Violence expected after Brexit
In 2021, Northern Ireland sadly became again a ground for violence. These riots are reminiscent of the problems in the 1970s and ‘80s, but are the result of a far more modern event, Brexit. This violence was partially announced during the four years of negotiations that ended in December 2020 with the signing of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The signing of the Northern Ireland Protocol establishes that Northern Ireland will leave the EU along with its motherland, but it will remain in the European common market to allow the continuation of trade with the Republic of Ireland. This decision was accepted by the British government to avoid an economic tragedy (as inter-Irish trade constitutes the main source of income for the region) and a political one, in view of the concern that armed republican groups such as the “New IRA” would target the “stiffened” Irish border for the sake of Irish reunification.
The trading border, which comes with duties and border control, is ideally located in the Irish Sea: additional costs will then be applied for trade between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland or Wales. This solution complies with the 1998 Belfast Agreement, but it is not appreciated by the Loyalist faction, which strongly claims its allegiance to Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and the English crown. According to the Loyalists, the creation of a border (even economical) between Northern Ireland and the rest of the Kingdom is treason, a sign of the lack of interest on behalf of the British government in the territories that Loyalists themselves defended, along with the British army, during the Troubles. The Loyalist message was clear, initially a threat conveyed to the PM Johnson with a letter: if the British government did not renegotiate the Brexit conditions, the Loyalist armed groups would have ended their support for the Belfast Agreement, thereby withdrawing their promise of non-aggression.
Another episode interpreted by the Loyalists as the Northern Irish government’s latest act of favouritism in favour of the Republican side again ignited protests: the decision of the Belfast prosecutor not to take to trial the leaders of the nationalist party Sinn Fein, which infringed the anti-Covid regulations to attend the funeral of Bobby Storey, an important IRA figure of last century. Loyalists went to the streets and attacked the police to vent to their frustration against the local and British government by whom they feel abandoned in this extremely vulnerable moment, characterised by the economic crisis caused by the Brexit, the new duties on national trade and the pandemic, which hit the region hard and forced a more onerous lockdown than in the rest of the country.
Cities like Belfast and Derry/Londonderry saw a revival of scenes from the 1980s, with burning buses and throwing of stones and Molotov cocktails for weeks. There were no casualties, but dozens of policemen were injured. However, what is particularly disturbing is the massive participation of very young people who are already radicalised and disillusioned by the British government and disillusioned with their future perspectives. After the resignation of the Belfast government, peace seems now like a truce: the British government will have to finally face the never-solved past of Northern Ireland, and this time, without the help of the European Union.