During a week of unrest on the streets of Northern Ireland, young people threw bricks, flares, and gasoline bombs at police and set stolen cars and a bus on fire. Rubber bullets and water cannons were used by police as a response.
After the death of Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s 99-year-old husband, the streets were calmer on Friday night as community leaders called for peace. During intermittent outbreaks in Belfast, however, small groups of youths pelted police with items and set a vehicle on fire.
The tumultuous scenes brought back memories of “The Troubles,” a decades-long dispute between Catholics and Protestants. A peace agreement signed in 1998 ended large-scale conflict but did not address Northern Ireland’s long-standing tensions.
A look at the background to the new violence:
WHY IS NORTHERN IRELAND A CONTESTED LAND?
Northern Ireland is a part of Ireland from a geographical standpoint. In terms of politics, it is a member of the United Kingdom.
After centuries of colonization and an uneasy union, Ireland, long ruled by its larger neighbor, gained independence about 100 years ago. Twenty-six of the country’s 32 counties were autonomous countries with a Roman Catholic majority. Six Protestant-majority counties in the north voted to remain British.
In the Protestant-run state of Northern Ireland, the Catholic minority faced discrimination in jobs, housing, and other areas. In the 1960s, a Catholic civil rights movement demanded reform, but the government and police retaliated harshly. Some people on both the Catholic and Protestant sides organized armed groups that used bombings and shootings to intensify the conflict.
In 1969, the British Army was mobilized for the first time, ostensibly to maintain the peace. The situation escalated into a war between Irish republican militants who wanted to join the south, loyalist paramilitaries who wanted Northern Ireland to remain British, and British troops.
About 3,600 people were killed in bombings and shootings over the course of three decades of war, the majority of whom were civilians. The majority of the bombings took place in Northern Ireland, but the Irish Republican Army also detonated bombs in London and other British cities.
HOW DID THE CONFLICT END?
The antagonists signed a peace agreement in the 1990s after secret talks and with the assistance of diplomatic efforts by Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The paramilitaries laid down their weapons as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which created a Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. The final status of Northern Ireland was postponed: it would remain British as long as the majority wanted it to, although a possible vote on reunification was not ruled out.
Although the peace has generally held, there have been sporadic assaults on security forces by small Irish Republican Army splinter groups, as well as outbreaks of sectarian street violence.
In terms of politics, the power-sharing system has had its ups and downs. Belfast’s government fell apart in January 2017 as a result of a failed green energy scheme. It was put on hold for more than two years due to a schism between British unionists and Irish nationalist parties over cultural and political problems, including the Irish language’s status. Northern Ireland’s government reopened for business in January 2020, but there is still a lot of mistrust on both sides.
HOW HAS BREXIT COMPLICATED THINGS?
Brexit, the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, has been dubbed the “problem child” of Northern Ireland. It was the most difficult thing to address since Britain narrowly voted to leave the 27-nation bloc in 2016. It is the only region of the UK that has a border with an EU country — Ireland.
A free movement of people and goods across the Irish border underpins the peace process, enabling people in Northern Ireland to feel at home in both Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The Conservative government’s insistence on a “hard Brexit,” which would take the country out of the EU’s economic order, resulted in the introduction of new trade barriers and checks. Because of the danger to the peace process, Britain and the EU decided that the boundary should not be in Ireland. The alternative was to metaphorically place it in the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
This agreement has worried British unionists, who believe it weakens Northern Ireland’s position in the UK and can fuel demands for Irish reunification.
WHY HAS VIOLENCE ERUPTED NOW?
The violence has mostly occurred in Protestant areas in and around Belfast and Londonderry, Northern Ireland’s second city, but it has spread to Catholic areas.
On December 31, Britain exited the EU’s economic embrace, and the new trade agreements immediately irritated Northern Ireland unionists who want to remain in the UK. Early trade problems, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, resulted in several store shelves becoming bare, adding to the panic. In February, border personnel was briefly removed from Northern Ireland ports after threatening graffiti appeared to be directed at port employees.
There was outrage that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had long said that Brexit would result in no new trade barriers, had downplayed the magnitude of the changes wrought by leaving the EU. Some British loyalists in Northern Ireland believe their identity is being threatened.
According to Ulster University politics professor Henry Patterson, “many loyalists claim that Northern Ireland has ceased to be as much a part of the United Kingdom as it once was.”