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Return of The Troubles? Violence in Northern Ireland Threatens Peace Between Unionists and Republicans

On March 29, several hundred young people primarily identifying as Loyalist, or Irish people with close ties to Great Britain, took to the streets of Belfast, torching vehicles and throwing bricks, fireworks and gasoline bombs at riot police attempting to restore peace. The violence did not end there. Until April 9, the day of Prince Phillip’s passing, Loyalist youth continued to participate nightly in riots. The violence eventually moved over to Peace Walls dividing a predominantly Protestant and predominantly Catholic neighborhood, where participants threw bricks and gasoline bombs over the wall. So far 90 police officers have been injured. 

Much of the violence has centred on Shankill Road, a road in West Belfast running through a working-class, predominantly Protestant and Loyalist neighborhood. During the Troubles, a 30 year period of intense sectarian violence, Shankill Road was a hub for Loyalist activity. The Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association, two paramilitary groups active in the Troubles, were established and headquartered on Shankill Road. Some residents of Shankill Road old enough to vividly remember the Troubles claim that this violence is even worse. 

Although the riots seem to have taken a break in honor of Prince Phillip’s passing, no one believes the violence is done for good.

Historical Context

Though the English had a small presence in the area surrounding Dublin since 1169, it was not until the reigns of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth II in the 16th century that the entire island came under control of the English. Religion became an immediate source of contention between the native Irish population and the English. The Irish had been devoted Catholics since the mission of Saint Patrick in the 4th or 5th century, and King Henry VIII had recently broken with the Catholic Church in Rome to form the Protestant Church of England. Henry VIII and subsequent monarchs attempted to establish a similar Church of Ireland with little success. As an alternative, they sought to push Irish Catholics out of political and economic power, leading to a period known as the Protestant Ascendancy. 

During this time, land was confiscated from Irish Catholics and given to English colonists, who were only allowed to employ English or Scottish Protestants to work on the land. A series of laws known collectively as the Penal Laws prohibited marriages between Protestants and Catholics, excluded Catholics from professions such as law and teaching, outlawed Catholic schools as well as education abroad for Catholics, and rewarded sons of Catholics who converted to Protestantism by making them the sole inheritors of their parents’ property. The Protestant Ascendancy was most successful in Ulster, a region in northern Ireland that had been particularly rebellious as English control expanded. Eventually Protestants with English or Scotish heritage came to outnumber the native Catholic Irish in northern Ireland. 

From the 16th century on there were numerous uprisings to expel English presence from Ireland. The most significant was the Easter Rising of 1916. Though the rebellion technically failed and most of the leaders were swiftly executed, it instilled nationalist fervor in the hearts of the Irish and greater pressure was placed on Great Britain to grant some degree of freedom to Ireland. Sinn Fein, a republican (supporting Irish independence from Great Britain) political party, won a major victory in the next parliamentary elections and declared an independent government. This led to the Irish War of Independence from 1919-1921. The war ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty, a controversial treaty that called for the establishment of the Irish Free State, a dominion of the British Commonwealth, while giving Northern Ireland the option to opt out and remain a part of Great Britain. This was unsatisfactory to many Republicans, who wanted total independence for the entire island, but eventually the treaty passed.

Northern Ireland, which had a majority Protestant population, chose to remain with Great Britain, leading to the partition of Ireland with 26 counties joining the Irish Free State and 6 counties staying under British control. Eventually in 1937 the Irish Free State gained total independence, becoming the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, many Catholics felt they were treated as second-class citizens, widely excluded from political opportunities and discriminated against in the job market. As an enduring consequence of the Protestant Ascendancy, Catholics were typically poorer than Protestants as well and the two groups lived in segregated neighborhoods. At times Catholics were the victims of violence from Protestants. In 1969, a large riot known at the Battle of Bogside broke out between Unionists, those loyal to Great Britain, and Catholics, in which at least 1,000 Catholics were injured. With concern for Catholic safety, several Irish nationalists formed the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1969 and over the course of three decades operated as a paramilitary force fighting for the independence of Northern Ireland.

This marked the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In attempts to force Britain to grant freedom to Northern Ireland, the IRA engaged in arson, car bombings, and assassinations of high-profile British leaders. A rival paramilitary force, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), emerged and participated in retaliatory violence. Eventually the British military was called in to maintain peace, leading to greater violence and frustration from the people of Northern Ireland. In all 3,500 people died while nearly 50,000 were injured from 1969-1998. It was a terrifying time to live in Northern Ireland. People left home in the morning not knowing if they would ever return. 

The violence ended with the Belfast Agreement, better known as the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement formed the Northern Ireland Assembly, which gave Northern Ireland more political power independent of Britain and ensured division of power between Unionsist and Republicans. It also freed all people who had been imprisoned for paramilitary activity, regardless of how grievous the crime (this outraged many who had lost family members and close friends during The Troubles). In exchange, the IRA and the UVF agreed to demilitarize. Other clauses allowed Northern Ireland residents to obtain an Irish or UK passport and opened the border with the Republic. 

What has caused the more recent violence?

The violence affecting Northern Ireland at the moment does not appear linked to any specific organization with an overarching goal in mind. The lack of organization amongst rioters makes it impossible to single out one cause for the recent violence and news sources have posited a number of ideas. 

One possible reason is the decision by the Northern Ireland Assembly not to prosecute Sinn Fein leaders who violated COVID-19 restrictions by attending the funeral of a former IRA senior leader, Bobby Storey, in June. During the Troubles, Sinn Fein was the political wing of the IRA and the republican political party has remained unpopular among Unionists even after the Good Friday Agreement. Loyalists claim the government is exercising a double standard, as Loyalist parades were cancelled last summer due to government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions. 

Another major reason is the implementation of a border along the Irish Sea due to Brexit. One of the most contentious clauses of the Brexit deal is the Northern Ireland Protocol. This protocol establishes a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland by implementing tariffs on goods shipped across the Irish Sea and border control checks for people travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. This was created as a compromise to keep the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland completely free of tariffs and border checks. Previously the border was unrestricted by the Common Travel Area agreement but this was dissolved once the UK left the EU.  With the loss of EU trading privileges, Britain either had to create the Irish Sea Border or create a more firm border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. 

Image source: Times

The Northern Ireland Protocol outraged Unionists, who see themselves as British as well as Irish. Across Northern Ireland, Unionists Against NI Protocol, a group of opposers to the border, have spray painted “No Irish Sea Border” and hung posters proclaiming “NI Protocol Makes Belfast Agreement Null and Void”. The belief among some Unionists that the Irish Sea Border is a violation of the Good Friday Agreement is highly concerning, especially when accompanied by an outburst of violence. 

Unionist communities have also been stirred up by the growing United Ireland movement. In the past decade, support for a united Ireland free of British rule has gained more and more traction in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish Protocol only makes things worse for Unionists as it aligns Northern Ireland’s economy more with Dublin than with the rest of the UK. It is particularly egregious because it is seen as a betrayal by the UK government. When he first took office, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised that there would be no border between the island of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He quickly went back on this and Unionists are furious at being treated differently from UK citizens in England, Scotland and Wales. 

The accumulation of these various grievances and attacks on unionism led an anonymous source to tell the Irish Times, “Unionism is in turmoil”. 

Interestingly, most of the violence has come from youth, who are less affected by trade borders. Many were not alive during The Troubles and those who were wouldn’t remember or have understood at the time what was happening. Jonathan Roberts, Northern Ireland’s assistant chief constable, believes adults in illegal paramilitary forces encouraged and orchestrated the riots. But even if adults are behind the violence, the participation of youth shows that even young people have sensed the unrest and anger within their communities and feel passionately about the need to defend their place in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. 

Failings in the Good Friday Agreement

The rioting in early April reveals an underlying flaw in the Good Friday Agreements- it did very little to unify a deeply divided population. For decades prior to the Good Friday Agreements, Northern Irish people were divided and segregated along religious and political lines. People identified strongly as Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Republican. Although the Good Friday Agreement put an end to paramilitary violence, it continued to aggravate such differences. 

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish National Assembly will divide power between the leading Unionist political party (currently the Democratic Unionist Party) and the leading Republican political party (currently Sinn Fein). The division of power along these lines, while intended to ensure a voice for all people in Northern Ireland, reinforces political divisions and identification. There is not a cohesive political party with strong support from both Unionists and Republicans, which continues to perpetuate the idea that Unionists and Republicans have different and often opposing political goals and needs. 

The Good Friday Agreements did little to heal the social and cultural divisions among people in Northern Ireland as well. Neighborhoods remain segregated along traditional lines and people know which neighborhoods are Protestant and which are Catholic. The geographic segregation has led to segregated schools. Most schools in Northern Ireland are either majority Protestant or majority Catholic. There are a few private schools that stress integration, but these have very long waiting lists and the majority of students attend schools populated with people like themselves. The difficulty for youth to form lasting friendships with those of different religious, national, class and political backgrounds perpetuates an “us versus them” mentality. This may contribute to why young people from predominantly Protestant, Loyalist neighborhoods have taken to destructive rioting against traditionally Catholic, Republican areas. 

Peace Walls in Belfast
Peace Walls in Belfast Image Source: BBC

The disunity of Northern Ireland is physically symbolized by the continued presence of Peace Walls in Belfast. In the early 1970s, after the start of The Troubles, Belfast constructed barriers known as Peace Walls along certain Catholic and Protestant communities to provide protection against sectarian violence. The walls continued to be built throughout The Troubles and even afterwards. Although the government agreed in 2013 to remove all Peace Walls by 2023, over 100 barriers remain and most residents want them to stay. Residents in both Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods protected by Peace Walls say it gives them a sense of security, as sectarian violence still occurs occasionally. The few who do wish to see the walls come down express frustration that despite a promise for their removal, the government has done little since 2013 to make it possible. 

Northern Ireland remains a society with two distinct, disunified groups. Until both the physical and mental barriers between Unionists and Republicans come down, there will never be the guarantee of peace. 

Solutions and Challenges in Creating Unity

Numerous organizations in Northern Ireland, such as Duncairn Community Partnership, are working to build trust, cooperation and friendship across sectarian lines. Some organizations host social outreach programs where Unionists and Republicans can get to know one another and form connections. Others advocate for the removal of peace walls and facilitate discussions between neighborhoods of different demographics. But even as these organizations succeed in forming friendships and understanding between different groups, there is a long way to go in solving the cultural war fuelling the tension in Northern Ireland.

Unionists consider themselves British and despite living in the island of Ireland are weary of acknowledging Irish culture. Republicans, on the other hand, identify as Irish and see partition as unfairly keeping them within the United Kingdom and suppressing Irish culture. These conflicting identities have manifested in several ways. For years, Irish nationalists have campaigned to make Irish an official language of Northern Ireland, along with English. Unionist leaders in the government have refused to make this change, viewing it as an attack on the Britishness of Northern Ireland. There is also conflict over which flag to fly. While Unionists want the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, to fly every day at official government sites, Irish nationalists want the tricolor flag of the Republic of Ireland to be more visible. Both sides are reluctant to compromise on any issues of British and Irish identity as giving concessions to one group is seen as a betrayal of the other, known in game theory as a zero-sum game

Since Brexit, nationalists both in the North and the Republic of Ireland have maintained hope for a reunification of Ireland. When the referendum was held in 2016 to decide if the UK would remain in the EU, the majority (56 percent) of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain. In the past few years, many more people in Northern Ireland have applied for an Irish passport and Irish citizenship as a way to continue benefiting from agreements across EU nations. Sinn Fein, the main political party in Northern Ireland advocating for a referendum to join the Republic, has seen its popularity rise significantly since 2016. Though reunification would be highly desirable for republicans in Northern Ireland and allow Northern Ireland to remain in the EU as most people want, it would likely escalate the violence within Unionist communities and create further polarization between the British and the Irish in Ireland. 

Though leaders across Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland have all condemned the violence that occured in early April, nothing has been done to address the grievances of the Unionist community and no solutions to strengthen past peace accords have been proposed. 

Lessons from The Troubles

Few living in Northern Ireland between 1969-1998 would wish to return to the regular sectarian violence that disrupted daily life, yet it seems some still have not given up on violence as the only means to pressure the British government into changing policy. 

Five decades later, the words of T.K. Whitaker are still relevant. Whitaker was an advisor to Taoiseach (the Irish word for Prime Minister, used in the Republic of Ireland) Jack Lynch. A year before the Provisional IRA was established, Whitaker predicted and wrote against violence as a means to solve the issues of Northern Ireland in North-South Policy. Although Whitaker was writing from the perspective of dissuading Republicans from violence as a means to defeat the partition of Northern Ireland, his ideas can be applied to Unionists of the present day who now feel they are the marginalized ones.

Whitaker wrote “The use of force to overcome northern unionists would accentuate rather than remove basic differences and it would not be militarily possible in any event… The only option is a policy of seeking unity in Ireland by agreement in Ireland between Irishmen. Of its nature this is a long-term policy, requiring patience, understanding and forbearance and resolute resistance to emotionalism and opportunism”.

Richard English, a history professor at the University of Belfast who has written extensively on the IRA and The Troubles,  summarizes Whitaker’s argument in his book Armed Struggle: History of the IRA as “force would divide rather than unite; agreement between Irish people was the only basis for unity; the origins and undoings of Irish partition were complex questions, and could not be placed solely at Britain’s door… long-term patient patriotism would be more effective than emotional opportunism”. Of these arguments English writes “It is no coincidence that all of these arguments are embodied in that latter deal [the Good Friday Agreement] and in the peace process which produced it, for thirty years of violence had, for many people, reinforced what Whitaker here had argued a generation earlier”. 

Violence did not lead to the Good Friday Agreement. If anything, it delayed a solution to the Northern Ireland question and furthered divisions between Unionists and Republicans. The peace walls that still divide Belfast are a direct result of the IRA, UVF and other paramilitary forces. The only thing that can establish lasting peace in Northern Ireland is unity and a collective identity as citizens of Northern Ireland. 

The consequences of Brexit have made many Unionists feel they are being pushed out of the United Kingdom and denied their identity as citizens of the UK. This has renewed old tensions between those identifying as British and those identifying as Irish and may threaten to unravel the uneasy peace established in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. With two cultures so deeply opposed to the other, a long-lasting, unifying peace will be difficult to establish in Northern Ireland without serious compromises from one or both sides. Particularly with the need for a border either in the Irish Sea or between the Republic and Northern Ireland, there are very few, if any, solutions that would be equally acceptable to both Unionists and Republicans. One side will have to compromise and at this point it appears to be the Unionists. The real question is how Northern Ireland can prevent a violent return to the Troubles as it sorts out how to accommodate and unify its divided population.  

Featured Image Source: Times Magazine


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