Sporadic violence and rioting continue in Northern Ireland amid rising tensions over Brexit and the Irish Sea border. Following disturbances over the Easter weekend, gangs of youths continued to gather around interface areas in Belfast on Wednesday and Thursday. Disruption was also seen in and around other parts of Belfast and Derry. Although concentrated mainly in loyalist areas, violence has been witnessed on both sides of the symbolic ‘peace-walls,’ reflecting fears of further escalation, and mounting discontent over economic uncertainty and political instability as Northern Ireland emerges from another lockdown.
Cars were hijacked and set on fire, and projectiles and petrol bombs were thrown at the police, injuring several. Armoured Land Rovers, dogs, and water cannons were used to disperse crowds, and certain types of AEPs, a form of plastic bullet, have also been used. Stormont, Northern Ireland’s National Assembly, was “unequivocal” in its condemnation of the violence and called for collective support for law and order, and “an immediate and complete” end to the unrest.
Whilst condemning the violence, pro-British First Minister Arlene Foster and her Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) attributed the unrest to the anger and betrayal felt within the loyalist community over Westminster’s broken promises regarding an Irish Sea border, and towards the police for failing to prosecute senior Sinn Féin politicians who attended the funeral of former IRA commander Bobby Storey during the lockdown. Foster and other members of the DUP have since called for the resignation of Northern Ireland’s Police Chief, Simon Byrne, over the controversy.
However, critics including Sinn Féin claimed the DUP was fuelling tensions in their opposition to the new trading rules set out by the Northern Ireland Protocol. As an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was a key component of the peace process, following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Brexit negotiations became difficult. Preserving peace whilst ensuring Northern Ireland did not become a back door for unfettered trade with the EU became a difficult balancing act in the divorce talks.
The original arrangement between Brussels and London sought to avoid any checks between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Despite previous promises by Westminster that no border checks would be placed on goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, a point of contention for unionists, the new Northern Ireland Protocol effectively creates a trade border in the Irish Sea. Loyalist paramilitary groups subsequently withdrew their support for the Good Friday Agreement at the beginning of March and informed Prime Minister Boris Johnson that support for the 1998 agreement would be withheld until the Northern Ireland Protocol was amended to allow unimpeded trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
As the 10th of April marks the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, Taoiseach Micheál Martin called on political leaders to honour the Good Friday agreement and not “to spiral back to that dark place of sectarian murders and political discord.” Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill shared these concerns and highlighted the importance of leadership to address the violence. “It’s really, really important that we stand shoulder to shoulder and say no to this type of criminal behaviour, and that we don’t allow our children to be sucked in by criminal gangs who are orchestrating some of what we see on our streets.”
In her opening address to the National Assembly, which was recalled from recess on Thursday, Minister of Justice Naomi Long criticised the leadership in Northern Ireland and Westminster. “Instead of calm and measured leadership in the face of challenge, we have instead heard inflammatory rhetoric with threats of renewed violence.” Long also highlighted the number of children involved in confrontations with the police, some as young as 12 or 13, and expressed her anger at the adults encouraging young people to engage in violence. “This is nothing short of child abuse.” Talking to the Guardian, Northern Ireland’s commissioner for children and young people, Koulla Yiasouma, spoke of a worrying phenomenon wherein children are exploited, coerced, or controlled by gangs linked to sectarian paramilitaries to “destabilise the political process,” and engage in criminal activities.
Yiasouma pointed to post-conflict trauma, poverty, and ‘intergenerational mental ill health’ as some of the factors that have led to children being involved in the recent unrest. According to a recent survey, the diagnosis of ill mental health in children is 20% higher than in the rest of the U.K. A lack of support services leaves many of these young people vulnerable to exploitation in a region that continues to struggle with a culture of violence.
Ending the violence and unrest is imperative, but the priority of leaders should also be in providing support for young people. The issue of criminalising these young people, who themselves are victims of exploitation and manipulation, must be addressed in a way that ensures an end to violence and paramilitary influence.
Due to the fragile nature of peace in Northern Ireland, political instability has the potential to exacerbate the long-term and deep-seated issues that continue to afflict the country. It was irresponsible for Westminster to renege on earlier promises on a trade border, and Johnson’s delay in condemning the violence shows ineffectual leadership. Northern Ireland should not be used simply as a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations, and leaders in Belfast, Dublin, Brussels, and London have a responsibility to ensure the peace process is protected.
Furthermore, Brexit should not be used to overshadow the broader issues of dissatisfaction and poverty across communities in Northern Ireland. The levels of deprivation, lack of education, and employment are all barriers to reconciliation and peacebuilding. The coronavirus pandemic and the instability of Brexit have exacerbated these barriers and expose young people to exploitation and violence. An end to the violence, and a strong, united, response to the political, social, and economic challenges faced by the region, must be put in place to ensure that the next generation of young people can break away from the endemic culture of violence and division.
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