After the Riots, What’s Next for Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland this month endured some of its worst violence in years, with over 70 police officers injured in rioting in mainly pro-British, loyalist areas. In scenes reminiscent of the so-called Troubles, the decades of strife which killed 3,500 people, gangs torched a hijacked bus, petrol bombs were hurled and police blasted protesters with water cannon.

Who was rioting?

Most, though not all, the rioting took place in loyalist areas. In 1921, Ireland was split in two -- giving rise to Northern Ireland as part of the U.K., and to what would become the independent Republic of Ireland. Very broadly, Northern Ireland is split between nationalists, who ultimately want the island to be reunited, and unionists and loyalists, who want the region to remain part of the U.K.

What’s driving the violence?

A wide mix of issues. However, at the heart of the discontent is a sense of betrayal over Brexit, and a wider concern that the region’s ties with Britain are fraying.

As part of the Brexit deal, Northern Ireland effectively stayed in the European Union’s customs area and much of the single market, while the rest of the U.K. exited. That fomented anger among loyalists as British, just like London or Manchester.

That discontent has been amplified by other factors. For example, authorities declined to prosecute prominent nationalist leaders for breaching Covid rules. There may also have been an element of what’s described as recreational rioting - teenagers seeking excitement, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation by others with a political agenda.

Who’s behind it?

Importantly, there’s no evidence of orchestrated paramilitary involvement at this point, police say. While armed loyalists have dropped their support for the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace deal which drew a line under the Troubles, they aren’t advocating for a return to violence. Most of the rioting appeared to be driven by relatively disorganized teenage gangs.

Is more trouble ahead?

Events in Northern Ireland always risk spiraling out of control. In 2013, for example, a decision by Belfast city hall to stop flying the British flag fueled unrest that was then amplified by the annual marches of Protestant groups. That in turned triggered the worst sectarian violence since the 1990s, paralyzing the city for much of that summer.

With vaccines being rolled out across Northern Ireland, social distancing rules melting away and the Brexit deal which placed a border in the Irish Sea unlikely to be axed, it’s possible that a long hot summer of unrest is ahead.

But..

Virtually no political observer expects violence to erupt again on a scale seen in the 1970s and 1980s. Loyalist armed groups seem to have little capacity or, at this point, desire to ignite a wider conflagration.

On the nationalist side, dissident groups opposed to the peace process have gained little traction. Sinn Fein, the erstwhile political wing of the IRA, is more focused on securing power in the south and a vote on uniting Ireland than sparking an armed conflict.

More broadly, the EU and U.K. are seeking to defuse the tension over the so-called protocol, making it more acceptable to loyalists. Whether that will be enough to avoid more skirmishes remains to be seen.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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