the four political parties with which Sinn Féin shares power. O’Neill and Sinn Féin insisted they had broken no rules.

On March 30, prosecutors announced they were not charging O’Neill and 23 other Sinn Féin politicians who attended the funeral, saying that the public health rules were unclear.

The decision angered unionists, or loyalists, the largely Protestant segment of the population that supports Northern Ireland remaining in Britain. Many believe that state institutions such as the police are biased in favour of republicans, or nationalists, who are largely Catholic and want Northern Ireland to be reunified with Ireland.

Following the prosecutors’ decision, violence erupted in mainly working-class unionist areas. In the past two weeks, unionists, and some republicans, have clashed with police, marking some of the worst unrest in Northern Ireland in decades.

The violence

For the past 23 years, an uneasy peace has held in Northern Ireland following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which finally ended the Troubles after the loss of about 3700 lives. The agreement arranged for power to be shared between unionists and nationalists.

But the recent scenes from Derry, Belfast and elsewhere – a hijacked bus burning, petrol bombings and police under attack – recalled images from the Troubles and raised concerns about a revival of sectarian tensions. On several occasions, rioters broke through the “peace gates” that separate Belfast’s unionist and republican neighbourhoods. As many as 100 police officers have been injured.

A pastor in Belfast, Stephen Reynolds, told BBC News, the violence was “just heartbreaking”.

“This was something that we’ve known in the past,” he said. “It’s not something we want today.”

The rioters have reportedly included paramilitary groups as well as criminal gangs. Police say the violence has not been orchestrated by paramilitary leaders. Instead, the clashes have largely been seen as spontaneous, though some criminal gangs may have been responding to recent police crackdowns.

The violence has occurred across Northern Ireland, often in working-class areas where unemployment is high and government services are poor. Last Saturday, after the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, unionist groups called for a halt to the protests. That night, no serious incidents occurred.

Brexit’s shadow

The Bobby Storey funeral helped to spark the recent violence, but a deeper cause was the ongoing tension stirred by Brexit. Britain’s departure from the European Union has led to the creation of trade barriers in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. These barriers avoid the need to create a hard border between Ireland, which is still a member of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is not. Such a border would have outraged nationalists and endangered the fragile peace.

But the new barriers in the Irish Sea create an effective separation between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain, angering and worrying unionists.

On Tuesday, the British secretary for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, admitted that the post-Brexit trade arrangements – the Northern Ireland protocol – had contributed to the recent violence.

“I recognise there are concerns about the implications around the Northern Ireland protocol, concerns which overlap with wider questions about national identity and political allegiance and that comes at a time of economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic,” he told parliament.

The Northern Ireland protocol was one of the thorniest issues for Britain as it negotiated its exit from the EU. But the issue remains unresolved. The EU and Britain remain locked in talks over the types of border inspection posts and customs rules required to ensure that goods passing through Northern Ireland comply with post-Brexit trade regulations.

Ian Paisley jnr, an MP of the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party, this week urged London to suspend the protocol, describing the Bobby Storey funeral as “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. “The protocol lies at the heart of this because the identity of Ulster is at stake as a result of the protocol,” he told parliament.

Boris Johnson’s Irish oversight

Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, was elected in 2019 after campaigning to “get Brexit done”. But he also dismissed the inevitable consequence of departing from the EU – that a new de facto border wouldbe needed.

During a visit to Northern Ireland last year, for instance, he said: “There will be no border down the Irish Sea – over my dead body.”

The new trade arrangements undermine Johnson’s claims and have added to the fury among unionists, who fear that Northern Ireland is being split from the rest of Britain.   

The Irish government has pushed for a summit with the British government to address the recent tensions, including the concerns over the Brexit arrangements. Johnson refused, despite insisting that the tensions should be resolved through “dialogue, not violence or criminality”.

United States President Joe Biden, who proudly claims his Irish roots, has previously urged Johnson to avoid creating a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement last week on the violence, saying the White House welcomed the Northern Ireland protocol as a mechanism for protecting the 1998 peace deal. “We remain steadfast supporters of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace,” she said. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 17, 2021 as "Botched Brexit deal reignites Northern Ireland tensions".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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