2021 marks the 100-year anniversary of Northern Ireland: a century filled with political upheaval, sectarian conflict and hard-won peace. Since the partition in 1921, Northern Ireland has endured continued conflict between its two communities. The conflict has historically been fought between the Protestant majority, Unionists/loyalists who identify as British, and the Catholic minority, that is, Republicans or nationalists who identify as Irish. The conflict between these two groups plunged Northern Ireland into near-constant turmoil as paramilitary groups on both sides fought a war of terror for decades. After decades of fighting, the two sides finally came together in 1998 and signed a power-sharing agreement known today as the Good Friday Agreement.
In recent weeks, Northern Ireland has experienced continued conflict emerging from within unionist communities. News reports have been littered with footage of city buses engulfed in flames and children as young as 13 throwing petrol bombs at police officers and Republicans alike. Many have blamed the public prosecutor’s decision to not press charges against the nationalist Sinn Fein party for attending a funeral despite COVID restrictions as the catalyst for the violent demonstrations. However, though that decision may have acted as a trigger, the violence undoubtedly stemmed from a growing sense of isolation and dissatisfaction the unionists have increasingly felt following Brexit.
The political compromise that resulted in the finalization of Brexit effectively cut Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK. In a lengthy effort to avoid a land border on the island of Ireland, which would’ve caused unrest within Republican communities, Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to establish a sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. This new border has imposed trade delays and shortages on goods arriving from the UK as well as forcing Northern Ireland to abide by EU regulations they have no say in creating.
This economic isolation from the rest of the UK has infuriated unionist communities who feel ignored by their elected representatives and have acted out violently as a result. Unfortunately, solutions to this dilemma are hard to come by, but there are steps that can be taken to reaffirm the unionist and nationalist commitment to peace.
Vital to curbing the recent violence is a concerted effort by politicians to reduce the rhetoric and work together to stem the tides. Fortunately, condemnation for the violence has been widespread; however, unionist politicians in the Democratic Unionist Party must act quickly to soften their own escalatory rhetoric.
In recent weeks, the DUP has come under fire for their actions before and after the violence began. As the violence has escalated, the DUP has been publically calling for the resignation of the police chief as well as meeting with representatives from former paramilitary organizations. These two actions have done nothing to de-escalate the conflict and have further enraged opposition. Furthermore, the DUP’s effort to play both sides of the conflict validates unionist dissatisfaction with their elected officials. The DUP campaigned for Brexit and has stood in the way of meaningful compromise. Furthermore, even now as they are charged with the implementation of the Irish protocol, they are actively campaigning against it.
Reducing the rhetoric and striving for dialogue is essential, but not everything. Significant divides still exist in Northern Ireland that were never addressed by the Good Friday Agreement. If citizens of Northern Ireland are ever expected to coexist peacefully, whether as a part of the UK or in Ireland, they must learn to reconcile their differences. Even today, physical barriers still exist that divide nationalist Catholic communities from unionist Protestant communities. If lasting peace is to be achieved, and maintained in a post-Brexit world, significant efforts at reconciliation must be made. Policies of youth integration, public outreach and other more imaginative ways are necessary to reduce the societal divides that exist in Northern Ireland.
Most significant is the continued pressure Brexit will place on Northern Ireland. The issues above would exist without Brexit, but the UK’s departure from the EU forces Northern Ireland to face this insurmountable challenge now. The isolation felt by the Northern Irish is further displayed by the utter dominance of the English political will and their utter disregard for the Northern Irish. Brexit was forced upon a Northern Irish population that voted against it by an English population that voted for it. With little regard for the logistical implementation, the English forced the Northern Irish to choose between their identities while remaining indifferent to their concerns. In order for peace to re-emerge on the island, political leaders in the UK and Ireland must turn their attention toward those who often feel left behind.