The protests in Northern Ireland in recent days point to an escalation of violence in the region, where the aftermath of Brexit has created a sense of betrayal among union groups traditionally more aligned with the UK. The protests continued on Wednesday (7).
Last week, violence broke out for the first time in the city of Londonderry, before spreading to and around Belfast on Holy Week weekend. In the protests, cars were set on fire, and activists threw Molotov cocktails at the police. At least 41 policemen were injured in the clashes.
“There is no doubt that Brexit and with it the introduction of customs controls on goods arriving from the UK island has significantly damaged the balance of forces,” said Duncan Morrow, professor of political science at the University of Ulster. It is something that “has been growing for months,” the expert explained to AFP.
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These incidents rekindled the ghost of three decades of bloody conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists, which left some 3,500 dead.
The peace agreement signed in 1998 dissolved the border between the British province and the neighboring Republic of Ireland – a member of the European Union – but Brexit undermined this delicate balance, requiring the introduction of customs controls between the United Kingdom and the bloc .
After tough negotiations, London and Brussels were able to agree on a solution, known as the “Northern Ireland Protocol”. The mechanism prevents the return to a physical border on the island of Ireland, transferring these controls to North Irish ports.
Pro-UK protesters protest on Tuesday (6) against a protocol on Northern Ireland made to resolve an impasse on the Irish border with Brexit – Photo: Paul Faith / AFP
In this context, Northern Ireland trade unionists, linked to their membership in the United Kingdom, feel betrayed.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson “has promised unrestricted access, which is not the case,” Northern Ireland regional government justice minister Naomi Long told the BBC on Wednesday.
Protest on Tuesday (7) against protocol on Northern Ireland after Brexit – Photo: Paul Faith / AFP
“They denied that there was a border, at the same time that those borders were being erected,” he said.
According to Allison Morris, a specialist in police and judicial matters at the Belfast Telegraph, protesters are not interested in the complex trade issues arising from Brexit, but “are furious”.
“They understand that they were betrayed precisely by the British government, to which their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents showed a servile loyalty,” he wrote.
Some also believe that Brexit negotiators have given in to nationalists, who have tacitly threatened a bloody response in the face of any resumption of border controls with the Republic of Ireland.
In early February, customs controls were suspended at the ports of Belfast and Larne due to the emergence of threats against border agents.
However, Brexit is just one aspect of a bigger crisis among Northern Ireland union members. In 2017, they lost their historic majority in the regional parliament. Then, in 2019, UK legislatures saw more nationalists than Irish union members elected to Westminster Parliament for the first time.
This contributes to a demographic shift of the younger generation towards nationalism, making union members feel like a besieged minority.
Brexit has also rekindled a more intense debate about Irish reunification. The government of the new President of the United States, Joe Biden, even warned the United Kingdom not to take a step back from the peace process established in 1998.
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