Last April people in Northern Ireland witnessed the resurgence of tensions and clashes that had long since been set aside in the drawers of memory. No matter how irrelevant random protests and scuffles may appear for the global public opinion, the flare up of incidents in this little part of the world brings back to light a momentous conflict of the history of the 20th century, as well as it represents a crucial knot for the very life of the United Kingdom.
A series of riots against the police began on the 30th of March, 2021, in a traditionally loyalist area, that is, Waterside, Derry, at the border with the Republic of Ireland. The city of Derry, or Londonderry as it’s called by the loyalists, is a symbol of that uneasy season known as “the Troubles”. The rise of tensions in this city have therefore arouse worries and anxieties throughout the public opinion, given the symbolic charge of the place. The blaze of unrest in Derry rapidly turned into a fire of clashes and riots involving other parts of Northern Ireland. On the 2 of April, violent disturbances have been taking place in South Belfast, with the deployment of iron bars, petrol bombs and bricks-throwing by the loyalists against police. The trail of violence continued until the 8th of April, when a sort of cease-fire was declared by some loyalist formations involved in the riots.
The moment has been perceived as the specter of the deepest fears of the Northern Irish people: the return of the civil war.
But Who Are the Loyalists, And Why is This Ancient Antagonism in Danger of Returning?
Northern Ireland is one of the few western and well-developed nations that faced, in the second half of the 20th Century, a long and bloody period of political-social opposition which it would not be wrong to consider as a real civil war. The “Troubles” costed four decades of military opposition among those who wanted a unified republican Ireland, with an explicit catholic footprint, and those who, on the other hand, wanted to remain under the British monarchy, loyal to the Kingdom and with a protestant identity. The conflict among republicans, mainly represented by the paramilitary formation of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), and loyalists, gathered in the two main formations, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), caused more than 3500 victims and several thousands of wounded. The peace process in Northern Ireland was boosted up in the second half of the nineties, and saw full realization in the Good Friday Agreement, in 1998. Since then, with the exception of few sporadic subsequent episodes, the situation among the two communities has become more pacific and ease, due also to the constitutional framework set out in Belfast in 1998, which resulted in a coexistence scheme, at the governmental level, of republicans and loyalists. (LINK SISTEMA DI GOVERNO). As a result, during the last twenty years the republicans ambitions have been set aside and the loyalists concerns have been reassured by the status quo decided in 1998. Brexit, however, has come to invalidate this (almost) peaceful modus vivendi and abruptly awakened the Northern Irish citizens from the rest of tensions. The situation is now, once again, on the threshold of the unknown, threatened by the ghosts of a violent past.
Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol
Since Brexit occurred, uncertainty about the Northern Ireland status became one of the main scenarios. Kilometers of discussions, hypothesis, suggestions and allusions have been chasing each other these months within the public debate, not only in UK and Ireland, but in the mainland too. After a long period of sentimental awakening in Northern Ireland, where both the fears of loyalists and the republicans ambitions have suddenly remerged, a seal of normativity intervened to unveil the mists of uncertainty. The Northern Ireland Protocol, jointly concerted by the European Commission and the Government of Boris Johnson, has been designed as the reference regulatory framework, but it left a bitter taste in the mouths of loyalists. By virtue of the Protocol, Northern Ireland remains of course part of the United Kingdom, but, in doing so, it will remain part of the customs union and single market as well, thus it will be treated basically as a Member State (Art. 13, Par. 1 of the Protocol). This circumstance caused the surfacing of a “sea barrier” between Northern Ireland and the rest of UK, barrier that Boris Johnson had been denying with determination in the months leading up to the Brexit Agreement. Whilst no trade barriers are to be erected between Ireland and Northern-Ireland, as stated by the Brexit Agreement, an invisible trade barrier operates as goods travel from Belfast to the rest of UK.
This situation has triggered two consequences, one motional and the other economic. A feeling of frustration is quite palpable within the unionist community, due to the NI Protocol, and this feeling may sometimes translate in a sense of abandonment and betray, perceived by the loyalists toward London. This is probably at the origin of the tensions in April. The other consequence, more observable in the economic statistics, consists in an important increase of commercial exchange between the “two Irelands” to the detriment of the trade balance with London, which in February 2021 saw exchanges reduce to a third of those of the previous year, as indicated by the Irish Central Statistics Office. The business world of Belfast, and Northern Ireland in general, is therefore beginning to look at Dublin (and the EU) as a privileged commercial partner, instead of London.
What Does the Future Look Like.
Given these premises, it seems reasonable to think that someone is starting to consider the economy as a soft lever for the unification of the island. In the eyes of the loyalists, the path toward unification might pass through the next year’s elections for the Norther Ireland General Assembly. In this regard, a lively ferment can be perceived in the ranks of the Sinn Fèin, the traditional republican party, still linked, in the memory of many, to the struggle of IRA, the de facto armed wing of Sinn Fèin. Due to this historical background, a victory of Sinn Fèin in the next elections, which is not a scenario to be excluded, would probably be unacceptable and could foster the loyalist discontent.
The sense that republicans are more than ever close to achieve the unification of the Island is quite spread throughout the loyalist community, and this climate of tension risks to blow on the ashes of identity divisions, with the disastrous result of a return to armed struggles among communities. Whether this scenario will be averted or not, we will only be able to know in the months to come.