Riots in Northern Ireland should not be blamed on Brexit.

The violence that broke out in Northern Ireland (NI) last week, quite rightly, shocked the rest of the UK and attracted international concern for one of four parts of the United Kingdom. The leaders in Belfast, Dublin, and London have all condemned the violence, yet there’s no agreement on the cause of the violence.

A suggested trigger for the violence is Brexit, but this is too simplistic. Northern Ireland has a complex past and a continuation of political uncertainty. If we are to analyse the reason for this conflict, then we must dissect the build-up of events and the wider political context that may be motivating young people to act as they did.

Northern Ireland is currently in an extended period of lockdown compared to the rest of the UK; a path out has just been published but it is weeks behind the rest of the UK. The frustration amongst people has risen, not only with lockdown but with the subsequent disruption to trade and supermarket shortages witnessed this year. In addition, their political leaders have also failed to obey their own lockdown rules without consequence.

 NI Protocol is far from straightforward.

The end of the Brexit transition period on 1st January 2021 marked the beginning of a new era for the UK, with promises of freedom and prosperity in terms of trade. Yet, the reality has been quite different, especially for Northern Ireland. The aftermath of the transition period was marked by ongoing tensions between the EU, the UK government, and NI ministers over the implementation of the NI Protocol embedded in the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement.

The EU sought to launch legal action in response to the UK’s decision to delay the checks on imports into the country, and EU and UK officials have been in intensified talks to reach an agreement on how the NI Protocol will work. These talks aimed to avoid disruption on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The newly appointed Minister for Brexit Britain, Lord David Frost, met with his EU counterpart Maroš Šefčovič to discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Irish sea border on Thursday 15th April. The unionist population, with their proud British identity and desire for the country to remain part of the United Kingdom, has been particularly frustrated with the disruptions due to the newly created Irish Sea border. The talks on Thursday were supposedly successful and it has been said that ‘positive momentum’ has been established to address the issues with the NI protocol.

The UK’s decision to reject the proposal of an agreement with the EU on plant and animal health measures, despite its ability to reduce the level of checks on the trade between GB and NI, has resulted in NI, once again, being collateral damage. An agreement on Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) checks on goods coming into the country, would quash further disruption and seems to be the only solution.

Did Northern Ireland want Brexit?

NI voted to remain within the European Union, but its largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which is headed by First Minister Arlene Foster, campaigned to leave. The DUP has since launched a campaign to scrap the NI protocol, claiming that relations between the Republic of Ireland and the North would be impacted. Foster rejected former PM Theresa May’s proposal for a softer Brexit which has led to the union, which the DUP continues to defend, being weakened because of the Irish Sea border.

The decision from the First Minister came after the EU triggered Article 16 of the NI Protocol (in the EU-UK Astra-Zeneca vaccine row). This Article created a hard border between the Republic and the North, which the EU and UK leaders were united on during the negotiation phase to prevent from happening after Brexit. President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, issued an apology for this decision. Her apology was later echoed in a response to a European Parliamentary question about the motive behind the trigger.

The NI Assembly’s role

The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved governance body in the province, headed by First Minister, Arlene Foster (DUP) and Second Minister, Michelle O’Neill (Sinn Féin). The Assembly was formed as a result of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which brought an end to the conflict known as ‘The Troubles’ in 1998. The Assembly is integral for maintaining peace on the island of Ireland.

Another issue that has exacerbated frustration amongst the Northern Irish population is the decision made by the Northern Ireland police (PSNI) to not prosecute anyone who broke lockdown rules and attended a funeral of a prominent Republican IRA member, last year. Second Minister, Michelle O’Neill, was one of the 2000 mourners present.

The PSNI has ruled out the involvement of loyalist paramilitary groups orchestrating the violence. In some communities, the presence of paramilitary groups is prominent and the influence this might have had on the young people cannot be ignored by the UK government.

Boris Johnson’s (lack of) reaction

In London, PM Boris Johnson has condemned the violence. Yet, he made no attempt to travel or meet relevant political figures. In contrast, the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, has actively responded to the situation, and travelled to London to meet with his UK counterpart, Dominic Raab, to ‘discuss matters relevant to the United Nations Security Council’.

Despite the devolved power, Johnson is the Prime Minister for NI. Last year he pledged not to implement a border in the Irish Sea, which he failed to upkeep. Critics of Boris Johnson are now calling for him to step up and take action rather than take the role of a bystander.

The future of the Union

It cannot be denied that Brexit has caused many issues for NI, but a plethora of other issues have also occurred concurrently. The fraught nature of the political direction is likely to have influenced the young people to feel the need to act on behalf of the frustration felt in their country. NI has a rich political history, and the fragility of the peace agreement highlights the need for strong political direction through upholding commitments to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

With ‘intensified talks’ between the EU and UK to continue in the coming weeks, decisions should be made to maintain good relations, especially between leaders in NI and the UK, as well as restoring the trust in the people of NI.

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