Monday

19th Apr 2021

Post-Brexit riots flare up in Northern Ireland

  • Police in Northern Ireland said Wednesday's sectarian clashes were the largest seen in years (Photo: Miss Copenhagen)

Northern Ireland has seen nightly outbreaks of street violence in recent days, as unionists and nationalists clashed with each other and police.

On Wednesday (7 April), the escalation in rioting saw a bus set on fire in Belfast.

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Police also struggled to close a gate that separated unionist and nationalist communities, where rioters fought.

The region's power-sharing government on Thursday (8 April) said it was "gravely concerned" about the violence, which it said was "unacceptable and unjustifiable".

Ministers said that "while our political positions are very different on many issues, we are all united in our support for law and order".

On Thursday, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, Brendon Lewis traveled to Belfast to hold talks with the two communities.

British prime minister Boris Johnson also said he was "deeply concerned" by the violence, which had led to 10 arrests so far and left dozens of police officers injured.

"This needs to stop before somebody is killed or seriously injured," Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told Irish national broadcaster RTE.

"These are scenes we haven't seen in Northern Ireland for a very long time, they are scenes that many people thought were consigned to history and I think there needs to be a collective effort to try to diffuse tension," he added.

The EU Commission on Thursday also condemned the rioting "in the strongest possible term".

"Nobody has anything to gain from this," commission spokesman Eric Mamer said.

Brexit brackdrop

The escalation of violence came as tensions have been building in the province over Brexit, which has seen trade barriers put in place between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain as a result of the UK leaving the EU's customs union and single market.

Last month, London unilaterally said it would extend the so-called "grace period" for when trade checks kick in as part of the deal on Northern Ireland. As a result, the EU started legal action against the UK.

The commission, on Thursday, said the agreement on Northern Ireland needed to be implemented, and reiterated that the UK must to set out a roadmap, with clear deliverables, on how it aimed to achieve this.

The UK has submitted a "draft work program" to the EU as a basis for discussion, and EU officials are currently assessing it.

Unionist leaders in Northern Ireland have been calling to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol, a hard-won compromise between the UK and the EU that introduced trade barriers in the Irish Sea.

A former Northern Ireland secretary and Labour member of the House of Lords, the British parliament upper house, Peter Hain, told Sky News that unionist communities in Northern Ireland felt let down by Johnson, who needed to get more involved in resolving the tensions.

"The prime minister, Boris Johnson, did not tell it straight, with particularly the communities that are in flames at the present time, and the unionist community as a whole. He did not tell them that there would be inevitably checks and controls of a customs kind, the sorts that Northern Ireland businesses have been strangled by over recent weeks, with a mountain of paperwork and red tape," he said.

Not just Brexit

But it is not only Brexit that is playing into the angry mood.

Unionists are also upset by a decision, last month, by prosecutors in Northern Ireland not to go after leaders of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein for allegedly breaking Covid-19 restrictions last year during the funeral of a former leading figure from the 'IRA', a nationalist paramilitary force.

Unionists have called for Northern Ireland's police chief to step down over the issue.

And while the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement has put an end to decades of violence between the republican Catholic and the unionist Protestant communities, the peace has remained brittle.

For the people of Northern Ireland, whose majority voted to remain in the EU in 2016, any changes to the status quo of the province is a personal matter.

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