In trying to make sense of the worst disturbances in Northern Ireland for years, there are two symmetrical pitfalls to be avoided. One is to present the recent violence as a simple reflex of Brexit, drawing a straight line between Boris Johnson’s campaign bus and a burning bus on the Shankill Road, while ignoring the local factors at work. The other is to overlook the many ways in which choices made at the highest levels of the British state have unsettled the region and added to the stock of combustible material.
To begin with the immediate context: a year into the pandemic, in the working-class unionist areas where the rioting was concentrated, the jobs that young people are most likely to have – if they have jobs at all – have been the worst affected by the economic downturn, and most forms of social infrastructure, from youth centres to sports facilities, have been shut for long periods. Anyone bent on causing trouble wouldn’t have been short of recruits.
Loyalist sources have pointed the finger at the Ulster Defence Association’s South East Antrim Brigade – a quasi-autonomous faction, immersed in drug dealing and other forms of criminality, that wanted to retaliate against the Police Service of Northern Ireland after recent arrests. The same sources also suggested that the group had ‘piggy-backed’ on anger in the unionist community that was ‘completely justified as far as any self-respecting loyalist is concerned’. Whether or not it is justified, the existence of that anger is not in doubt. Nor is it confined to the people throwing petrol bombs.
The first grievance has nothing to do with Brexit. The Northern Irish prosecution service decided last month not to bring charges against senior Sinn Féin politicians who attended the funeral service for the IRA veteran Bobby Storey in June 2020. The prosecutor argued that it would be hard to make any charges stick since the rules on public gatherings during the pandemic were changeable and unclear. Unionists dismissed that as an excuse for a political decision to let Sinn Féin off the hook.
Their cynicism was unsurprising, even if claims about ‘two-tier policing’ slanted against unionists are hard to sustain. In February, the PSNI aggressively broke up a memorial event for the victims of a loyalist massacre in a Catholic area of Belfast, and its handling of Glasgow Rangers fans celebrating a Scottish league victory a few weeks ago was distinctly more low-key than the heavy-handed policing of Black Lives Matter protests in Derry and Belfast last summer (which was found by the Police Ombudsman to have been unfair and discriminatory).
The Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster escalated the row over Storey’s funeral by calling for the PSNI’s chief constable, Simon Byrne, to resign. Foster doubled down on that call in the wake of the rioting: ‘When I think of all those officers out facing the violence over this past few nights, I really feel for them, because their leadership team has let them down and let them burn really bad.’ As PSNI officers were facing a hail of petrol bombs, the choice of metaphor was more than a little hair-raising.
Foster’s willingness to play with fire reflects the weakness of her party’s position, and this is where Brexit comes in. The DUP has protested vehemently against the arrangements now governing Northern Ireland’s relationship with the European Union and with the rest of the UK. A statement last week from the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group that represents loyalist paramilitaries, put on record their ‘absolute determination to remove the hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of our country that has been imposed on us by the Northern Ireland Protocol’. The LCC’s sense of grievance is understandable. But its anger should really be directed against the DUP, which opened the door to this outcome through its hubris and strategic myopia after the 2017 UK election.
The DUP was in a position of rare influence at Westminster for a Northern Irish party, as Theresa May relied on its MPs to stay in power. Foster and her colleagues could have used the opportunity to educate the British political class and the wider public about the realities of Brexit. Neither the government in Dublin nor the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland were going to accept a deal that established a hard border on the island. That only left two options: either the Conservative Party would back away from May’s pledge to leave the single market and the customs union, and move towards a softer version of Brexit, or it would agree to special arrangements for Northern Ireland.
For all the bluster and brinkmanship of the last five years, there was never any reason to doubt the ineluctable nature of this choice. May’s ‘backstop’ was an attempt to postpone it that ended up pleasing nobody. If the DUP wanted to minimise the danger of a gap opening up between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it should have been calling for the soft-Brexit option that commanded much broader support among the British public than either May’s deal or the version of Brexit eventually pushed through by Boris Johnson.
Instead, the party let its role as parliamentary kingmaker go to its head, allying with the Tory right and welcoming Boris Johnson to its 2018 conference as he pledged never to allow any trade barriers to be established in the Irish Sea. It should have come as no surprise that Johnson reneged on that promise when he returned with a new Brexit deal the following autumn – least of all to politicians whose overriding political objective is to safeguard Northern Ireland’s position within the UK against any conceivable threat.
The LCC’s statement calls for ‘no hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and no hard border on this island’. While those demands should not have been incompatible – the Brexit model generally referred to as ‘Norway plus’ would have taken care of both – Johnson’s victory in the 2019 general election opened a chasm between them. Johnson deserves a healthy share of the blame for unabashedly lying during the election campaign about the terms of his deal as it applied to Northern Ireland. The British media also have to take responsibility for reporting those lies as if they were even remotely credible. But Foster and her colleagues have as much claim on our sympathy as a man who swaps his family home for a jar of magic beans.
The result might have been the same had the DUP followed a different approach: Northern Ireland carries so little demographic weight in the UK that transferring all its Leave votes to Remain in 2016 would not have tipped the balance. But as things stand, the DUP’s fingerprints are all over this fiasco for the unionist cause. Little wonder that the party’s average support in the last two opinion polls was 7 per cent lower than its vote share in the 2017 Assembly election. A performance like that on election day would see the DUP slip well behind Sinn Féin.
The self-inflicted loss of political standing explains why Foster’s party has been ramping up tensions over Bobby Storey’s funeral and the Northern Ireland Protocol. The European Commission made it easier for them with its breathtakingly foolish move at the end of January to invoke the protocol’s doomsday hard-border clause over the supply of vaccines. Politicians in London don’t have a monopoly on cloddish insensitivity to Irish concerns. The commission rolled back on that decision almost immediately, but the damage had been done, as the DUP called for the protocol to be scrapped.
By the end of February, Arlene Foster was meeting with the LCC as the loyalist paramilitaries prepared to withdraw their support for the Good Friday Agreement. She brushed aside criticism, claiming that the LCC’s component groups were committed to ‘peaceful and democratic’ means of political struggle. Within weeks, the rioting was in full swing.
Unionism has unquestionably suffered a real setback over the last two years. This does not mean that a united Ireland is inevitable, or even probable, but the ties binding Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK now seem weaker than at any time since the peace process began.
The variety of British nationalism that Boris Johnson personifies and the political leadership of unionism have together done more to undermine the union since 2016 than the IRA could manage in a quarter-century of conflict. Whatever agreement can be reached between London and Brussels to smooth over the new arrangements will not change that fact. The chances of the DUP leadership engaging in public self-criticism of its record over the past few years are negligible, so there is every reason to expect further exercises in displacement, even after the current crisis has died down.