Brexit’s Ghosts Still Haunt Northern Ireland

Brexit’s Ghosts Still Haunt Northern Ireland
Nationalists and loyalists clash at the peace wall on Lanark Way in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 7, 2021 (AP photo by Peter Morrison).

BELFAST, Northern Ireland—For more than a week earlier this month, Northern Ireland was rocked by riots in pro-British unionist communities, with frequent outbursts of violence in areas bordering on pro-Irish nationalist neighborhoods. Thankfully, no one was killed, but almost 90 police officers were injured in efforts to quell the unrest and keep youths on either side of the “peace walls”—effectively enhanced security barriers separating the two communities—from attacking one another.

The main trigger for the disorder was the recent decision by local authorities not to prosecute leaders of the staunchly nationalist Sinn Fein party for attending the funeral last summer of Bobby Storey, a former Irish Republican Army commander. The decision contravened the spirit, if not the letter, of the law underpinning coronavirus restrictions on mass gatherings, and was thus particularly insulting to the families of those who have died from COVID-19. Unionists were further outraged that Sinn Fein appeared to be acting above a law that it helped create through the party’s role in the regional power-sharing government in Belfast.

Anger over the incident, however, also reflects a broader and common narrative in Northern Ireland that depicts Irish nationalism as ascendant. This partisan perspective, promoted by unionist commentators, presents the region’s peace process as one of continual unionist concessions to nationalists. It ignores the obvious fact that the move toward equality for the two communities was bound to improve the relative standing of the nationalists, subjected as they were to significant discrimination under the previous system of unionist dominance. It also disregards the fact that the political settlement that ended most violent conflict between the two communities, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, delivered unionism’s key objective: nationalists’ acceptance of the region’s union with Britain, rather than reunification with Ireland, and of the principle that the constitution could only change with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.