The cause of violence in Northern Ireland

A person stands in front of the flames in Newtownabbey, Belfast on April 3 during a week of riots. – AFP

LONDON: Concerns continue to grow over the long-term prospects for peace in Northern Ireland after days of violence in the British province, with deep-seated complaints combined with new Brexit rules in a toxic cocktail.

With more violence expected, what are the key issues that promote unrest and will peace ultimately endure?

Who is behind the violence?

The unrest stems mainly from the unions – who believe Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK – with police warning that paramilitary groups in the community could smoke and coordinate violence.

Nationalists, who believe the province should be part of the Republic of Ireland, reacted to the violence on Wednesday and the two groups attacked each other with petrol bombs and missiles.

Where are the contact points?

Violence flared up last week in the city of Londonderry before spreading to the capital Belfast and remote areas over the Easter weekend and into Monday.

The latest unrest was focused on the “peace line” – a series of walls separating nationalist and unionist neighborhoods.

Why are unionists angry?

Much of the unrest stems from union anger over a new post-Brexit “protocol” that they believe drives a wedge between the province and the rest of Britain, bringing it closer to Dublin’s trajectory.

“There is no doubt that Brexit and the advent of the protocol have significantly damaged the balance of power,” Duncan Morrow, professor of political science at Ulster University, told AFP.

“This has been brewing for months.”

Why was the protocol introduced?

Unionists and nationalists led a decades-long conflict, called the “Problems”, over the province’s future until a landmark peace agreement in 1998.

This dissolved border controls at the Irish border, as both sides of the divide were in the European Union and part of the internal market.

Britain’s 2016 referendum decision to leave the bloc threatened to disrupt this scheme and lifted the ghost of border control, which was contrary to the peace agreement.

To keep the border open while maintaining the integrity of the now separate markets, the UK and the EU agreed on the “Protocol”, which effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union and internal market.

Keeping the Irish border open now means that control of goods arriving in Northern Ireland from elsewhere in the UK is required, with trade unionists saying it is a loosening of ties with Britain.

What is the daily effect of the protocol?

Since its implementation in January, the protocol has disrupted trade and triggered some food shortages in the province.

The new controls have caused great confusion among companies, with some UK suppliers refusing to ship goods across the Irish Sea, leading to some bare shelves in Northern Irish supermarkets and customers unable to order goods online.

Will the protocol survive?

The EU stresses that the protocol is a final agreement and has already launched a lawsuit against the UK over allegations that it has broken its rules by unilaterally announcing a six-month delay in customs controls on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the UK mainland.

But the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has called for a trial, wanting courts to declare the protocol incompatible with the 1800 law of the Union, which merged the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and with the Belfast Agreement of Good Friday in 1998.

In the longer term, the protocol provides for a “consent” mechanism, which from 2025 gives the Northern Ireland Assembly the power by majority vote to suspend its application.

Is Brexit the only problem?

Brexit is just one of many complaints among unionists.

Unionists lost their historic majority at the Stormont Regional Assembly in 2017, and there are signs of a demographic shift toward nationalists that give the impression that they are a besieged minority.

Rebellion also flared up after authorities decided not to prosecute leaders of the nationalist party Sinn Fein for attending the funeral of a former paramilitary leader in apparent violation of the Covid restrictions that have kept residents cooped up in the best part of one year.

Is the peace process in jeopardy?

About 3,500 people were killed in The Troubles, and experts fear Brexit may be the straw that breaks the back to hard-won peace given the underlying anger and complexity.

“It remains very difficult to see where it is going except for increasing frustration and anger,” Morrow warned.

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