The current tensions and violence in Northern Ireland, as always in these situations, involves a number of dimensions interacting with each other. Most immediately there are the rioters, young people looking for a bit of excitement and reliving the memories of the troubles of 30 years ago, in which they were too young to take part. In some ways they could be the disaffected and bored young people in any society, with few outlets and opportunities. They are probably not much motivated by strategic or political thinking. Most of those involved are loyalist youth but there have been some confrontations with republican youth. I live in an area where loyalist youth are not likely to feel comfortable and know their way around, but on Monday evening someone set a car alight on the railway near us. I would say it is more likely to be a copycat action by local youth.
Then we have the “hard men”, often with paramilitary backgrounds but now involved in the kind of crime that occurs everywhere – drug dealing, extortion etc. They continually use any opportunity to assert their importance and relevance in the community and at the same time play out their rivalries with other gangs. They may be encouraging the young people, explicitly or implicitly, but in fact I think they have limited control over them.
Then there is the wider population who have an uneasy feeling about the peace settlement. Most people are not directly affected though the underlying currents do affect everyone. Northern Ireland is still a deeply divided society, not only in terms of aspirations, but possibly more importantly, in terms of past grievances. Each side is wondering who won the war and if their side is losing the peace. Unionists in particular are uneasy that republicans look comfortable, articulate and confident and fear that they are losing ground. Unionists are also resentful that members of republican paramilitary groups now behave like respectable members of society and their actions during the “Troubles” are ignored. Republicans have their own concerns, particularly on the lookout for any back-sliding on the Good Friday Agreement, and subsequent agreements, which might impede progress towards a United Ireland. This all needs to be put in the context that many communities seem to have seen no benefit from the Good Friday Agreement and remain disadvantaged.
Both sides need the consent of the other if, in the case of the Unionists, they are to persuade the nationalists to accept being part of the United Kingdom or, in the case of the nationalists, they are to persuade the unionists to consider being part of a United Ireland. But the politicians still find it easier to reinforce the uncertainties and accentuate them, rather than encourage serious discussion about a common vision for the future, though Nationalists and Republicans are more likely to try to understand the concerns of the unionist community, and reach out to them.
These dynamics have been pretty persistent since the Good Friday Agreement (23 years ago on Saturday, 10th April) and indeed before. We have made only limited attempts to change the dynamic and be more sensitive and understanding of the interests of each other, as we managed to do in the lead up to the Agreement.
The other relevant factor, which has been shifting, is the developments in England, particularly around the Brexit referendum and the subsequent process of leaving the EU Brexit was partly caused by, and in turn amplified, a marked strain of an insular and narrowly nationalist culture in England, both within the community and within the political leadership. It is found across all sections of society as can be seen in last year’s election with the shift of constituencies that were solidly Labour in the past to support the Brexit-supporting Conservative Party. It is probably a product of empire. This is not to say that Northern Ireland is not insular and narrowly nationalistic and what is happening just now confirms that. But it is compounded by the typical centre/periphery, superiority/inferiority dynamic that recurs in many parts of the world. This has a bearing not only to the Northern Ireland situation but to the whole future of the United Kingdom. On 18th March a Government Minister provoked ire when he implied that Welsh, Scots and Irish are foreign languages. We are very sensitive and aware of when we are treated in a condescending and dismissive way. It leaves us very uncertain and insecure. In sum, the Northern Irish, the Scots and the Welsh see the English as uninterested and uncaring about the other nations in the United Kingdom, which is increasing tension within Northern Ireland and Scotland, if not Wales.
It is particularly challenging for the unionist community, who have looked to England to protect their interest while at the same time being very uncertainty about whether they could rely on it. For a time, the Democratic Unionist Party held the balance of power in the UK parliament and so could not be ignored, but when the Conservative Party won a big majority in 2020, then they were expendable. It did not help that the UK Government did not handle the negotiations for withdrawing from the EU very well, having an incoherent negotiating strategy, not being well briefed on many of the issues and looking like an unreliable and untrustworthy negotiating partner, ready to ignore prior commitments. For its part, the Democratic Unionist Party did not manage its interests very well. While a small majority in Northern Ireland had voted for staying in the EU, including many unionist business people, the DUP wanted a clean break with the EU, one reason being that it would weaken growing links with the rest of Ireland. But that stance led to problems.
There have been references recently to the Northern Ireland Protocol but it may not be clear why it has gained such notoriety in recent weeks. The Good Friday Agreement had left Northern Ireland open to both the rest of Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom so each community could express its identity in either direction and could seek to strengthen those links. That worked while both UK and Ireland were members of the EU, and the EU and Ireland made it a condition of any agreement after UK left the EU that this flexibility would be retained. For a time, it looked like it might destroy the chance of any agreement, but in the end the Northern Ireland Protocol was adopted, against the opposition of the Democratic Unionist Party. Under the Protocol, Northern Ireland would remain part of the EU customs union so that goods could pass freely between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland, but that meant that the UK had to agree that goods coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would be checked to ensure that they were not destined for Ireland, bypassing customs. That meant there is now infrastructure being created at Northern Ireland ports to check shipments, a visible sign that Northern Ireland is different from the rest of the UK. It has caused delays and some companies are not shipping to Northern Ireland, so there are more goods from Ireland in the shop to avoid checks and delays under the Protocol. To me, that is a good example of buying local, but could also be seen as creeping unification of Ireland.
But it would be wrong to see the current situation as solely a consequence of the handling of Brexit and English attitudes. The UK government has belatedly moved and tried to impose its will in relation to a number of issues where the Democratic Unionist Party has tried to resist change: same sex marriage and abortion and also on the payment of pensions to victims. But this has further offended the Democratic Unionist Party, whose complaining deepens the unease of many unionists. Recently the Director of Public Prosecutions decided that no member of Sinn Fein would be prosecuted for breaching Covid restrictions to attend the funeral of a leading republican, Bobby Story, in July 2020, giving the reason that the restrictions were not sufficiently clear and that the Police Service had discussions with the organisers before the funeral and that might prejudice a trial. While there were criticisms of the funeral last year, in the current febrile atmosphere, many unionist politicians called for the resignation of the Chief Constable on the basis of the Director of Public Prosecutions decision and claiming that he is not impartial. The rioting is in part being explained as a reaction to that.
The shared sense of frustration and powerlessness within the whole unionist community provides a kind of licence for the young people to riot and the hard men to assert their importance as the protectors of the unionist community. The unionist politicians have made themselves impotent because they share the frustration and at the same time do not want the violence to get out of hand. At the moment the violence seems to have eased off a bit, but there is talk of it re-emerging in a different form. It could get out of hand, because it is very dangerous to stir up the underlying tensions and passions. One worry is that the rioting will provoke a backlash within the nationalist community but so far that has been contained.
Much more serious than the rioting is the deep unease about the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the possibility that the Northern Ireland administration might not implement it. Local councils are responsible for doing this but have threatened to stop because their employees might be intimidated. They are majority unionist and have no real interest in doing it anyway, and the DUP in the Northern Ireland Executive would not be interested in ordering them to do it when they do not like it themselves. And the UK Government would find it harder to challenge the Unionist politicians than face the complaints from Brussels, so it would probably do nothing. The EU in turn has threatened to bring a case at the European Court of Justice, but otherwise has no meaningful leverage to force the UK to comply with the Protocol, now that the Brexit Agreement is settled. They could turn a blind eye but that would give encouragement to further unilateral actions by the UK and by the unionists. On the other hand, Ireland might have to impose checks on the Border which would destabilise nationalists in Northern Ireland and the whole settlement could begin to unravel. The checks should have been carried out in Great Britain before the goods left for Northern Ireland where they would be less visible, and it is not too late to do that. The UK Government (and the EU) apparently did not think about consequences if the unionists did not implement the checks that are required. One government Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive ordered a pause in construction of the buildings where the checks are to be carried out, and the UK Minister has just ordered the Executive to continue construction.
There have been a number of critical moments in the last 23 years and each time, after some delay, the political parties have done just enough to resolve the immediate crisis, but have not really attempted to change the underlying dynamics and mindsets. This time may be no different, but there is always the possibility that things may spiral out of control or, on the other hand, that there is a fundamental reorientation and reset to a new shared future.
Given the number of interests involved, responses to the current rioting and tension have to be at each level. The UK Government has to recognise and address the contribution it has made to the sense of insecurity and the loss of trust in it. There have been calls for a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference “to address the deep rooted issues that have been given expression through street violence,” which makes sense, but the Government has said it “would be held at an ‘appropriate time’.” This seems to confirm that it is not really interested. The Minister for Northern Ireland has said that “The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Policing Board need to reconnect with communities and build and restore trust”. While this is required, it does not take into account the Government’s role in the underlying unease and loss of trust. It also does not recognise the delicacy of policing and there needs to be an open discussion of the limitations on the Police. Sometimes restraint is required in order to avoid greater unrest and this does not mean that it is partial and favours one community and is harder on another. Politicians need to rethink their approach so that the whole community can work together for everyone’s benefit while each community retains its own aspirations. This is unlikely to happen while there is suspicion and fear of their opponents, but it might be possible to organise some dialogue sessions within and across political divides, as has happened in the past. They could possibly include some exercises in strategic foresight to consider if the current approaches are going to be feasible in the light of future trends, and build confidence that they could respond positively to any eventuality. There also needs to be wider discussion within the whole community on these issues. Some groups are doing this on a small scale, but many are not engaged and more positive support from public bodies is needed. Greater energy needs to be put into addressing the causes of disadvantage and inequality. And of course, young people need to have greater opportunities and the means to take advantage of them. A pretty full agenda and we need a measure of humility and remember that even with the best of intentions we are all to some degree creatures of our environment with unrecognised prejudices which are only too apparent to others, or as Arthur Koestler said our “own instruments are polluted.”
This is one insight into what is happening and why. Of course, others might see it differently. In any case, there may be parallels with other situations around the world.
Clem McCartney is an independent consultant and policy analyst from Northern Ireland. From the mid 1980s his main interest has been in conflict resolution, mediation and peace building. From 2007 until 2019 he was Policy and Content Coordinator for the Shared Societies Project of the Club de Madrid.