Recent riots in Northern Ireland should remind us of the fragility of the peace process there. Although it did not feature as a key issue in British public debate prior to the referendum on Brexit (more accurately ‘UK-exit’), it was predicted by many in Ireland that a ‘leave’ outcome would exacerbate instability in Ireland and damage the hard-won peace process. Recent events would suggest that these were insightful predictions. The outcome of Brexit and the creation of an ‘Irish Sea Border’ has been a key factor in recent social disorder and dismay among some deeply disenchanted citizens of the UK.
Throughout the Brexit process, the issue of maintaining a frictionless and ‘soft’ border in Ireland was the most difficult challenge for the UK government as it sought to negotiate its withdrawal from the EU. In the end, it was essential, despite Unionist alarm, to agree that Northern Ireland would have to continue to remain within the Single-Market and to follow Customs Union regulations. This was the only way to ensure the free movement of people and goods in Ireland, and to avoid a hard border, which would have violated a key principle of the peace process. This has required some additional checks and controls for goods moving across the Irish Sea (between Britain and Northern Ireland). This ‘NI Protocol’ is no doubt inconvenient for businesses on both sides of this new trade barrier. However, paperwork and inconvenience do not in themselves tend to cause riots and unrest. So, what are the other factors that contributed to the recent disorder?
A trade barrier down the Irish Sea is hugely symbolic in that it represents for Unionists an experience of betrayal by Westminster. Ulster Unionists and British Loyalists in Northern Ireland see themselves being treated differently to those in other parts of the UK. They feel forgotten and left behind by their compatriots and it raises the suspicion that the maintenance of the Union with Northern Ireland is not a priority for the UK government. This causes great upset and anger in Loyalist communities, who adamantly identify as British and wish to maintain their place in the Union. This deep sense of insecurity is closely connected to the feeling that the other side of the historical divide, Irish Republicans, are ‘winning’.
Another development that has exacerbated tensions is the fact that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have been pressing for the prosecution of key members of Sinn Féin (their Republican partners in government) for apparent breaches of covid-related restrictions at the funeral of a prominent Republican, Bobby Storey. The DUP has demanded the resignation of the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland following the recent decision, based on investigation and review, not to prosecute those involved. This adds to the feeling among Loyalists that they are ‘losing’ and that the police are no longer ‘on their side’.
All of this comes at a time when Brexit has brought up questions regarding the constitutional makeup of the UK. Scottish independence has seemed for some time like a real possibility, a process which may well have been accelerated by Brexit. If Scotland were to leave the UK, Unionists in Northern Ireland would feel further isolated and insecure regarding their position in the Union.
In recent times, the conversation about the possibility of a United Ireland has also become far more animated. Both Brexit and the pandemic have highlighted many clear advantages of a prospective ‘all-island’ jurisdiction in Ireland. With regard to trade, it would make far more sense for sovereign state boundaries to overlap with trading regulations, rather than to have the complexity required by the NI Protocol. Many in Northern Ireland, both Nationalist and Unionist, also feel like they have been dragged out of the EU, because of the will of voters in other parts of the UK, primarily England, who do not understand the complexities and sensitivities of life in Northern Ireland.
The pandemic has underlined the disadvantages of having two different administrations on one small island trying to manage comprehensive sets of restrictions for a virus that recognises no borders. An all-Ireland approach would clearly improve the ways in which both jurisdictions manage future public health crises. If it is true for trade and public health, then there are likely to be many other rational advantages, beneficial in principle to all citizens, of a United Ireland state. Republican leaders can, for all these reasons, speak with greater confidence now about the prospect of a United Ireland. This is another important source for the deepening insecurity of Loyalists, as manifested in the recent riots.
What can be done to minimise the risks of these riots continuing, or worse, spiralling back towards the conflict that saw thousands lose their lives over twenty-five years of violent conflict in the latter part of the twentieth century? Clearly, it would help if the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland could step up and work more effectively together to demonstrate a willingness to work constructively through their differences. This has to be supported more effectively by the London and Dublin governments.
There also has to be greater attention paid to clarifying what any future United Ireland might look like. Clearly, advocates for this have to show how it would avoid the problems that led to violence in the past, practices of marginalisation and injustice experienced by Irish Nationalists in Northern Ireland. The Irish government, in particular, needs to engage in creative thinking that will offer some reassurances to Unionists, that their British identity will be fully and meaningfully recognised in any future all-Ireland state. It has to be made clear that this possible future state could never simply be a geographically-extended version of the contemporary Republic of Ireland. It would have to be a bi-national state, just as the current relatively peaceful Northern Ireland is premised on a recognition of a bi-national political community, offering parity of esteem to both Irish and British identities.
The success of the peace process to date has been built on the Agreement made on Good Friday in 1998. This allows for the creation of a United Ireland were the majority on both sides of the Irish border approve it in parallel referenda. The constitutional details of the Ireland on which any such future vote might take place have yet to be defined. If it is not a genuinely inclusive vision, it will risk a further increase in discontent and insecurity that have been exposed again of late on the streets of Northern Ireland. All parties need to know what an inclusive, bi-national state might look like in any future United Ireland.
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